Roller grill programs may change, but that often keeps customers coming back.
By Pat Pape, Contributing Editor
All nine c-stores in the Bethlehem, Pa.-based Square One Market chain have a roller grill, but the company’s management team wants to give the category a facelift.
“We have a grill program because everyone else has one,” said Lisa Dell’Alba, president and CEO of Square One. “The roller grill is something that people expect to see in a convenience store, but I feel that we could be doing better with it.”
Currently, Dell’Alba is considering bumping the number of grills from one to two or three in stores with enough space and is investigating branding with a national company.
“We have one location with a proprietary foodservice offering that includes chili and chopped fresh onion, and grill customers really like that,” Dell’Alba said. “We want to try duplicating that in a self-serve model.”
She also is intrigued by what fast-food giant Burger King is now doing. “They’re offering a hot dog with all the same fixings found on a Whopper—lettuce, onion and cheese,” Dell’Alba said. “It basically takes everything now on a Whopper and puts it on a hot dog.”
Square One isn’t alone when it comes to determining the perfect roller grill recipe. Many convenience retailers believe that grill items are must-have offerings but are perplexed when it comes to making their own program a customer destination.
WHAT’S NOT TO LIKE?
Hot dogs have long been a convenience store staple. For the consumer, hot dogs are popular, portable, filling and usually well priced. For c-stores, a roller grill has a small footprint, is easy to operate and doesn’t require a huge financial investment.
Roller grills are also important to overall foodservice sales. According to the National Association of Convenience Stores (NACS), convenience store food items prepared on-site are one of the largest contributors to in-store convenience sales. This category included some of the most popular convenience store food items such as sandwiches, pizza, chicken and hot dogs.
Of course, today’s roller grills are cooking up much more than just franks. Many are humming most hours to serve up a diverse group of tasty offerings ranging from taquitos, eggrolls, corndogs and breakfast items to potato sticks, cheesy hash browns, chicken and bratwurst.
CST Brands’ Corner Store chain, based in San Antonio, concentrates on its grill program, which has proven to be strong and lucrative for the chain. “Many of the items on our grill are proprietary recipes,” said Richard Poye, director of food service for CST. “We offer a wide range of roller grill options and continually update the offering to ensure that customers have new options and can continue to buy their favorite roller grill items.”
Corner Stores keeps customers interested by offering a series of limited-time-only sausage products throughout the year, along with breakfast sausages and tamales.
Limited time offers can provide a point of differentiation for a foodservice program and drive excitement around nutrition and flavors, according to the NACS State of the Industry report. One example is the exclusive chicken habanero tamale that RaceTrac offered patrons earlier this year.
Dell’ Alba reported that one male customer frequently comes into a Square One Market to buy a frankfurter that he consumes on site minus a bun or any fixings. No doubt, he’s in the minority since most customers tend to demonstrate “the more, the merrier” philosophy when topping off grill items.
A well-rounded condiment selection may comprise mustard, ketchup, mayo, spicy sriracha, chopped onions, relishes and cheese. In Albuquerque, N.M., Latitudes, a convenience retailer that has one location that tops 15,000 square feet, provides customers the elements of a neighborhood market and a quaint bistro. Inside, the c-store also boasts a bountiful, five-foot-long condiment bar loaded with two-dozen different choices, including soup, chili, several different relishes, chopped onions, tomatoes, hot sauces, bacon bits, chopped onions, tomatoes, salsa and celery salt.
“In New Mexico, the standby is green chilies,” said Ron Brown, president of Latitudes. “That’s a mandatory item, like ketchup.”
Apparently, the condiment bar is winning over local customers. Latitudes’ hot dogs received top marks from local residents in a “best of” contest.
In addition to condiments, Brown also ensures that customers have a wide variety of grill items to choose from whether they’re selecting a meal or shopping for a hearty snack.
“We’ve got breakfast bites, breakfast sausages and tornados,” he said. “We’ve got four roller grills that we pack full. That’s the key. The fuller you keep those grills the more you sell. It’s a hard thing to tell your people, but full sells.”
QuikTrip, the Tulsa, Okla.-based convenience operator, currently has 6-8 roller grills in each of its 700 stores and does a first-rate job of keeping them well stocked and spinning around the clock.
In 2014, the chain began rolling out its proprietary QT Kitchen program, featuring made-to-order sandwiches, pizzas, flatbreads and smoothies. And the ubiquitous grill program keeps rolling along.
“We hope our roller grill program is a destination, because we’ve worked very hard to promote its success,” said Mike Thornbrugh, spokesman for QuikTrip, a chain of more than 720 locations. “We really haven’t noticed that much cannibalization with our QT Kitchens fresh food offer. We look at both offers as an opportunity.”
He added that a persistent focus on the grill is necessary to ensure the best results. “The presentation, the product quality, the grill maintenance and training are all critical to be successful and to grow the category,” Thornbrugh said.
Almost every year, commercial kitchen equipment manufacturers introduce new products designed to enhance convenience store roller grill programs. Several companies now sell grills with oval-shaped rollers and textured roller surfaces. The texture keeps products from sticking to the surface of the grill where they may burn or stick in a groove. Oval-shaped rollers keep turning those products that aren’t perfectly round.
In addition, some companies now provide custom graphics for retailers who purchase commercial grills.
Of course, the most important thing about any roller grill equipment is ensuring that it is sparkling and sanitary in order to produce the best quality food possible.
“We have a lot of people with foodservice backgrounds, and there are strict policies,” said Brown. “We rotate the condiment pans and verify the temperatures to ensure they’re in the safe range. We don’t put so much out there that it gets old or people can contaminate it. Besides, that doesn’t look fresh. We use foodservice gloves, and we wash the tongs. At night time, we sanitize the grills. It’s not that hard. It’s just staying on it and not taking shortcuts.”
Any retailer who wants a reason to promote roller grill items doesn’t have long to wait.
Every July is celebrated as National Hot Dog Month, according to the National Hot Dog and Sausage Council, which predicts that more than 7 billion hot dogs will be eaten in America between Memorial Day and Labor Day this year.
According to council data for 2015, nearly 1 billion pounds of hot dogs were sold at retail stores. That number represents more than $2.5 billion in retail sales.