No matter what other foodservice products you offer, the roller grill is the first thing customers encounter. A clean, filled grill makes a clear statement about your commitment to foodservice. So does one that isn’t so well maintained.
By Marilyn Odesser-Torpey, Associate Editor
Few retailers are ambivalent about roller grills. They either really love them or dismiss them as outdated.
In fact, those with a say convey that roller grills either enhance customer perception of c-store foodservice or ruin it, said Tim Powell, principal of Think Marketing consulting firm and a longtime research veteran—much of it in the foodservice industry.
Many consumers, on the other hand, tend to view roller grills as a “fairly benign” presence and one that they expect to find in c-stores, Powell said. Unless, of course, they come across that much-maligned lone hot dog with the unlimited life span, which Powell believes is more of a myth than a reality these days. Seeing that immediately makes customers question the commitment of the store to providing fresh, high-quality food.
Operators should also keep in mind that the roller grill has its own fan following.
“It is and will continue to be a critical component in convenience store foodservice success,” Powell said.
Foodservice-savvy chains like Rutter’s Farm Stores make the roller grill one of their segment stars by merchandising it on attractive—and energy-saving—roller grills. All operators should value their roller grill customers because they generally spend more, visit more often, rate c-stores higher, and are more concerned about the quality, visual appeal and temperature of the food than average customers, Powell explained.
“Moreover, roller grill customers are more likely to purchase items as part of a combo meal or a ‘two-for-one’ deal, resulting in a higher ring and return visits,” Powell said.
Today, operators should have no problem finding high quality—even premium—products to make their roller grill a destination throughout the day and evening, Powell said. Some examples of outstanding roller grill products he mentioned were 100% beef hot dogs, Johnsonville bratwursts, Roller Bites and Ruiz Foods Tornados. He also suggested that operators expand their roller grill offerings to include more breakfast items.
“Brands have appeal,” Powell said.
ALL DAY OPTIONS
At Buchanan Energy’s retail arm, Bucky’s Convenience Stores, roller grill items account for nearly 30% of total foodservice revenues, said Mike Cairns, the company’s foodservice director. Almost all of the 75 stores in the Chicagoland area, greater St. Louis and Omaha areas have grills except for a few tiny units.
The typical Bucky’s store has three 50-count grills. In the morning, the stores offer four breakfast roller grill items as well as traditional items. Cairns pointed out that when it comes to dayparts, morning customers also purchase a “tremendous amount” of what would be considered lunch and dinner items.
After 10 a.m., the breakfast items are removed and the grills display between 10 and 13 items, including hot dogs, specialty links, Tornados and Roller Bites. He noted that non-traditional items, such as the tamales and egg rolls, seem to pique customer interest and do very well.
New products are introduced in the stores every two months. Items that are hits become part of the everyday line-up, Cairns said.
The grills remain in operation throughout the night (the stores are open 24 hours), although the offering is pared down to a few of the most popular items for the overnight hours. However, Cairns emphasized, freshness is crucial no matter how late the hour and limited the offerings.
“Roller grill sells all day and night long if the offering is available,” Cairns said. During peak times—5 a.m. to 8 a.m., 11 a.m. to 1 p.m. and 4 p.m. to 7 p.m.—dedicated personnel are in place to manage the foodservice segment, including the roller grill.
Cairns pointed out maintaining control of waste is the toughest part of the program. The company uses build-to sheets and waste logs to minimize loss.
Bucky’s heavily promotes its roller grill offerings with window and/or pump topper signage and in-store messaging. Meal deals consisting of two grill items, a small bag of chips and a 32-ounce fountain drink further tempt customers.
MORE THAN DOGS
Although De Lone Wilson, president of Cubby’s Convenience Stores in Nebraska, Iowa and South Dakota, would prefer to sell higher ticket foodservice items, such as made-to-order sandwiches, pizza and chicken, Wilson explained some customers really like the roller grill and expect it as a daily offering.
Also, at one store the company opened back in January, a co-branding partnership with a famous fast feeder restricted the other food products Cubby’s could sell, making the roller grill the most viable option.
For that store, the company purchased two roller grills with sneeze guards and designated spots for signage. A planogram was also designed for the grill.
On these roller grills, Cubby’s showcases a full range of different items starting with morning breakfast products such as pancake pigs in blankets.
Throughout the day, five different kinds of hot dog or sausage products, eight or nine Tornados and egg rolls are added to the mix.
Wilson acknowledged that it has been a challenge to convince employees to keep the grills fully stocked.
“Employees are afraid to put on too many items because they are afraid that they’ll be wasted,” Wilson said. “I keep telling them that they’re my hot dogs and it’s OK if they have to throw some away because the grills need to always be fully stocked and looking nice. I tell them that if the roller grill starts costing me too much money, I’ll take it out.”
One item that helps to fill out the grills is a one-foot-long, one-half-pound hot dog called “The Homewrecker.” It even has a special bun that goes with it, all for the price of $2.89.
“We know we’re not going to sell 20 of these in a day, but it doesn’t matter because they keep the grills looking full and add interest to them,” Wilson said.
New items are introduced as soon as they’re available. Recent additions include a chicken and waffles tornado and a blueberry pancake wrapped around a sausage link. He finds many of the new items at trade shows.
Condiments are also an important part of the roller grill product offering.
“We invested a couple of thousand dollars in a nice, refrigerated condiment bar that holds up to 12 selections from coleslaw to peppers and even has a chili and cheese machine,” he said.
Roller grill items also appeal to customers’ economical side. “Two-for-one” deals sell very well.
This summer, Turkey Hill Minit Markets bet on roller grill items, including hot dogs, smoked sausages and tornados, to drive foodservice sales in its Pennsylvania stores by making them one of the central focus points in a major seasonal promotion.
During Turkey Hill’s “Sizzlin’ Summer Getaway,” which ran from May through July, customers who presented a registered Turkey Hill Rewards Card and purchased a roller grill item—or a fountain drink or slushy—were automatically entered into a sweepstakes.
Winner will receive their choice of a Caribbean Cruise or a trip to Las Vegas, Walt Disney World or Riviera Maya, Mexico.