By Jeffrey Steele, Contributing Editor
At Shout & Sack, a long-standing convenience retailer on Route 66 in Vinita, Okla., Owner Chris Carter swears by his roller grill. Open 24 hours a day, seven days a week, the only time Shout & Sack’s grill program isn’t in motion is between 2:30 a.m. and 4:30 a.m., when it’s time to clean.
When Convenience Store Decisions caught up with Carter, he was using pumptoppers to tout a special promotion teaming a roller-grilled hot dog and a 32-ounce drink for $2.
“I tell my employees all the time, ‘You never slow the roll,’” Carter said. “You keep it full because it won’t sell nearly as well half-full.”
That’s just one of many stratagems used by c-store operators from coast to coast to maximize the profit potential of that most basic store essential, the tried-and-true roller grill.
Even as c-stores roll out more and more sophisticated foodservice operations, the roller grill continues rolling along as a staple for many establishments, and for good reason.
“A roller grill is a good way to start a foodservice business,” said David Bishop, managing partner for Balvor, a Barrington, Ill.-based sales and marketing practice.
“You can look at a roller grill much the same way you would coffee, which is as a gateway to building not only that segment but expanding into other areas of foodservice.”
The roller grill is more than a gateway, though. It’s also one of the most identifiable parts of a convenience store, separating it from a grocery, dollar or drug store, said Jeff Lenard, vice president of strategic industry initiatives for the National Association of Convenience Stores (NACS). “That’s a huge plus, but it also carries negatives.
“Sometimes, due to less than proper maintenance, it’s gotten a bad rap. But the benefit of it is you don’t have to spend a lot of money to have a hot food program. It requires minimal expense, a minimal footprint and you don’t need a dedicated person in the food prep area. And the items sold on the roller grill define what our industry sells. It’s easy to eat in a car, easy to eat walking down the street, a really easy grab-and-go item.”
HOT DOG HIATUS
While a roller grill is tailor made for the food item known by names like frankfurter, wiener and red hot, it’s by no means limited to franks. “If it can spin, it can work,” Lenard said.
“It has to be something that can heat on the elements and work in a bun. You see hot dogs, wursts, even hamburger variations. You can have breakfast-type sausages.”
Bishop, who reported having purchased that day a taquito breakfast sausage at a well-known national c-store chain, said roller grills prove more and more versatile with each passing year.
“What traditionally had been a platform to serve hot dogs has migrated to providing sausages and now taquitos,” Bishop said. “And, not only is it no longer confined to the lunch or afternoon daypart, but it can now focus on the breakfast day part with sausage or taquitos.”
At Englefield Oil Co., a Heath, Ohio.-based chain that operates 125 Duchess Shoppes in the Buckeye State and West Virginia, Judy Dudte, director of food service said that though demand isn’t growing, roller grill items continue to be strong sellers in some markets.
“Regular hot dogs remain the most popular,” roller-grilled food item sold at Duchess Shoppes, Dudte said. “Tornados are in second place at Duchess.”
Saying he’s “trial-and-errored” his roller grill program for half a decade, Carter no longer offers roller-grilled breakfast items. That’s because they increasingly eroded the popularity of his hot deli breakfast items, which include biscuits and gravy; sausage egg and cheese biscuit; ham, egg and cheese on a croissant; and breakfast burritos.
“That didn’t make any sense,” Carter said. However, for c-stores that have no breakfast service, roller grill items can make all the business sense in the world.
However, Shout & Sack does have two excellent roller grill sellers. They are a quarter-pound all-beef hot dog, and Hillshire Farms Cheddar Wurst Sausages. “Very good product,” Carter said.
Atlanta-based RaceTrac’s roller grill category is among its largest foodservice categories, yet still represents “a huge opportunity for growth,” according to Michael Elliott, RaceTrac category manager of hot foods. “We offer a variety of high-quality roller grill options, and the resulting guest demand tells us we’re doing a good job in this. We have seen year-over-year growth in this category for the past five years, and growth is still looking strong.”
Best-selling items sold from RaceTrac roller grills include Nathan’s Famous 100% Premium All Beef Hot Dog, the No. 1 seller; taquitos; Roller Bites breaded-chicken items in flavors like Monterrey Jack and Buffalo; and tamales, which Elliott describes as “traditional corn husk-wrapped and stuffed with seasoned pork, and unique to RaceTrac.”
If a roller grill remains a significant part of your operation, how can you keep the fare prepared on that simple, basic tool new, fresh and exciting to customers? There are a multitude of techniques and strategies to do just that. So let’s roll them out:
Fresh Fixings. Increasingly popular with both c-stores and their customers are condiment assortments or “prep bars” that let customers customize their dog or bratwurst.
Lenard has been impressed by stores that have added “a really well-maintained fixings bar.”
“Having some fresh options for fixings can take a traditional offer and elevate it. It’s much more customized and fresh. It’s just simple execution,” Lenard said.
Duchess Shoppes this autumn plans to test a hot dog prep bar—a new concept Duchess store ”where the customer can customize up their dog with chili, or cheese and also a wide variety of fresh condiments,” Dudte said.
Carter serves up a rainbow of condiments for roller-grilled items at Shout & Sack.
“I offer two types of relish, mild peppers, jalapeño peppers,
sauerkraut, regular and spicy mustard, and that definitely increases your sales,” Carter said. “I keep my buns very fresh, and that’s also a key to it.”
RaceTrac’s expanded Taste Works toppings bar offers everything from ketchup and mustard to onions, jalapeños and nacho cheese, Elliott said.
Special Promotions. Tying together a beverage with a food item is another way to trigger additional demand and sales, and selling drinks with items off the roller grill is a natural, said Bishop. “Offering a promotional deal on a two-fer, say two for $3 is another idea,” he said. “Those promotional deals create a degree of value and a little bit of buzz. With that comes signage, which converts to more buying.”
“Promotions throughout the year that target different day parts are important,” he added.
Duchess Shoppes promotes roller grill items at least two to three times a year, while Shout & Sack pumptoppers pitch “Big Dog Dogs and a 32-ounce Sodie (fountain drink) for $2.” A subhead advises soda-sipping Shout & Sack customers there are “no dinkie dogs sold here.”
Limited time offers. A category of promotions worthy of its own mention is the limited time offer, which RaceTrac has perfected. “We introduce limited time offer (LTO) products on our grill quarterly to help keep the offer fresh and fun,” Elliott said. “We have guests who eat from the roller grill every day, so offering fresh, new products is important to them.
“Our approach around LTOs is to feature something a little different and ‘out there’ that might not make it as an everyday item, but certainly drives excitement and trial on the grill. A few past examples include our bacon cheddar dog, pork and vegetable egg roll, chicken habanero tamale and a chicken-and-waffle taquito,” Elliot said. “We also explore new product categories all together. For example, we are testing a premium retail item in some of our stores that is a one-third pound Bahama Mama spicy sausage. That’s almost twice the size of a standard roller grill item. Depending on the results of the test, this item could bring even more innovation and variety to all of our stores company wide.”
Keep it clean and well maintained. “Lots of folks who have roller grills could do a lot better with them if they just gave them a little TLC,” Carter said. “I took a drive to Tennessee, and on the way I saw hot dogs on rollers I believe had been there since the days of Ronald Reagan.”
Carter said a component to his success is that his roller grill appears very well attended to.
Location, location, location. Many times, roller grills are kept on the counter, allowing the cashier to maintain the grill, Lenard said.
Make it easy. Related to location is making accessing the roller grill and its offerings as simple as possible, Lenard said. “Make sure people can easily find the buns and condiments, and that all the guesswork is gone.”