By Marilyn Odesser-Torpey, Associate Editor
The hot dog isn’t quite as humble as it used to be. Sonic Drive-in, for example, features six different dogs nationally (and two more regionally) on its menu and has even made them the stars of some of its television commercials, said Joe Chiovera, principal of the consulting firm XS Foodservice and Marketing Solutions.
Chiovera pointed to Sheetz, which offers six varieties of “Hot Dogz” plus a made-to-order option on its order kiosk. “Both of these companies have taken hot dogs to the next level,” Chiovera said. “There are endless possibilities to offer high quality products and create a real point of difference from competitors.”
Even without a big ad budget or the latest ordering technology, convenience stores can take roller grill dogs to the “next level” with a well-stocked condiment bar, Chiovera noted. In addition to the requisite mustard and ketchup, he suggested offering pico de gallo, onions, sauerkraut and relishes. “Being able to add their own fresh toppings makes consumers feel good about what they’re eating,” he said.
Roller grills are an integral part of RaceTrac convenience stores’ food- service program, said Bart Stransky, the company’s executive director of merchandising. Stores have between two and six grills and some have one totally dedicated to hot dogs.
Currently between 25-30% of the chain’s more than 400 stores in the Southeastern U.S. feature an eight- item condiment bar. It will also be included in remodels and new builds, Stransky noted.
Kwik Trip is another c-store company that takes its roller grills seriously. Paul Servais, Kwik Trip’s food service zone leader, pointed out that in its newest stores, the company, which has more than 470 locations in Wisconsin, Minnesota and Iowa, is installing eight-foot-wide condiment bars to accommodate multiple customers at a time.
Another item that does “exceedingly well” at RaceTrac is the tamale, said Stransky. Larger stores in the chain can carry as many as 12 roller grill items, including taquitos, a country sausage link and a spicy selection such as jalapeño cheese sausage.
Kwik Trip stores can have as many as 14 different items on the roller grill at any given time. Core items are supplemented with limited time offers (LTO).
“There is always an LTO tornado, roller bite, hot dog and egg roll on the grill,” Servais said. “Once a year we totally reevaluate the category and replace some core items with the most popular LTOs.”
At Noon’s Food Stores, which has three locations in Montana, sales are steady for the 5:1 hot dogs and a sausage offering that rotates cheddarwurst with other varieties such as hot Italian sausage and Miller Beer brats, according to Earl Allen, the company’s marketing manager. Hot dogs grace the grill daily sometime between 10 a.m. and 11 a.m. and remain available into the evening.
Because the stores are open 24 hours, Allen is planning to work on a specific campaign geared toward the after-hours bar crowd, which he believes could be a significant market. Grand Forks, N.D.-based Simonson Station Stores stocks a wide range of roller grill products, such as hot dogs; cheddarwurst, mesquite jalapeño smoked, Polish and pepper jack cheese sausages; several types of roller bites and tornadoes, said Rachel Stewart, the company’s foodservice manager. Each of the 16 stores across North Dakota and Minnesota carries at least six staple items.
“We use good quality, recognizable brands like Ball Park, Hillshire Farms and Johnsonville,” Stewart said. “Over the past year, we’ve seen our roller grill purchases increase by 20%.”
Like hot dogs, many other roller grill items can be embellished by customers at self-service grills or by staffers at behind-the-counter ones, said Dr. Nancy Caldarola, general manager of the Roswell, Ga.-based Food Training Group. Using a few simple ingredients (most of which are already in stock), basic roller grill items can be easily turned into store specialties.
“You can take a cheeseburger roll and top it with sauce to make it Italian or add fried onions and peppers to a sausage sandwich,” Caldarola said. “You can always charge a premium for these items to offset any extra labor and ingredient costs.”
Entire store-wide merchandising campaigns can be built around roller grill items, she suggested.
“If you’re featuring a hot dog with sriracha sauce, for example, merchandise it with tortilla chips, Mexican beer, even churros,” Caldarola said.
Just some colorful new signage can refresh the concept, said Allen. Recently, Noon Food Stores posted new signage it had received from a roller grill product manufacturer.
“Just the visual change focused attention on the roller grill,” Allen said.
RaceTrac also has heavy signage on its roller grill fixture. In addition, the company runs a major, non-price- focused promotion spotlighting its roller grill products once a year.
“It’s like a reintroduction to the category,” Stransky said.
While variety, customization options and merchandising can create interest in the category, price is always a factor that makes roller grills such an attractive option for so many consumers. Kwik Trip uses a lot of price promotion, including charging $1 for selected roller grill items for two-week periods.
For years, RaceTrac has been running a $2.50 special for two hot dogs covered in toppings. Simonson Station Stores sells all roller grill items either two for $3 or $1.69 each, Stewart said.
No matter how you present and market your roller grill, there’s one fundamental thing that can make or break it. “It all begins with a top quality hot dog and a warm steamed bun,” said RaceTrac’s Stransky.