At convenience stores, customers may expect to find hot dogs on the roller grill and pepperoni pizza in the warmer. But what if those hot dogs were foot-longs served on cheddar jalapeno buns and the pizza crowned with a signature fiery combination of pepperoni and hot sauce?
While some retailers believe that bringing roller grill and pizza into the spotlight undermines a message of restaurant-quality foodservice, this move can actually have just the opposite effect, said Liza Salaria, senior principal consultant for Impact 21 Group, a Lexington, Kentucky-based consulting firm specializing in the convenience, retail and refining industries. In most cases, there is a lot of “white space” around roller grill and pizza, meaning that there is plenty of room to add interest and excitement to the categories with innovative product twists, merchandising and
promotion, she explained.
“Retailers can demonstrate to customers how serious they are about foodservice by paying a little extra attention to these two categories,” Salaria noted. “Even something as simple as a cold well bar holding fresh condiments such as cole slaw, jalapenos, fresh onions, salsa, pickles and relish can make a statement.”
Millennials, particularly, are looking for zestier flavors so giving them the option to choose from a variety of toppings can be the way to win their hearts. Another easy way to take hot dogs to the next level is to vary the bun or roll, she said.
“For both roller grill and pizza, retailers can come up with creative flavor profiles and topping combinations that can become uniquely associated with their brand and make their stores destinations for those products,” she said. “Even for stores where the prominent foodservice offering is made-to-order (MTO), having interesting roller grill and/or pizza offerings can be trigger points, encouraging customers to look at the MTO menu.”
At Pump N Pantry, a northeastern Pennsylvania-based chain of 15 stores, 13 of which sell pizza, customers come specifically for the Chicken Spiedie pizza, a spin on a local specialty featuring grilled, marinated chicken, said Wade Robinson, the company’s food service supervisor. One of the stores also had a hit with an “Angry Pepperoni” pie with a hot sauce base.
“Customers love anything hot and spicy,” he pointed out.
Another location garnered attention for its pizza topped with mac and cheese and ham. A recent limited time offer (LTO) was topped with pierogi. And sales of eight-inch personal pies, introduced last year, are strong.
“We encourage our store employees to use their imaginations and come up with unique and different variations,” Robinson said. “Pizza is our number one-selling foodservice item. It got us on the map 20 years ago for foodservice, making us known not as a gas station that has a pizzeria, but, rather, a pizzeria that happens to sell gas.”
To top their roller grill items, available in nine of the stores, customers can choose from an assortment of toppings including chili and cheese. Pump N Pantry used to have self-serve grills until the company tried taking them off the floor and putting them along with the condiments behind glass for full service.
“The manager said we were crazy, but within 21 days, our roller grill sales doubled,” Robinson said. “Now our roller grill items are ordered on our touch screen kiosk and we will continue that model in any stores we remodel. I think that customers view the items as fresher when they are served from behind the counter.”
While hot dogs are “by far the number one best-seller” on the roller grill – “There’s never a bad time of day for hot dogs,” Robinson said – Pump N Pantry also offers other options to coordinate with time of day. In the morning, for example, the grills feature breakfast sausages, French toast and supreme omelet tornados; later in the day into night, spicy jalapeno dogs, Bahama Mamas and tornados filled with pepperoni and cheese or southwestern chicken are available.
“We sell an insane number of tornados,” Robinson noted.
For its roller grills, Kum & Go, which operates about 400 stores in 11 states, looks for different items like the no-carb chicken and Nashville Hot roller bites to demonstrate the chain’s commitment to keeping every part of its foodservice on trend, according to Scott Keplinger, vice president of category management. An extensive toppings bar allows customers to get creative as well.
LTOs highlight the pizza offering at Kum & Go and have helped it to grow “very robustly,” Keplinger said. He pointed to a Chicken, Artichoke and Spinach Pizza as a creation that recently generated a lot of customer buzz and sales. As a specialty for the Christmas holidays, they liked the Pizza Navidad with the seasonal red and green colors from pepperoni and green chilies.
He said that on the regular pizza menu, a breakfast pie with sausage, bacon, ham and hash browns is always a big seller.
Offering premium branded products is integral to the success of the roller grill program at Cenex Zip Trip stores. Thirty-two of the 36 stores in Montana, Wyoming, North Dakota, South Dakota and Minnesota have roller grills. Hillshire Cheddarwurst has been the No. 1-selling roller grill product for years, with the Angus hot dog coming in at a close second, said Jon Fleck, merchandising manager for the stores. A refrigerated condiment bar allows customers to build their dogs as they like them.
Chicken and cheeseburger roller bites also “saw big increases over the past year,” Fleck said.
In the pizza realm, Zip Trip does a good business in the personal size pies from Core-Mark’s proprietary Basilio’s Italian Style Pizza, launched six months ago in six of the company’s 11 stores that have pizza, Fleck said.
“First we tried offering slices as a grab-and-go option, but sales didn’t take off until we switched to the personal size pies,” he explained.
Other Zip Trip stores carry Hot Stuff and Godfather’s Express pizzas. As part of the Basilio’s and Hot Stuff programs, the stores also offer take-and-bake options.
Pizza sales have been growing each month at Zip Trip, slowing the roller grill’s momentum. But that has not been a bad thing, Fleck said.
“Pizza has over a 50% profit margin and, while it would seem that hot dogs should have a higher margin, you have to consider the addition of the bun, waste and the labor needed to keep the grill full and clean,” he pointed out. “It ends up that pizza has the higher profit margin and our foodservice is up 10% in dollars overall.”
Merchandising complementary items around roller grills and pizza can easily and effectively build customers’ baskets, Salaria suggested. For example, Zip Trip does a good business in cheesy garlic bread with pizza purchasers.
“Not only does it sell, but it is inexpensive to make and is a high-margin item,” Fleck reported.
Cheesy bread is also a popular pizza go-with at Kum & Go, Keplinger said. Other products that partner well with roller grill items such as chips and beverages are available “within arm’s length of the grill,” he added.
Recently, cheesy garlic breadstick sales have taken off at Pump N Pantry, according to Robinson. To give customers even more options, the company has also introduced cheesy buffalo breadsticks.
Salaria recommended that another effective way to expand customers’ baskets is by offering two-fors and other multiple purchase deals around roller grill and pizza.
“Two-fors should be part of the everyday pricing strategy because it trains customers to purchase multiples of an item instead of just one,” she said. “It also communicates value, which is a big part of the appeal of roller grill and pizza.”
Pump N Pantry moves a lot of pizza with its “Two-Fer Tuesday” promotion, Robinson said.
Retailers are also bundling items to increase sales. Pump N Pantry, for example, promotes the combination of two hot dogs or sausages and a 20-ounce fountain soda for $4.99. At Zip Trip, customers save $1 when they purchase two roller grill items and they can get a 32-ounce fountain drink for 49 cents.