Turning a Foodservice Profit

With many c-stores moving into foodservice to compensate for lagging cigarette and gasoline sales, the roller grill is becoming more important than ever for driving sales.

According to industry retailers, among the emerging trends worth noting is the growing popularity of breakfast sausages for the morning daypart, while spicy and ethnic flavors continue to attract new and existing customers.

To appeal to consumers’ love of variety, many c-stores are committed to frequently changing out products to capitalize on new product introductions, while others are focused on a few staple items, so consumers can count on a consistent retail offering. For both strategies, retailers reported they are using extensive condiment bars to provide new taste options and keep the category exciting.

Standing Out in A Crowded Market
To keep up with the ever-changing tastes of a wide-variety of palates, Open Pantry Food Marts of Wisconsin changes its products as often as possible, but carries three major staple items in its roller grill area:  hot dogs, bratwurst and smoked polish sausage.

“We take our roller grill program pretty seriously,” said Jim Fiene, chief operating officer of the Pleasant Prairie, Wis.-based chain.

A year and a half ago, Open Pantry moved from its 24- to 48-count roller grill to one large capacity 72-count roller grill at each of its 26 stores in Wisconsin.

“We wanted to show the consumer we are completely committed to our food program, and that it wasn’t an afterthought,” Fiene said. “When you walk into the roller grill section of our café area, the consumer can see it’s a major commitment. Our roller grill area investments are about $25,000 for that area—just the roller grill, the condiments section and the cooler we put next to the roller grill to compliment it with cold, icy beverages.”

In addition to its three core items, “we try to find many different type products. Some stay permanent and some are in and out, but we try to offer as many flavors as possible,” Fiene added. “Our roller grill consumer shops at c-stores and buys products off the roller grill on a regular basis, and at times they want different things. If we don’t offer different things, we’ll be behind the game.” 

Chevron ExtraMile is going with a different tactic. It is currently focusing on offering three main options in its food warmer: Don Miguel Monster Taquitos, Foster Farms Corn Dogs and Ruiz Tornados; as well as an array of Johnsonville links on its roller grill.

“In the past there was a lot of flexibility, so much so, there wasn’t enough consistency,” said Don Tovar, U.S. foodservice category manager for Chevron, which operates about 9,000 sites in the U.S., including 2,000 Texaco sites. “We have now streamlined the offerings to include our best selling products.”

The company offers more variety in the heat-and-eat section of the store and uses enhanced lighting around its food offering with spotlights on roller grill items, so consumers can see the product clearly.

Meanwhile, to appeal to those consumers constantly in search of new taste experiences, Paul Servais, retail foodservice director for Kwik Trip, which operates 353 c-stores in Wisconsin, Minnesota and Iowa, offers a condiment bar with a number of options including tomatoes, onions, lettuce and sauerkraut, so customers can fix their roller grill items anyway they want and try new flavors each time.

Open Pantry also sees the value in letting customers vary their selection each day through condiments, and offers large condiments bars featuring 12 trendy options from fresh tomatoes and onions to different types of mustard and barbeque sauce. “We felt in our food program, we needed to keep variety alive in our roller grill,” Fiene said.

What to Serve
As more roller grill options flood the market, it’s difficult to determine what will sell. Many c-stores look to customers for feedback and direction on what to include.

Kwik Trip’s roller grill program includes two roller grills that feature hot dogs, jalapeño dogs, bratwurst, breakfast sausages and a complete line of taquitos.

“In the spring we added chicken RollerBites from Home Market Foods, and the response has been very good—it exceeded our expectations,” Servais said. Just last month, the company began adding Don Miguel Taquitos, and so far the addition seems to be good for business. Tornados and taquitos generate close to 50% of the roller grill business, he added, noting that Ball Park franks and Johnsonville brats also are good sellers.

In addition to its main roller grill offering, Kwik Trip features a breakfast daypart, with breakfast taquitos and sausage, and some stores have also had success with the mild-flavored RollerBites in the morning. To help the roller grill stand out to consumers, it is placed in the hot food aisle, which includes take-and-bake pizzas, hot sandwiches and soups, so consumers will know right were to find it. 

Breakfast Benefits
While breakfast may be the most important meal for customers, it’s proving to be pretty good for retailers as well. Open Pantry is attracting morning customers with its new John Morrell breakfast program.

“What we wanted to do is bring in complimentary items that would really take that roller grill from being just a lunchtime thing to an 18-hour program,” Fiene said. 

In the summer months, Open Pantry typically does a huge roller grill business thanks to the landscaping crews that stop in from 5 a.m. to 7 a.m. on their way to work, but in the winter, the roller grill does not begin heating up until close to lunchtime. The new breakfast program provides more options to help drive early morning sales throughout the year. In addition, Open Pantry also has done well with its taquito sales.

Spicy products, such as taquitos are in high demand. “Every year you see more of the spicy products and the ethnic foods selling well,” Servais said.

The Hispanic market that is growing across all c-stores could be a driving force behind the trend. “It seems a lot of new products are coming out focusing on the Hispanic market,” Servais said. “We believe the Hispanic market is the average consumer buying from the roller grill, so I think everybody is focused on it as much as we are.”

Grilled To Perfection
When purchasing a roller grill, experts recommend choosing a manufacturer who can service equipment in your area in case any repairs are needed. “We can’t have a roller grill down. Every store only has one roller grill and without it you’re 100% out of business, so it’s an important factor to focus on when buying equipment,” Fiene said. “We work with a national brand—Star Manufacturing—and we’ve had a lot of luck with it.”

The key to a clean-looking roller grill program is freshness, which requires equipment to be in top shape. “We went through a lot of equipment in the beginning because we didn’t service and take care of it properly,” Fiene said. Now Open Pantry employees are taught how to maintain the roller grill so it looks brand new.

Rolling Through a Tough Economy
At Open Pantry, roller grill business is up 22-25%, and Kwik Trip’s roller grill sales have remained strong despite the recession.

Open Pantry is drawing business from those seeking economic deals with a two for $2 hot dog option. “Our Johnsonville hotdog is $1.69 per unit, and we really wanted to keep that premium h
igh end image in all of our stores but we felt, because of the economy, it was the time to bring out an alternative.”

The discount hot dogs are smaller, but have been embraced by consumers. “We are looking to attract the consumer McDonalds and Taco Bell have built over the years who wants one product for a buck, and we’ve been able to give them that through our roller grill,” Fiene said. CSD

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