Convenience store customers are looking for roller grill items in the morning. Are you meeting the demand?
By Marilyn Odesser-Torpey, Associate Editor.
One person’s lunch or dinner is another person’s breakfast, so the roller grills at Rutter’s Farm Stores run all day, every day, said Jerry Weiner, the York, Pa.-based chain’s vice president of foodservice.
“We get a lot of people who work on different shifts and they’re looking for foods that fit their schedules,” Weiner said. “To meet their needs we offer all of our foodservice items 24/7, and that means breakfast sandwiches at night and hot dogs, sausages, cheeseburger dogs and other roller grill items in the morning.”
Unlike most c-stores, the Rutter’s roller grill program is not self serve. In some stores, customers can order their roller grill items and condiments via touchscreen kiosks. In traditional stores without kiosks, customers place their orders at the counters and the custom-embellished dog, sausage (Rutter’s has four different kinds) or other selection is brought directly to them. Rutter’s does not charge extra for condiments.
When Weiner joined Rutter’s in 1997, the roller grills were kept on the back counters or on top of the deli cases. Even then, he said, the stores sold double the industry average roller grill items. The next year he moved the grills to the front foodservice counters and the sales soared even higher.
“Part of the appeal of roller grill is the visual,” Weiner said. “But we think our customers like the full-serve aspect of our program because they know their food has not been handled by other people.”
The all-American hot dog is still the number one roller grill best seller. According to Chicago-based Technomic research, 57% of roller grill consumers purchase hot dogs on a regular basis. Technomic reported that hot dog sales were up 1.5% from 2008-2012 and are expected to increase 3% from 2012-2015.
Research firm Datassential also put hot dogs near the top of the list for motivators/drivers for c-store food visits, said the company’s Managing Director Brian Darr.
Twenty-one percent of customers in the Technomic study said they order sausages and 20% taquitos at the roller grill. At Rutter’s, the cheeseburger dog, introduced at the chain’s stores last spring, is an up-and-comer. Weiner said he thought the new product would cannibalize sausage sales, but, instead, it has developed a fan base of its own.
But not every new product has fared as well at the Rutter’s roller grill. Hash browns, which Weiner saw as “ingenious,” simply did not sell. Nor did a hot dog-shaped chicken product.
Weiner does not depend on name brands to sell his roller grill products. In fact, he has found that customers are more interested in the freshness of the products, price value, cleanliness of the surroundings and quality of service than they are in name brands. One exception he makes is to label the hot dogs and sausages he gets from a local manufacturer.
“We’re a regional chain and our customers grew up with this manufacturer; they know the name, they’re comfortable with it and they know what flavor profile to expect,” he said.
Weiner feels that the roll is the unsung hero of the roller grill. At Rutter’s, every item goes on a potato roll, which he says adds moisture and gives the food a more upscale appeal.
“I’ve been using potato rolls at the roller grill for the past 15 years,” he said. “I am a great proponent of the importance of using the right bread; it’s the secret to any good sandwich.”
Always Fresh and Warm
Ted Roccagli, retail marketing manager/business coach for Gainesville, Ga.-based Mansfield Oil, which serves more than 300 convenience stores throughout the country, agreed that a big part of the roller grill experience is defined by the bun. He even recommends that retailers have a bun warmer as part of their roller grill set-up to make sure they are always soft and fresh.
“No matter how high the quality of the roller grill items, people are going to remember if the roll is hard or crumbly,” Roccagli said.
Recent equipment upgrades, such as non-stick rollers, better temperature controls for more even cooking and holding, and larger-size surfaces to display more product, have also made grill programs more operator-friendly and the products more appealing to customers, he said. Like Weiner, Roccagli said that regular hot dogs are the go-to food for many roller grill fans.
But, he noted, various types of sausages are hot on the dogs’ trail. In addition to the traditional Polish variety, spicier sausages and cheese-filled varieties are also coming on strong.
Ethnic specialties, such as egg rolls and Mexican tornados, and American classics, such as cheeseburgers, are bringing more business to the roller grill. Consumers looking for healthier meal and snack solutions are often opting for chicken items.
“No matter what the items, the key to a successful roller grill program is consistency of product quality and the availability of a variety of condiments and toppings—chili cheese is huge —so people can customize their selections,” Roccagli said. “It’s as important to keep the condiments and toppings full and fresh as it is to keeping the roller grill itself filled with appetizing-looking products.”
Also like Weiner, Roccagli sees roller grill as a 24/7 proposition. He said he would like to see some breakfast-specific egg-based roller grill products come onto the market.
While some customers are looking for name brand products, more are looking for good value. Roccagli recommended bundling roller grill items with chips and fountain sodas as a way to give customers more bang for their buck and raise the ring at the cash register. Weiner also offers budget-friendly bundles at the roller grill.
Both Roccagli and Weiner are big on offering new roller grill items as they are developed by manufacturers. Sales of the new items are monitored and evaluated to see if they earn a place in the permanent product mix.
“Many distributors will give retailers a free case of product to spark interest and generate sales,” Roccagli noted.
Sales Still Growing
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.” In that report, roller grill sales are estimated to account for roughly 10-15% of convenience foodservice sales.
When Datassential interviewed 75 c-store decision-makers for its recent KeyNote Report on C-Store Foodservice about current offerings and opportunities, one-half of them said they currently have roller grills in their units. Of the remaining half, about one-quarter said they would consider adding roller grills.
The researchers also asked consumers, other than price, what would make you more likely to purchase a hot dog from a c-store. Forty-eight percent of the respondents said “an indicator/timer showing how long the item has been on the roller grill” so they can gauge freshness.
As for getting customers to try new roller grill items, consumers indicated that samples and combo meals/special combo pricing were the most effective means of persuasion.