By Marilyn Odesser-Torpey, Associate Editor
They smell it. They see it. They want it. For most convenience stores, the roller grill is the customers’ first introduction to the store’s fresh foodservice offerings.
“Many customers still do not expect to find fresh foodservice in convenience stores, so the aroma and visual of a plump hot dog cooking on the roller grill is a pleasant surprise to them,” said Robert Wolf, food operations manager for Grand Island, Neb.-based Bosselman Cos., operator of Pump & Pantry stores.
At Pump & Pantry, the roller grill is viewed as much as a marketing tool as it is a cooking apparatus.
“We are seeing a number of competitors go away from the roller grill, but, if it is done correctly, the beautiful visual and scent appeal can immediately establish the presence of a quality fresh foodservice program,” Wolf said. “Sampling is also important; we’re always sampling a new item from the roller grill.”
The roller grill has done its work even if the customer ends up purchasing a non-roller grill item, such as a hamburger or breakfast sandwich, Wolf said. Bosselman operates 50 Pump & Pantry stores plus a travel center. All but two of the stores, which are express locations, have roller grills, two per location.
One of the grills is dedicated to hot dogs—available all day, even during breakfast when many people are coming home from work—the other to breaded items like the snack food Tornados, egg rolls and corn dogs. The assortment of products on that second grill is a mixture of permanent items and limited-time-only items (LTO)s to keep consumer interest high.
Most recently, different varieties of Wrapsters by Schwan Food Co. are being tested to see which ones deserve a place in the permanent rotation. The last item to earn permanent status was the egg roll.
“Offering the same items on the menu day in and day out is one reason why roller grill sales might go static for some retailers,” Wolf said. “You have to constantly change the lineup.”
Condiments also help to keep the offering fresh and customers satisfied with the variety offered, according to Wolf. Some of the Pump & Pantry stores have condiment bars; others use travel packets.
He noted that two-fers and bundling effectively draw attention to roller grill offerings.
“I love bundling; it’s a penny profit builder and satisfies the customer’s appetite for a good meal and a good deal,” Wolf said. “We partner a lot with our brokers and suppliers, such as Pepsi or Coke, for meal deals. We have found that many brokers and suppliers want to work together with us and be good business partners.”
In addition to building sales in the traditional mealtime dayparts, Pump & Pantry has enjoyed a spike in hot, handheld snack sales, especially between 2:30 p.m. and 3 p.m. The stores bulk up their roller grills during those times to make sure they are prepared to capture those sales.
“It used to be that between 1 p.m. and 4 p.m. in the afternoon, fresh food sales would die off, but now we have that time when customers are looking for a little something to tide them over to dinner,” Wolf said.
For retailers without the kitchen space or budget for ovens, hoods and other equipment, the roller grill is still the best solution for fresh foodservice, said Ted Roccagli, retail marketing manager/business coach at Mansfield Oil, which serves more than 300 convenience stores throughout the country.
“They just plug it in and presto, they’re in the food business,” Roccagli said.
But, if retailers aren’t going to do the program correctly by keeping the grill filled and fresh throughout the day, Roccagli said, they might as well “leave it unplugged and stored in the stockroom.”
Like Wolf, Roccagli sees the roller grill not only as a meal provider, but as a way to fill the snack gap between meals for customers. He suggested that stores try to develop roller grill items to satisfy consumers’ requests for more healthful options to boost the category even further.
In addition to core items, Roccagli recommended that retailers look to their local market areas to find out what additional roller grill specialties might do well.
“Everyone has the hot dogs and sausages, but in New Mexico, they’re all about the burrito; that’s a big seller there,” Roccagli said.
And it is not just the items on the grill that must be kept fresh and tantalizing. Nothing can ruin a good foodservice experience faster than a stale or soggy bun, Roccagli said.
He pointed out that an under-grill bun warmer can keep buns warm and moist without being soggy. Adding a little bread variety—Roccagli said he just discovered a wheat hot dog bun—can also add interest.
Wolf has also tried to offer other bread options and plans to continue to do so. While Roccagli agreed with Wolf that the quality of the products speak for themselves, he also uses on-pump and window signage advertising and video for stores that have video, promoting special roller grill deals and bundles.
Report: Consumer Snacking Choices, Times are changing In a new report, the NPD Group, a Port Washington, N.Y.-based market research firm, said that consumer snacking is shifting in terms of when and what they are eating. According to the report, the biggest shift is between 11 a.m. and 2 p.m.
Snacking is increasing every hour between those two times, with the largest increase at 1 p.m., when nearly 6% of snacking occurred. NPD data shows that snacking occasions throughout the day account for 18% of total restaurant food purchase occasions, or about 11 billion visits.
It’s not that consumers are snacking more often, but that they’re eating smaller portions, such as a hot dog or burger with no fries, and calling it a snack instead of a meal, according to Bonnie Riggs, an NPD analyst.
“That, to me, says opportunity for convenience stores to provide fresh foodservice items to fill that snacking need,” Riggs said.
Part of the reason for substituting snacks for full meals is that busy consumers are crunched for time, Riggs noted. Other reasons are that they are craving a particular item, are sensitive about price or want to eat lighter and watch their calories—especially true for health-conscious Americans.
When NPD ranked all restaurants, 90% of snack purchases occur at quick-service restaurants (NPD includes c-stores in that category). Salty snacks, such as chips and pretzels, are still the top snack choice, with doughnuts the number two, followed by grab-and-go foods like hot dogs, hamburgers, burritos, pizza, sandwich wraps and French fries.
“To get consumers into your stores, you must have a cravable item that they can get as a snack; best of all is something they can’t readily find somewhere else,” Riggs said.
Riggs noted that roller grill items can fill this need, especially when there are condiments available to allow customers to create their own snack.