By Marilyn Odesser-Torpey, Associate Editor
Not so long ago, most roller grills were like drinking from an iffy water supply in the desert: you didn’t exactly know what you were getting until after you were fully committed. Still, 42% of consumers in a survey conducted by Chicago-based Technomic research firm said they would be more likely to visit c-stores for prepared foods if roller grills were available.
Roller grills are particularly appealing to young consumers. Fifty-three percent of respondents ages 16-34 said they would be more likely to visit a c-store for prepared foods if a roller grill was available, said Donna Hood Crecca, senior director at research firm Technomic Inc.
“Hot dogs continue to appeal, especially when they are accompanied by a selection of toppings for customization,” Crecca said.
Customization with fresh condiments heightens the value of the item, she said. It allows the consumers to add the flavors and ingredients they enjoy most to create a one-of-a-kind meal or snack.
DOING MORE WITH LESS
For many convenience stores with limited space, the roller grill is the centerpiece of their fresh food offering, making it even more critical that the stores do it right, said Larry Miller, founder and president of Sanford, Fla.-based Miller Management and Consulting Services.
“You might have a great store location, but only 1,000 square feet or less of space, so you don’t have a lot of room to prepare made-to-order food,” Miller said. “But that doesn’t have to inhibit food sales for meal and snack times if you have a strong roller grill program.”
Some retailers continue to view the roller grill as a no-labor option to establish a foodservice presence. But, in reality, it requires a dedicated portion of labor to keep it clean, stocked and rotated throughout the day and to do sampling, Miller said. And while hot dogs may be the standard fare, customers have also come to expect to find a wider assortment of high quality products on the roller grill.
Miller noted that the idea of throwing away food that has been sitting on the roller grill too long is a nightmare for many retailers. In reality, if there is not at least some product left over, retailers are not maximizing their roller grill program, he said. But they can minimize waste by creating a build-to like they do for other categories in the stores.
“If you have no waste at all, you’re telling me that you knew exactly how many hot dogs or other items you were going to sell on any day or shift and let the supply on the grill deplete down to the last one,” Miller said. “It doesn’t ever happen that way because nobody ever wants to buy the last hot dog on the grill.”
Roller Grill Endures
Ted Roccagli, director of partnerships and preferred vendor programs for Empire Petroleum, which works with 1,400 convenience stores in 30 states, agreed that “the potential for profitability is undeniable” when it comes to the roller grill.
“It was here yesterday, it’s here today and it will be here tomorrow,” Roccagli said. “And there’s good reason for that for those who make the commitment to do it right.”
Today there are plenty of roller grill product options to take customers from morning until night. While the 5:1 meat hot dog is still the best seller, Roccagli noted that brats are gaining traction. So are varieties such as Hillshire Farm’s CheddarWurst and SpicyWurst. And more are coming out all the time.
Roccagli pointed out that breakfast is the most overlooked daypart for roller grill in many convenience stores.
The breakfast category is “exploding in our industry and will continue to explode,” Roccagli said. And, during that breakfast daypart, the sausage, egg and cheese tornado is a bestseller.
“If it were my roller grill, I would have a third-shift person putting out the breakfast tornados at around 5 a.m., then fill in with other items from 5 a.m. to 9 a.m.,” Roccagli said. “As the day goes on, I would wean off the breakfast items, but still have a representation because people eat breakfast all day.”
Items that should be available at all times are roller grill snacks, such as egg rolls; chicken and cheeseburger bites; and beef and chicken tornados. Roccagli said these snack items are really gaining momentum with consumers.
With the roller grill, it’s the details that can make the difference between a successful program and one that just takes up counter space. Two of those details are individually-wrapped buns and fresh condiments. “Anything that says fresh to customers can make the difference,” Roccagli said.
Anything that says value is also popular with customers so Roccagli likes to bundle roller grill items with coffee, a fountain soda or a bag of chips. If done properly, it should result in a higher ring, he said.
Roccagli tells retailers who are trying a roller grill program for the first time to give it at least 30 days, up to 90 days to determine consumer acceptance, the optimal product mix and amounts.
“Sometimes it takes a while for customers to gain confidence that you are committed to freshness,” Roccagli said.
BEEFING UP YOUR OFFERING
In the past, Clyde’s Market, a 43-store chain based in Glennville, Ga., only offered hot dogs—two hot dogs at a $2 price point, and normally selling between 200-300 hot dogs per week. A.J. Gambino III, the company’s director of marketing and operations, said there was no major margin to be had, however. So a year and a half ago, Clyde’s went with a brat program from Johnsonville.
“While we still offer 5:1 hot dogs, we focus our attention on promoting the Johnsonville brats, selling two for $3,” Gambino said. “Because it’s a higher end product, the value is there for our customers and the margin is there for us.”
He noted that this year same-store sales of roller grill products in the 17 convenience stores that have roller grills are 27% higher than the previous year. In addition to the hot dogs, brats, tornados and taquitos in some ethnic markets, they are also testing roller grill tamales.
At Clyde’s, the grill is loaded with breakfast items at 5 a.m. The stores carry 4-6 breakfast items. By 8 a.m. or 8:30 a.m. it’s time to segue into lunch with the removal of some of the breakfast items, which are replaced by eight different sausage and snack products.
In addition, Gambino said Clyde’s evening roller grill business is also going strong.