By Marilyn Odesser-Torpey, Associate Editor
Finding the expected might seem boring for some, but many convenience store customers come in craving a hot dog or sausage served sizzling from the roller grill or a just-from-the-oven slice of pizza with their favorite toppings.
Despite the rise and popularity of made-to-order hot and cold sandwiches on c-store menus, hot dogs, corn dogs, taquitos and other roller grill items are still carried by 71% of convenience stores and are among the top five sellers in the overall foodservice category, said Tim Powell, vice president and senior analyst at Q1 Consulting LLC, a Chicago-based business research, strategy, planning and management firm.
“Retailers offering prepared foods reported that 22% of their sales come from roller grill items,” Powell quoted from a research study conducted by Q1 last year.
Pizza is also a top five c-store seller, carried by 47% of operators.
Portability was one reason why consumers in the Q1 survey choose roller grill items and pizza when looking for an on-the-go meal or snack. Sixty-five percent of respondents said that roller grill items travel the best (or are most portable in their current packaging). Forty-five percent said the same for pizza.
Value is another sales booster for prepared foods such as pizza and roller grill items. Half of the survey respondents said that the most effective promotions for driving prepared foods at c-stores are free samples and price discounts. Coupons (23%) and combos (17%) can also positively impact sales.
Over the next three to five years, sales of foods that fit on the roller grill are expected to grow by 10%, Powell pointed out. Pizza sales are forecasted to increase by 12% over that same period.
Although pizza and subs are usually the strongest foodservice draws for Pump-N-Pantry, a Montrose, Pa.-based chain which has 15 stores over six counties in the northeastern part of the Keystone State, Wade Robinson, the company’s food service supervisor/digital marketing manager, discovered last August how effective targeted promotion can be to boosting roller grill sales.
“We ran a sales contest in our stores in conjunction with our local supplier, Kunzler, and achieved an increase of 45% in roller grill sales over the same time the prior year,” Robinson said. “One small store that usually doesn’t sell much saw a more than 200% increase in roller grill sales.”
During the promotion the roller grill items were sold at full price. Robinson noted that the contest “energized” the staff because they could clearly see the results of paying attention to the roller grill and keeping it clean and full at all times.
“It showed them that roller grill can still be an important part of the stores’ foodservice sales,” he explained. “I definitely want to do this contest again.”
At any given time the roller grills, which are in 14 of the Pump-N-Pantry stores, feature 5:1 franks, a breakfast sausage and another kind of sausage such as hickory-smoked Bahama Mamas, jalapeño and cheddar or bacon and cheddar. Roundup grills are used in the stores because they don’t have “rollers” which can dry out the food. The Roundup components slide up and down, allowing the hot dogs to be basted with their own juices, Robinson explained.
The stores’ roller grills at Pump-N-Pantry are full-service and staffers walk customers down a behind-the-counter condiment bar as they would for a sub sandwich. Customers can choose from 12 different condiments, with only chili and cheese costing extra.
Bundle deals are also appealing to Pump-N-Pantry customers, Robinson said. Every day they can get two hot dogs and a 20-ounce soda for $4.99.
At Coffee Cup Fuel Stops, with nine stores—seven in South Dakota, one in North Dakota and one in Wyoming—roller grill items account for a relatively small percentage of overall foodservice sales, but many customers still expect their hot dogs (4:1) and Cheddarwurst to be fresh and hot 24 hours a day.
“Our customers are not necessarily looking for something different, but they do look to us for ordinary items done extraordinarily well,” said Tom Heinz, the company’s co-founder and president.
That means strictly disciplined hold times on the self-service grills and a fresh condiment bar with six different items to allow for creative customization. Rolls are also individually wrapped.
Only 44 of the total 119 Duchess Shoppe convenience stores primarily in Ohio and one in West Virginia have the space and sales to support roller grill programs. But in those stores customers like variety and the stores offer plenty of it, said Judy Dudte, director of food service for the chain.
“In some of our stores, there are 10 different items on the grill at any given time,” said Dudte.
That includes five or six flavors of tornados, egg rolls and roller bites; breakfast sausage in the morning and hot dogs and sausages the rest of the day. Limited time offers (LTOs) introduced quarterly or twice a year as they catch Dudte’s attention, keep the selection fresh and tempting. One recently introduced item that is doing well is a chipotle cheeseburger roller bite.
“Our customers like spicy foods,” said Dudte. “So we’re always looking for items with bolder flavors.”
In the newly-expanded kitchens in four of Duchess Shoppe’s stores, condiment bars offer nine items to gild the grill items.
