hot doggin

Hot dogs have long been a staple on convenience store roller grills, but new items help spice up sales.

For as long as Jeff Beal can remember, foodservice has always set apart Johnny Quik Food Stores, Inc. (Fresno, CA). Eight years ago the 20-store chain tried its first Subway, which has yielded three more franchises since, along with four Port-O-Subs and nine Bobby Salazar’s Mexican food franchises. But even before that it had always offered hamburgers, hot dogs and corn dogs.

Recently, while checking out a competitor, Johnny Quik caught wind of a spicy new roller grill item it was hoping to get into its stores: the Tornado from Ruiz Foods. It’s a tortilla wrap filled with shredded beef, chicken and black beans or apples and cinnamon, and deep fried. But at the time getting Tornados into its stores wasn’t as easy as Beal had thought.

“When the Tornados first hit, we pounded the phones to try to get them, only to find out we couldn’t— 7-Eleven had an exclusive agreement for them,” says Jeff Beal, marketing manager for Johnny Quik. “You have to keep an eye on your competitors to see what they’re up to, and 7-Eleven is the largest chain out here. About two or three years ago the Tornados finally became available and we got them in our stores immediately.”

And why have Tornados, Taquitos and other such roller grill foods grown so popular? Convenience, of course, combined with the growing popularity of “Americanized” Mexican foods. Johnny Quik has also labored to keep a variety of flavors available for its patrons.

“We struggle to find foods that are functional,” says Beal. “We have televisions and seating areas where customers can enjoy their meals, but the bulk of our customers—males 18 to 35 years old—are busy and don’t have time to sit. They want to get their food and eat it before they get to wherever they’re going. We’re always looking for products that are easy to eat, and the Tornados fit the bill. Customers just pick [the Tornados] up and they’re ready to dine.

“They move very well,” he continues. “We find ourselves selling more and more every day. We may sell four boxes [of 24 Tornados] a week in each of our stores. The tough decision comes when you see one flavor or variety out-perform another. Part of you wants to devote more space to the one that’s selling more, but you can’t limit your customers’ choices. They come to us because of the variety we offer and you never know when they’re going to want to try something new.”

Even though the new roller grill items are getting a lot of attention, patrons haven’t forgotten about the roller grill’s beginnings. Beal’s stores still sell 75 to 100 hot dogs a day split between classic dogs, jumbo dogs and Bahama Mamas, which are large, spiced Italian sausages. But Johnny Quik doesn’t sit around and wait for new food ideas to come to them; Beal and his colleagues are always in search of the next big taste sensation. And if they can’t find what they need, they put their suppliers to work.

“[Our vendors] have a lot more contacts in this business than we do,” he says. “We’re paying our vendors a great deal of money, so when we’re looking for something new we get them on the search.”

Keeping up
United Dairy Farmers (Cincinnati, OH) has also found success with new roller grill item introductions, like Tornados. Dairy has always been the cornerstone of the company’s business, but its roller grills have driven much of the chain’s in-store sales in the last year—and the company will continue to make changes to keep the momentum going.

“In the last 10 years or so the roller grill has become a stronger part of the fast-food business,” says Bill Miller, category manager for the 190-store chain. “Over the last four years we’ve added hot dogs to our offer [on the roller grill], along with three varieties of sausages. But in the last year we started a three-month test of Tornados in 25 of our stores. The customer reaction has been just great.”

United Dairy Farmers tested a sausage, egg and cheese Tornado as well as a sausage, egg and bacon variety. At the conclusion of the test it did away with the bacon variety, but has opted to add a Southwest chicken flavor in its place.

“[The Tornados] are selling very well and they continue to grow,” says Miller. “They have affected our hot dog sales and sausage sales a bit, but the overall units have increased. We decided to roll it out to all our stores.”

While the chain is seeing Tornado sales cannibalize some of its hot dog and sausage sales, it attributes this to additional facings. Miller feels the marginal decreases United Dairy Farmers has been experiencing in hot dog sales have a great deal to do with the ability to cook fresh product on a limited amount of space. So the chain is looking into adding a second roller grill to some of its busier locations to handle the volume—one exclusively for Tornados, and the other for hot dogs and sausages.

“Some of our sausages take 30 minutes to cook,” says Miller. “On a limited amount of space, it takes no time to sell out and then leave customers waiting for more. By adding the new, smaller roller grills to about 50 of our stores, we’ll be able to keep up with the demand. And by increasing the size of the roller grill at our newer stores, we’ll be able to offer more items. We recognize the roller grill has been a leading factor in our fast-food growth over the last five years or more.”

Life beyond the roller grill
The roller grill hadn’t been creating the same kind of stimulation for customers of Holiday Stationstores (Bloomington, MN). The 400-store chain featured roller grills in most of its locations for the past six years, along with an expanding proprietary sandwich, pizza and hot beverage program under the Holiday Pantry flag. But something was missing.

“Last spring we looked at roller grill sales and noticed they had not been growing for quite some time,” says Larry Hill, director of foodservice for Holiday. “We wanted a change and looked at several brand-name hot dog companies, but did not believe any of them would give us the growth we were looking for.”

The company, which had offered three varieties of hot dogs—all beef, cheddarwurst and a polish sausage—finally sampled Johnsonville bratwursts from a new steamer merchandiser. The quality of the product and the new merchandiser piqued Holiday’s curiosity, so it jumped into a test of the product in late April 2004.

“The test was met with immediate positive feedback and strong sales,” says Hill. “The quality of the product was what led us to believe we would have significant sales growth and repeat customers. We ended the test quickly and decided to expand it to all our stores so we would have the product available for the busier summer months. Working with Johnsonville, we were able to roll [the product] out to our stores by Memorial Day.”

The Johnsonville steamer, which costs approximately $750, is available in more than 250 of Holiday’s stores to date, with hopes of expanding to more locations this year. The cost of the Johnsonville product is higher than a typical hot dog, so Holiday increased its retail by 10′ to $1.59 to offset the additional cost. The chain has seen sales of sausages increase by more than 65%, and expects a return on its investment in less than a year.

Even though the chain has removed most of its roller grills, roller grill items haven’t disappeared from its stores—just evolved. Holiday has managed to bulk up its menu of traditional roller grill items through the Johnsonville line, as well as adding XXL Taquitos from Orion Food Systems, handheld Mexican items similar to chimichangas. Holiday heats them in ovens and merchandises them from Hatco warmers along with Holiday Pantry cheeseburgers, chuckwagons and zesty chicken sandwiches during the lunch hour. It’s another higher priced product—reta
iling for $1.79— but customers seem very responsive to the spicy addition.

“Taquitos have a great appeal and with the spicier flavor profile have been very well received by the Hispanic customers,” says Hill. “In many cases we see them sold as an add-on along with another sandwich, but they also sell well on their own. Several flavors are available, but we’ve limited our customers to two because of the number of items we already carry hot and ready to go.”

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