Turning a Profit at the Roller Grill

One of the most maligned pieces of equipment in all of foodservice—the roller grill—remains the backbone of many c-store foodservice programs, offering an inexpensive, labor-friendly way for   operators to expand their fresh-food offering at a time when other nonfoodservice categories are declining.

Roller grill sales are estimated to account for roughly 10-15% of convenience foodservice sales which totaled $11.5 billion overall in 2011, according to a report released in February by Chicago-based Technomic Inc. The report also offered a favorable outlook for the category, estimating that sales of roller grill items would grow by 2.5-4% over the next three years.

Based on the information contained in Technomic’s 2012 “Outlook and Opportunities in Convenience Store Foodservice,” Tim Powell, the company’s director of convenience store programs, said he expects the roller grill to “continue to be a very important piece of equipment, particularly for those stores that are looking to evolve from beverage-only to food programs.”

Not surprisingly, hot dogs continue to drive the category. Technomic reports that 57% of roller grill consumers purchase hot dogs on a regular basis. Sausages (21%) and taquitos (20%) are also popular choices. However, Technomic said, less than one in 10 (7%) purchase roller bite items.

Diversified Offering
At Thorntons, the Louisville, Ky.-based c-store chain, roller grill sales are steadily growing, said Melina Patterson, the company’s senior category manager of fresh foods. In addition to the staple hot dogs and brats, Thorntons, which operates 162 stores in six Midwestern states, is constantly expanding its offerings with limited time offer (LTO) items.“The LTOs generate excitement and drive additional profits,” Patterson said.

New product offerings, LTOs and bundling also keep roller sales growing strong at Corpus Christi, Texas-based Susser Holdings/Stripes convenience stores, according to Ben Hoffmeyer, senior foodservice category manager for the 528-store chain.

“We’ve been carrying two for 99 cent hot dogs for more than 10 years, but this year we’re finding that taquitos, which come in a wide variety of unique flavors, are becoming a big driver,” Hoffmeyer said.

Stripes features LTOs about once every two months. The stores also just launched egg rolls which Hoffmeyer reported “are doing very well,” and it plans to add tamales to the roller grill menu. For its April/May roller grill LTO, Stripes will be featuring mini taquitos, not just for flavor variety, but to offer another price point option.

“We see hot dogs mostly as a traffic driver to bundle with fountain beverages and chips,” Hoffmeyer said. “But we make more money from the taquitos and egg rolls because they don’t require condiments or packaging.”

Building Breakfast Sales
David Bishop, managing partner of Barrington, Ill.-based Balvor LLC, predicted breakfast represents the next opportunity for retailers to build roller grill sales and grow dayparts. “Having a hot breakfast item offering alongside the doughnuts and muffins provides another value-added offering to attract early dashboard diners,” he said.

More than half of c-store retailers polled for the 2012 CSD/Balvor 2012 Foodservice Survey (102 retailers nationwide representing over 29,000 stores) reported they plan to stick with tried-and-true name brand products such as Ball Park, Johnsonville and Jimmy Dean.

“There’s a lot of optimism among retailers at the roller grill,” Bishop said.

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