America’s love affair with pizza keeps sales of whole pies and slices rising in convenience stores. Pump-N-Pantry’s Robinson calls it “the heart of our foodservice program” and pointed out that during the summer of ’17 both breakfast and traditional pizza sales were stronger than ever. And now that the local schools are back in session, there’s a big uptick in the demand for slices.
All pizza varieties are available around the clock in the stores and breakfast pizza is becoming increasingly popular during the evening hours, Robinson noted.
“We did some promotions for our breakfast pizza on Facebook and feature it on the digital menu board we just completed,” he said. “Seven of our stores also have kiosks where we also promote it as well as offering customers the opportunity to select from a wide variety of topping options.”
Pizza is available in 13 Pump-N-Pantry stores. The company has been offering its proprietary fresh dough program for about 20 years.
Robinson is particularly proud of the sauce the company uses, emphasizing that the tomatoes go from California field to can within 24 hours. On top of the sauce is sprinkled a half-pound of proprietary cheese blend. The stores have stone hearth ovens to give the pizzas an authentic crispy crust.
“These ovens are not as fast as conveyor ovens—it takes about eight minutes to bake one of our pizzas,” said Robinson. “But having a beautiful pizza gives us a major competitive advantage.”
A favorite pie is the chicken spiedie, topped with marinated, grilled chicken strips that are a local specialty. Other popular variations include buffalo wing; chicken, bacon and ranch and meat lovers. A pierogi pizza has also become a seasonal Lenten tradition. Pizza ingredients also do double-duty in the stores as the toppings are used to stuff strombolis made from the same pizza dough.
To promote its pizza as a value purchase, Pump-N-Pantry offers a combo meal consisting of two slices of cheese or pepperoni and a 20-ounce drink for $4. Whole pies are a buy-one-get-one attraction on weekly “Two-fer Tuesdays.”
Pizza is a dynamic category for Coffee Cup Fuel Stops, which the chain touts on billboards and in-store signage as well as sampling to customers and at community events. The company works with three branded concepts—Pizza Hut in three stores, Hot Stuff at five locations and a Subway’s Pizza at one site.
“We like to work with national and international brands with recognizable names and strong marketing support,” Heinz said. “They also make it possible for us to introduce new products to keep up with what our customers want.”
One of the latest of these new products recently added to the menu in one of the stores is a nine-inch pie from Pizza Hut. Prior to that, the store sold only personal pan size. Customers like the larger size so much that it will be rolled out into the other two stores.
To reduce cook time, Coffee Cup is installing new ovens that can bake a pizza in four minutes instead of the current seven or eight minutes.
Robert Hyatt sells so many pizzas at his two Louisiana stores—Anacoco Mercantile and Tidbits and Tackle 10 miles west—that he has worn out and had to replace his ovens.
“We’re baking pizza from 4 a.m. to 5:30 at night, Hyatt said. “Half of my hot deli sales and 14-15% of my total inside sales come from pizza.”
While the breakfast pizza sells briskly in the morning, so does pepperoni. The stores have to refill the warmer display with both varieties several times during the early hours. Hunt Brothers’ version of the slice, a one-quarter pie serving the company bills as Hunk A Pizza, does best as breakfast, lunch and afternoon snacks, while whole pies are the best sellers around dinner time.
Hunt Brothers has been the featured pizza in the Anacoco Mercantile store since around 2001. It was already firmly established as the community’s go-to spot for pizza when Hyatt bought the store in 2006. Last January, he also added the program to the menu at Tidbits and Tackle.
One thing he particularly likes about Hunt Brothers is the company’s regular introductions of limited time offer (LTO) pies to help him keep up with consumer taste for new and bolder flavors.
“When our customers really like an LTO—like a buffalo chicken pizza we featured—they wait for it to come back,” Hyatt said. “They’ll start asking months in advance when they’ll be able to get it again.”
Customers also like to create their own combinations. With the Hunt Brothers program, they can add up to 10 toppings on an original or thin crust.
Pizza, including Hunt Brothers in some of its stores, is the No. 1 best-selling foodservice item at Duchess, according to Dudte. In four of its units, Duchess offers a proprietary pie as part of its overall expanded kitchen concept called “the deli.” Two of the stores make pies to order by allowing customers to choose their toppings at an ordering kiosk, while the other two are grab and go.
To please a range of palates, Duchess offers eight varieties of Hunt Brothers and proprietary pies including chicken bacon ranch and Hawaiian. LTOs are also available every quarter. In stores with smaller kitchens, a third concept—a ready-to-bake Pirelle’s Pizza—fills the bill with four varieties.