By Howard Riell, Associate Editor.
Convenience store operators looking to spice up their roller grill offerings have more tools at their disposal than ever before, including the weather, as autumn spurs consumers to seek hot, savory snacks and foods on the run.
In addition, a host of other steps that convenience stores can take, from savvy promotions to developing proprietary items, can help sales climb still higher any time of the year.
“Manufacturers continue to develop new roller grill items for breakfast and other day parts,” said Steven Montgomery, the principal of b2b Solutions, a c-store consulting firm in Lake Forest, Ill. “Many companies have learned that for some customers the roller grill item is simply a base product that customers want to customize with fresh toppings from a condiment bar.”
Others, he added, are doing a great job with bundling roller grill items with drinks, snack or meal items.
Montgomery said he considers a roller grill an effective part of a comprehensive foodservice program. “They can, however, become relatively unimportant and in some cases an actual negative due to the mostly untrue stigma of food being left on the grill all day.”
Thus, the basics apply at all times. “To be successful, retailers have to be smarter. They have to improve their cleanliness and use bundling to really drive sales,” Montgomery said. The issue is not the roller grill, but the execution of the programs associated with it. “Companies such as QuikTrip have great success with roller grills. Operators have to understand that with food, ‘eye appeal is buy appeal.’”
Elevating the Grill
Robert Thormeyer, general manager for Delaware North Cos. Inc., which operates 300 stores in parks, resorts, attractions, airports and sporting venues, said he thinks seasonality plays a role in roller grill product offerings. “If you’re tailgating you’re probably going to have brats and hot dogs. Hot dogs are more popular in the summer, around the Fourth of July, of course. Italian and Polish sausages probably do better in the winter, although the area of the country will also dictate the sausages that are most popular.”
Thormeyer recommended that retailers partner with local meat companies to increase variety and capture a local flair. “You can work with locally-recognized sausage makers to come up with pretty much anything you want,” he said. “We introduced a jalapeno and pineapple sausage earlier this year. We’ve also done several varieties of red hot (hot dogs). We use a local company here in Detroit. Whatever we want we say, ‘Hey, can we try this or that–something with pineapple or fruit in it?’ They then come up with a couple of new varieties and try it. Some catch on and some don’t. But the bottom line is we are driving new products and excitement on the roller grill.”
Merchandising is another key to growing roller grill sales. “Keeping the grill fully loaded always offers the best merchandising,” said Chris Bigelow, president of The Bigelow Cos., a foodservice consulting group in Kansas City, Mo. Another key, he added, is having a good variety of condiments and buns.
Bigelow’s other advice for convenience store operators includes:
• Keeping the rolls soft and warm in a heated drawer.
• Have lots of condiments, refrigerated and in heated condiment bar as necessary, so the customer can dress their own dog.
• Use bold signage to suggest several versions to the customer to drive incremental sales. This can include anything from lettuce, onions, relish, peppers and tomatoes to chili, cheese, sauerkraut and a variety of different mustards and barbecue sauces.
One of the traps retailers fall into at the roller grill is offering the same thing over and over without enhancing the variety.
“Operators should actively promote the fact that the roller grill is, in fact, a grill,” said Karen Malody, principal of Culinary Options, a foodservice consulting group in Santa Fe, N.M. “That means less fat and ‘clean’ cooking without the protein sitting in grease. It is actually quite a healthy way to cook things that will rotate on the grill. Historically, I think they have been associated with ‘cheap food’ that is bad for you. That whole image could change quickly if innovative c-store operators would carrier healthier, unique lines of meat.”
Malody also said she believes it is time for manufacturers to stop calling them “hot dog roller grills. They are hurting themselves. I believe as we see more operators prepare food facing the customer–display cooking–and the world of sausages become perceived as healthier, creatively flavored and a great price point for all, roller grills could become a destination for health foods, and not just c-stores. Operators just need to start thinking outside of the roller grill.”
Gawani Morrell, operator of Blue Blaze Cafés in Damascus, Va., said controlling costs is another key area to make the roller grill profitable, along with signage and upselling customers with chips and beverages.
“The roller grill is a lot like Internet marketing in that once you have the customer on your Web site, you must get all that you can before they walk out the door. So make it really, really easy to drop $8-$10 with a 25% food cost,” he said. “And keep the equipment clean–very clean—because there is always going to be someone that is seeing your program for the first time and if they don’t like what they see, you’ve lost a customer forever.”
Morrell, despite owning a chain of restaurants, described his own experience as a customer. If he walks into a store and the grill, tongs or counter area are not spotless, he confessed, he will probably wait until he gets home to grab a bite. “An additional $10 to the operator will go home with me due to an employee who could not take 15 to 20 seconds to wipe down the equipment,” he said.
A Fun Sales Experience
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.”