Convenience store pizza programs have become more extensive in the convenience channel, as the roller grill segment continues to evolve.
When Ryan Krebs, director of foodservice at York, Pa.-based Rutter’s Farm Stores, joined the 69-store chain three years ago, each location offered a standard personal pan pizza, ordered from a made-to-order kiosk.
“Sales were declining, so we did our research to find a program that was high-quality and relevant,” said Krebs. “The goal was to add a larger family-style pizza that customers could take home for dinner.”
Rutter’s redo incorporated a pizza made from self-activating yeast dough that simulates a brick-oven baked product when cooked. Despite longer ticket times, the chain has experienced a big increase in volume sales since instituting the new program.
“We don’t offer pizza by the slice like other c-stores,” said Krebs. “People have tried to sell me that program, but offering eight- and 16-inch size pies has worked well for us.”
According to London-based market research firm Mintel’s 2017 Menu Insights report, pizza is a mainstay at c-stores, with 52% of these retailers offering a pizza program product.
For those not yet taking advantage of this money maker, there are a number of pizza program options geared for c-stores. Those with the space and commitment can produce a scratch product using fresh or par-baked dough with customized ingredients. According to some pizza program experts, this requires a minimum of 100 square feet to accommodate the necessary equipment, including an oven, prep table, warmers and merchandisers.
Labor is more extensive, with at least one employee dedicated to pizza making. For stores with inexperienced staff, dough flats or shells, as opposed to balls that need to be expertly formed, are recommended.
Retailers with less resources and a more limited footprint that don’t want to make a big investment can sell pizza by the slice that’s pre-made and just needs heating.
Mintel’s report reveals that 43% of consumers are interested in personal-sized pizza.
Atlanta-based RaceTrac has more than 240 stores offering grab-and-go pizza slices and more than 100 stores selling personal pan pizzas. Both types will be a part of all stores moving forward.
“Our pizza program is in the early stages; we rolled out our first pizza store in February 2015,” said Michael Elliott, RaceTrac’s category manager of hot foods. “This test was successful, and we [recently] began rolling out the program to additional stores.”
At Pittsburgh-based CoGo’s Co.’s 42 stores, located in western and central Pennsylvania, West Virginia and Maryland, customer interest in pizza is on the rise. The chain’s 14-inch pies, which are sold whole or by the slice, are prepared on site using frozen dough thawed on site; then topped with sauce, cheese and other ingredients; and baked at the store level.
“With our build-your-own pizza program, we can offer a better price, and it’s popular with consumers,” said John Eby III, CoGo’s president and CEO. “The program is more labor intensive, but produces a better product that we charge a premium for.”
Higher-volume CoGo’s locations use a dedicated conveyor oven and all sites have a convection oven for baking pies.
When it comes to pizza toppings, the convenience channel is taking its cues from the foodservice industry by getting creative. Rutter’s offers approximately 50 options, with all vegetable ingredients, free of charge.
“We want to promote healthier toppings, but we’ll put anything on our pies,” said Krebs. “We have customers asking for fried bologna or shrimp. Fried chicken with buffalo sauce sells well. We also offer a breakfast pizza with eggs and breakfast sausage.”
The top-selling pizzas at Rutter’s are pepperoni and sausage, with black olives and banana peppers also popular choices.
RaceTrac’s personal pan pizzas offer more than 12 meat and vegetable topping choices, including both Buffalo Chicken and Chicken Cheddar Bacon Ranch pizza varieties.
“Convenience and customization have always been important to our guests, and that has not changed,” said Elliott.
PROMOTING THE PRODUCT
The pizza business in c-stores relies on effective marketing and merchandising to ensure potential customers are aware of what’s being offered as well as set the store apart.
“Signage is key for marketing our pizza, as it’s important to have great visuals,” said Elliott. “We market both outside at the pumps and inside the store at the point of purchase.”
RaceTrac’s stores also have incorporated eye-catching, custom-printed red boxes for slices that provide added product visibility with a window on top. For made-to-order personal pan pizza, the images are present on printed menu boards as well as the ordering kiosk.
CoGo’s has expanded its pizza program with signature pepperoni rolls, which have become a long-term hot seller.
“We created our own recipe to bake the rolls and serve them warm,” said Eby. “This product is six inches long and about five inches in diameter, so it’s more of a meal than a snack.”
In addition to creative toppings and marketing, the current trend in c-store pizza programs centers around ordering options. To better compete with foodservice, a number of retailers are taking pie orders by phone, implementing online ordering capabilities for these products and considering delivery services.
“Casey’s General Stores was the king of c-store pizza programs, and now they’re delivering pizza,” said Krebs. “[This channel] will see an increase in the relevance of pizza delivery.”
Rutter’s recently added a call-in program so customers can order pizzas by phone in advance, which has added incremental sales to its bottom line. The chain plans on adding online ordering in 2018 and potentially curbside pickup.
CoGo’s doesn’t currently offer pizza delivery, but is considering what’s involved.
“We’re going through the process of implementing this, and we also are looking at adding online ordering,” said Eby. “We do take phone orders, but don’t advertise this service.”
REAPING FROM ROLLER GRILL
Like with pizza programs, c-stores can diversify their offerings by getting creative at the roller grill. With these items, it’s all about offering value, innovative flavors and healthful options.
According to Mintel, over half of consumers want to see roller grill value meals, with 34% seeking products without artificial ingredients.
“Roller grills used to be c-stores’ bread and butter, but now we’re seeing these sales flat overall,” said Krebs. “This is due to the increase in other offerings that have better margins as well as generations coming in that are not as interested in roller grill items, particularly hot dogs.”
Krebs said hot dogs are still strong sellers to those over the age of 35. He pointed out that Millennials are concerned about sodium and additives and tend to avoid these products.
As with the pizza segment, unique offerings can pay off big. About a year ago, Rutter’s introduced a bacon-and-cheese wrapped hot dog in an effort to revitalize its roller grill options.
“We wanted to get creative and see what was trending, and bacon was hot,” said Krebs. “Visually on the roller grill, this product looks different and catches customers’ attention. Now, it’s our second best-selling item behind the traditional hot dog.”
Over the next year, Rutter’s plans to look at alternative proteins for the roller grill, such as chicken sausages.
“We’re considering adding products with an edgier concept and potentially non-meat items that are healthier,” said Krebs. “These are geared for Millennials who like the hot dog experience, but are looking for something healthier. It may be a little before our time in this channel, but it’s where the category is headed.”
RaceTrac’s locations contain between two and six roller grills, depending on the store size, age and food offerings. Its 11 different products include hot dogs, Cheesy Buffalo Ranch Chicken Roller Bites, three flavors of taquitos and its signature pork tamale in a corn husk.
“We have guests that eat off of our roller grills several times per week, or some even daily,” said Elliott. “For them, the key is keeping the offer fresh and relevant.”
The chain generally offers three to four LTOs on the roller grill per year. In the past, these have included Chicken and Waffle Taquitos, Guinness Beer Brats, Bacon Cheddar Dogs and a Pork Egg Roll.
CoGo’s has been phasing out roller grills from its 36 company-owned locations over the last year.
“We may only have two to four roller grills left in our stores,” said Eby. “We’ve been focusing more on the pizza and sandwich side, due to our limited real estate.”