How to Keep Your Roller Grill Sales Rolling

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How to Keep Your Roller Grill Sales Rolling

By Bob Phillips - 03/18/2016

Convenience stores are always looking for points of differentiation in today’s ever-changing retail landscape, and a key differentiator being used by many c-stores as part of their foodservice operations is the roller grill. Long thought of as the exclusive domain of hot dogs, today’s roller grill can be much, much more for the enterprising c-store operator.

The first step is to identify the average roller grill customer. Members of the Convenience Store News How To Crew of foodservice experts are unanimous in identifying the primary consumer of roller grill products as men.

“Based on in-store observations, roller grills are primarily utilized by male customers,” said How To Crew expert Larry Miller, president and founder of Sanford, Fla.-based Miller Management & Consulting Services. Drilling down further, most of these male customers are blue-collar workers. “Construction workers, truck drivers, students, landscaping crews and others,” he continued.

Also within this demographic, fellow How To Crew expert Tim Powell, vice president of consulting for the Chicago-based retail consulting firm Q1 Productions’ Food and Beverage Practice, identifies male millennials aged 18–34 as the heaviest users.

“In the past, the roller grill was often viewed as offering carnival or gas station food,” Powell noted. “But this current generation wasn’t even alive when c-stores began their slow, upward move into QSR-style ambiance and food.”

At Pennsylvania convenience store chain Rutter’s Farm Stores, the retailer has found its roller grill customers to be “on-the-go consumers — more than likely, long-time c-store customers,” relayed How To Crew retailer Ryan Krebs, foodservice director at Rutter’s. “They are, for the most part, cost-sensitive males who are habitual in their choices.”

Still, the roller grill may be gaining favor among other shoppers, too.

“The core customer is still mainly the blue-collar worker, but as food becomes more and more accepted in c-stores, we are drawing in more women and younger shoppers,” added Chad Prast, another retailer member of our How To Crew who serves as Murphy USA Inc.’s senior category manager of fresh foods and dispensed beverages.

ALL HAIL THE DOG

While the primary roller grill consumer may be male, this demo includes many subsets in terms of ethnicity, race and other cultural variances. Because of this, the roller grill has evolved over the years to include a variety of ethnic offerings.

“The more the variety and size, the better,” explained How To Crew panelist Dean Dirks, founder of consultancy Dirks & Associates and a consulting partner at Lake Forest, Ill.-based b2b Solutions LLC. “Every roller grill should offer at least four different flavors.”

Depending on the ethnic makeup of a store’s surrounding area, several different flavor profiles can be offered on the same roller grill — Hispanic, Asian, Tex-Mex, etc.

“Thai flavors, taco dogs, taquitos, Tornados and tamales are finding their way to the roller grill,” noted Murphy USA’s Prast. This is in obvious response to the always-evolving cultural landscape in today’s retail environment. “In many markets, Hispanic customers come in more often and are very loyal. Having the varieties of products and condiments they prefer is key. We added a tamale on the roller grill last year in certain markets and it has done very well.”

Many ethnic sausages (bratwurst, Italian sausage and Polish sausage) have become mainstream — certainly in neighborhoods in which these products are staples to the local clientele. “There is still a vast universe of sausages that remain untapped in our world, including Chorizo (Mexican), Loukaniko (Greek), Boudin (Cajun) and Andouille (Creole),” according to How To Crew expert Mathew Mandeltort, director of foodservice at convenience distributor Eby-Brown Co.

And yet, even with the evolving portfolio of products found on c-store roller grills these days, there can be no debate as to who the “top dog” is: the hot dog. The latest Convenience Store News Foodservice Study, published last year, showed hot dog sales totaled nearly $3.6 billion in the convenience channel in 2014, a 7.1-percent increase year over year.

“Plain hot dogs will always exist because they are a piece of Americana in c-stores,” said Q1 Productions’ Powell. “As c-stores expand menus, I think more options will lead to a higher basket ring as there are more choices for patrons. But I don’t think items cannibalize the hot dog.”

Not all our How To Crew panelists, however, are in agreement about the cannibalization issue. Dirks feels that in the growing world of convenience foodservice, other products and categories do in fact encroach on roller grill sales. “The development of other foodservice has really cannibalized roller grills rather than grow sales,” he stated.

Roller grills are no longer the one foodservice staple that can found in c-stores across the nation. “Sandwiches are now a staple in most c-stores, be it packaged or fresh made,” said Prast.

In order to be very strong at the roller grill and challenge the best performers, a store has to have a lot of variety, which usually requires a lot of space. “You can be successful with one grill, but overall, multiple grills let the customer know you are really in the business,” added Prast.

Make no mistake, though: Hot dogs remain a constant in the world of convenience foodservice.

“Particularly a quality, all-beef offering that the consumer considers a quality product with an affordable price point,” noted Rutter’s Krebs.

And Miller cited that the demographics and product movement analysis show hot dogs still outsell other handheld, manufactured tubular foods, such as corn dogs, egg rolls, tamales, burritos and Tornados (a trademarked item of Ruiz Foods).

According to CSNews research, hot dogs are the No. 2 foodservice item in convenience stores, accounting for 17 percent of overall foodservice sales, second only to sandwiches (25.7 percent). Ethnic items on the roller grill fall into the “all other prepared food” category, which accounts for 9.8 percent of sales.

Despite hot dogs’ continuing roller grill regime, that certainly doesn’t mean other roller grill products are of lesser importance — particularly in c-stores serving ethnic clientele. “Encased meats can be found in virtually every culture,” noted Eby-Brown’s Mandeltort.

