C-store operators looking to grow their foodservice programs just may be overlooking, or at least underestimating, one of the best tools at their disposal: the humble roller grill.
As in-store menus have expanded to include fresh foods and entrees, the time-honored roller grill has quietly continued to please customers and bolster bottom lines thanks to a host of new products and flavors designed for ease and convenience.
Traditional favorites like hotdogs, chicken dogs, corndogs, kielbasa and sausages are increasingly being flanked on roller grills by items like tornados, taquitos and a wide variety of egg rolls.
“Roller grills are an inexpensive and low-labor way to sell a simple product with a healthy markup,” said veteran foodservice consultant T.W. MacDermott, principal of the Clarion Group in Kingston, N.H. “The grill is a better way to present product than a container of steamed dogs. Grilled, they look better and taste better than steamed or boiled.”
A roller grill can hold from two to four rows of product, said MacDermott, including hot dogs or any kind of sausage that isn’t much bigger in diameter than a hot dog, like Italian sausage and kielbasa. He recommended placing the grill on a counter where customers can see it. “It won’t sell much if it’s tucked in a corner.”
Beyond that, MacDermott advised operators to be sure buns and condiments like squeezable containers of ketchup, mustard or cheese sauce), and paper sleeves and napkins are nearby. “Customers won’t bother to buy if they have to hunt around for the accompaniments,” he said.
Price, Quality and Value
Chad Prast, director of foodservice for VPS Convenience Store Group in Wilmington, N.C., which operates the Village Pantry and Scotchman chains, said suppliers like Don Miguel, Ruiz Foods, Kraft, Sara Lee, Johnsonville Sausages, Foster Farms and others are all marketing lines of convenient products specifically designed for the roller grill, including battered taquitos in a variety of flavors.
“Corndogs seem to be one item that is doing pretty well,” Prast added. “We’ve seen some new flavors, like chili and cheese and jalapeno and cheese.” The chicken dogs in particular, he said, are good items. They’re priced the same as regular hot dogs: $1.29 each or two for $2 at the company’s 210 Scotchman and 176 Village Pantry stores.
Building sales with a roller grill can be challenging in a mid- to low-volume store, Prast said, “but easier in good volume stores where you have a lot of traffic and you don’t have a lot of other food offerings. In the Midwest, we have a lot of other food offerings, like fresh sandwiches, chicken, pizza and bread sticks, so it doesn’t do as well. Down South, where it’s our main offering, it does very well.”
Most of the company’s Midwest stores feature fresh-baked doughnuts and sandwiches, with 40-50 stores selling fried chicken, bread sticks and Hunt Bros. Pizza. Stores in the southern region offer a CW’s Fried Chicken program, along with conventional pre-made sandwiches and the roller grill items, which alone account for about 15% of foodservice sales.
Roland Harris, operations manager for GoCo Ltd. in Butler, Ala., which operates a network of 16 c-stores in western Alabama and along the Mississippi Gulf Coast, said he has been impressed with the roller grill programs being run by chains like Sheetz and Wawa. “They put four or five roller grills up there and they keep a lot of products in them.”
Harris pointed out, however, that the programs work largely because the stores are in high-traffic areas. “Our stores are all in the country.” GoCo also operates 14 fast-food locations, including nine Hot Stuff Pizza locations, two Church’s Chickens and three proprietary Country Delis.
Even operators who don’t presently run roller grill programs acknowledge their value and remain open to their potential. Kim Loniecki, director of branded foodservice for Wesco Inc., said that while her company does not have a roller grill program at present, preferring to focus on its pizza and cold-case platform, introducing one remains a possibility in the months ahead.
“What can be attractive about a roller grill program… is that they don’t require a lot of linear space,” Loniecki pointed out. “It’s also not a huge outlay of capital for equipment. I’m not quite sure how much they cost, but I know it’s not much. It seems to me that it would be a relatively easy program to just drop and go.” The 57-year-old, Muskegon, Mich.-based and family-owned chain operates 51 locations in western and mid-Michigan.
Catherine Porter, the senior customer marketing manager of c-stores for Sara Lee Foodservice, recommended operators be assiduous when re-stocking the roller grill. A well-stocked display “keeps consumers from wondering how long those few remaining products have been on the grill,” she noted.
In addition, integrated branding throughout the display and merchandising helps elevate the perceived quality of the products and reassures consumers with a name they know and trust.
Porter also pointed out the importance of showcasing different flavors and options. “Motivate that two-for-one purchase or the next-day return visit by having a range of flavor options. Bundling promotions is winning in c-stores today. Promote the roller grill with the soda fountain and a chip offering. Show consumers the value of c-store lunch solutions.”
Prast advised colleagues to experiment with limited-time, or “in-and-out” varieties on the roller grill to add variety and find potential menu additions. “You’re going to have your staple hot dogs and sausage, but you’ve got to find out what constitutes a little niche in your area by trying different items.”
There will, indeed, be regional preferences, and of course there is always room for creativity. “There are a lot of different products out there,” Prast said. “In the morning you can go with items like sausage, egg and cheese tornados or a pancake wrap, which is almost like a corndog, but with a pancake wrapped around a sausage. You may not have it every day, but if you do an in-and-out, it will work really well.”
MacDermott urges clients to put the sausages on the grill an hour before they expect customers to start buying, at 9 a.m. for example, if the roller grill business has a track record of picking up at 10 a.m. “Just as important,” he added, “is to take off and discard unsold sausages before they start to shrivel from sitting on the grill for too long.”
According to Prast, a couple of his food suppliers helped out with employee training on using the grills—nothing extensive, he noted, but necessary nonetheless. “It was simply a matter of showing them how to put food on the roller grill, how to keep them on for the right amount of time, how to keep them clean and how to properly store them,” he said.
Regular maintenance is likewise basic, but essential. “It’s mainly just wiping the grill down a couple of times a day,” Prast said. “At end of day, take off the sneeze guard, wipe it down and they’re done. There’s not a lot of work there, but you’ve got to do it.”
A common mistake operators make is purchasing a roller grill that is too large. “If volume is low, a few lonely hotdogs on a 36-inch grill will look lonely and unappealing,” MacDermott said. “It’s better to select a grill that holds not much more than you expect to sell and refill the grill throughout the day. Hot dogs will sell from mid-morning to late night if they look appetizing.” CSD