Driving Foodservice Profitability

Taking steps to promote innovative products and value pricing can elevate the whole roller grill experience.

By Heather Henstock, Contributing Editor.

When consumers think of convenience store food, roller grill hot dogs are top of mind. Roller grills have developed a mixed reputation over the years, but they remain a staple of c-store foodservice programs and produce much more than hot dogs. Managing the grill with a little creativity and a lot of quality control is the path to profitability.

Sixty-seven percent of the 80,000 c-stores that offer foodservice have roller grills, according to Technomic, a Chicago-based research firm. Ideal in the c-store setting, roller grills take up a small footprint, are low maintenance and provide convenient hot-off-the-grill foods for customers.

These advantages, however, can become problems if roller grills are mismanaged. Because roller grills are so low maintenance, c-stores too often neglect the department, loosing sales and gaining reputations for poor quality food.

Rollers grills can do a lot, but they do not sell for themselves. Managing roller grill food sales is no different from other foodservice categories in that c-store operators need to deliver quality food that is aggressively promoted and merchandised, not simply left in a corner and forgotten.

“Convenience stores need to merchandise the grill,” said Dean Dirks, president of Dirks & Associates, a foodservice consulting firm in Gig Harbor, Wash. “Merchandise to different dayparts and consumer demographics. Breakfast and products targeted to Hispanics and Asians offer huge opportunity.”

Roller grill equipment and the foods prepared on them have vastly improved since c-stores sold their first roller grilled hot dogs years ago. Today’s savvy retailers embrace the roller grill as an integral part of their business, keeping customers interested with new products, paying homage to the classics and merchandising the products for all dayparts.  

Fill the Grill
“The roller grill is a huge part of our business and the center of our foodservice,” said Kirk Matthews, senior category manager, TravelCenters of America (TA), Westlake, Ohio. “The business is up and coming and huge because there are so many new things happening on the grills out there.”

TA has one or two roller grills in nearly all of its 200 stores and offers a broad variety of products, including hot dogs, taquitos, corn dogs and hot tamales. While the plain hot dog remains its best-selling roller grill item, TA always has a variety of hot dog, corn dog and taquito flavors on the grill at all times to appeal to customer taste preferences throughout the day. Even sweet varieties, such as apple-cinnamon-filled taquitos, fill the niche for dessert or a sweet snack.

Being a travel center that serves food 24 hours a day, TA has seen a boost in roller grill sales during all dayparts, especially snack times. “It’s not just for the lunch daypart any more. Customers are using it for their mid-morning and mid-afternoon snacks,” Matthews said.

Consumers are snacking more, so c-stores should stock roller grills with a variety of products at off-peak times to satisfy their customers’ munchies with a hot food item. About two-thirds of consumers reported that they replace lunch with a snack at least once a week, according to Technomic’s recent “Lunch Consumer Trend Report.” Almost half (47%) of consumers say they primarily visit the same few familiar restaurants at lunch.

However, two of five customers polled said they eat a wide variety of foods for lunch, so variety and customization options remain important, according to the report.

The variety of products tailored for roller grills have moved far beyond the hot dog. Tulsa, Okla.-based QuikTrip offers Buffalo Chicken Bites, Cheeseburger Rollers and Loaded Potato Rollers. Circle K, a Couche-Tard company with more than 3,000 c-stores nationally, offers a broad selection of Roller Bites and tacquito flavors, such as Ranchero Steak, Pepperjack Cheese and Southwest Chicken. Mozzarella sticks, stuffed bread sticks and seemingly any filled, cylindrical food item can be found on roller grills.

New products and limited-time offerings (LTOs) keep the roller grill interesting for customers, but sometimes nostalgia can be the appeal. At TA, corn dog sales are five times what they were two years ago. “Our corn dog business has exploded,” Matthews said. “They are the comfort food of the roller grill. They take people back to a different time.”

Tighter Product Management
As the roller grill segment has matured, the grills have improved. Rollers grip products better and do a much better job of cooking items uniformly. As a food merchandiser, the grills are more visually appealing and conducive to self-serve sales. But the grills still require management.

One of the key challenges is training store managers that it is acceptable to throw away a food item that may have been left on the grill a little too long. In fact, leaving that item on the grill actually hurts sales, and a full grill has much more sales appeal. 

“Managers need to understand that hot dogs will be wasted and that the roller grill is no place for retail accounting,” Dirks said. “It makes sense to use retail accounting when counting retail inventory, but not foodservice.”

Managers should also maintain condiment areas and position displays of complementary products (chips, cookies and other side items) in areas easily accessible to the grill. Product and promotional signage should be kept fresh and changed when needed to maintain visual appeal of the roller grill area. To maintain the grill area, TA assigns a host to the roller grill area during busy times, typically 8 a.m. to 2 p.m.

Using ServSafe food handling standards is a must, and they begin as soon as roller grill foods are delivered to stores. Food needs to be stored and thawed according to manufacturers’ directions. And, grills need to be cleaned and sanitized regularly.

Promote the Experience
The motion of foods on the grill rollers, warm buns from the hot drawer and do-it-yourself condiments bars, are all part of the roller grill experience. It may not be a reservation at a chef’s table in the kitchen of a fine dining establishment, but people are drawn to the theater of food. Even the humble roller grill offers action that needs to be displayed prominently.

In addition to the roller grill experience, c-stores should promote price points creatively and bundle meal deal combinations. Especially in today’s economy, consumers are pinching pennies, and roller grill meals can be a great value. Circle K offers two tornados for $2.22, for example. Customers have come to expect value meals from quick serve restaurants, Dirks said, so bundling is critical for c-stores to compete.

“We’re really trying to do more meal combos off the grill,” TA’s Matthews said. “We offer two corn dogs, a bag of chips and a pop for $2.44. That’s cheaper than eating fast food.”

To encourage repeat sales and reward regular customers, Speedway includes hot dogs, tornados and taquitos as part of its Speedy Rewards Food Club. After purchasing six food items, customers earn 1,000 bonus points on their Speedy Rewards card. Points can be accumulated and used to purchase a range of food, drink and merchandise items as well as fuel discounts.

Loyalty programs, product bundling and price promotions need to be supported with in-store signage, touted on company Websites and advertised to reach target consumers. Roller grills are easy to operate, but it takes effort to make them a success. 



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