Indeed, the options are virtually endless for what may be offered on the grill, and that has stretched its importance into what would be considered non-traditional roller grill dayparts.

“Today, you find all sorts of items on the grill, including breakfast-type items with eggs, sausage and bacon, as well as other savory flavors like pepperoni pizza, and there’s new items that fit the sweet or dessert categories,” according to Miller.

BEYOND THE DOG

Hot dogs will likely rule the roller grill roost for the foreseeable future, but on a going-forward basis, there is little doubt that products, flavors, spices, condiments, etc., will continue to evolve in the roller grill universe.

“That’s true,” said Krebs. “The roller grill consumer is looking beyond the dog. Chicken and turkey products are being sought out in addition to beef.”

Krebs pointed to the vast array of flavors a c-store might consider adding to their grill offering, if they haven’t done so already. “Outside-the-box flavors — including Thai chili, chorizo, andouille, buffalo chicken — are trending upward,” he observed. “Though not declining, some standard offerings such as smoked or breakfast sausage are leveling off as the more aggressive flavors steal some of their sales.”

Our How To Crew panelists believe there are many ways to create variety in your roller grill operation without negatively impacting your overall foodservice sales.

Smaller, bite-size items are higher margin items and give consumers the sense of greater value,” said Powell. “Taquitos by firms such as Don Miguel and innovative Rollerbites by Home Market Foods have helped c-stores maximize the potential of the grill.”

While no single SKU is expected to overthrow the classic hot dog, the category is definitely evolving.

“As manufacturers become more creative (meatball rollers, cheeseburger rollers, chicken and turkey, stuffed and wrapped), sales are going to other SKUs as well,” Krebs explained. “I believe this is capturing a new roller grill crowd beyond the faithful hot dog consumer. They still want value and speed, but desire more creative options.”

Indeed, giving your customers a variety of selections may well be the differentiator in setting your roller grill operation apart from the crowd.

“Choice is a primary factor,” agreed Powell. “Over the past several years, roller grill items have evolved from plain hot dogs to jalapeño and chipotle-flavored dogs, to various sizes. The products have also expanded to include premium sausages, Mexican-style taquitos and bite-sized items.”

At the same time, the roller grill has found a way into new dayparts, such as in breakfast sausages and cheeseburger dogs. “The primary consumer group likes this choice and has responded well to it,” said Powell. “Stewart’s Shops, for example, returned the [roller] grill to its stores after it saw demand and product innovation spike.”

How To Crew retailer Ed Burcher, the new chief operating officer of Coen Markets, a regional convenience store chain with stores in southwestern Pennsylvania, eastern Ohio and northern West Virginia, goes so far as to call today’s roller grill options “bold and adventurous.”

“This includes ethnic offerings,” said Burcher. “This trend is pushing both the flavor of the products, as well as the range of toppings forward.”

He points out that by offering a variety of flavors, hot dog sales will not be encroached upon by other products; rather, more flavors should enhance sales.

“While a great, all-beef hot dog can satisfy most age groups, the use of flavors like sriracha are now becoming as commonplace as ketchup used to be,” said Burcher.

THE 24/7 GRILL

The natural result of this growing portfolio of products and condiments is the expansion of roller grill item availability throughout a c-store’s 24/7 operating hours.

“One of the great things about the roller grill is its adaptability to different dayparts,” said Mandeltort. “Offerings can be customized to meet the dining needs of consumers regardless of time of day. Snacking remains a great opportunity for the roller grill. Items are portable, portion-size appropriate for snacking and can be bundled with other offerings to make a great value proposition.”

With virtual nonstop usage in many locations, it’s natural that c-store operators expect the hardware required to operate the grill to run without a lot of maintenance.

“The shelf life of a grill is very important,” explained Prast. “A lot of manufacturers have great grills, but some don’t hold up over the long run.”

Retailers should look for equipment that heats evenly and can be controlled to prevent the burning or degradation of products, our How To Crew panelists advise.

It is very important that retailers avoid the temptation to cut corners. It may be an old adage, but “being penny wise and pound foolish” could ultimately lead to a roller grill program’s failure.

“That has always been a problem,” acknowledged Miller. “Some retailers seem to believe that if the manufacturer recommends holding hot dogs for two hours on the grill, then surely they would be good for three hours. And what the heck, stretch it to four hours. Now the whole program is in jeopardy because the products are dried out and quality is poor.”

There should be no shortcuts at all when cooking and merchandising roller grill products or any food products for several reasons — the most important being food quality and liability (i.e. avoiding food-borne illnesses).

“If a retailer allows greed or laziness to interfere with best practices and minimum standards, it can cost him everything,” continued Miller.

As profitable as hot dogs may be to the typical c-store operator ($23,901 in per-store sales in 2014, according to CSNews research), there are many factors a c-store operator must stay in front of when operating a roller grill. These include issues associated with selling food to the public, including health code standards that vary from locale to locale, as well as maintaining equipment (grills and warmers) that will consistently perform to maximum efficiency.

“Retailers need to realize that this is a piece of cooking equipment that is actively producing food,” said Mandeltort. “It’s not like a Ronco Rotisserie that you can ‘set it and forget it.’”

To further illustrate his point, Mandeltort offers the analogy of grilling hot dogs on the Fourth of July and then leaving them on the grill for eight hours.

“If you’re not willing to eat the food you produce, what makes you think your guests would want to?” he asked rhetorically.