Revitalized Roller Grill Sales

Hot dogs and tornados continue to provide chains with inexpensive, labor-friendly meal solutions that allow store operators to expand their fresh food offering.

By Howard Riell, Associate Editor.

One of the most maligned pieces of equipment in all of foodservice—the roller grill—remains the backbone of many convenience store foodservice programs, offering an inexpensive, labor-friendly way for operators to expand their fresh-food offering at a time when other categories are declining.

“There is not a lot new in roller grills, which have offered convenience stores remarkable stability through the years,” said foodservice consultant Dan Bendall, principal of FoodStrategy Inc. in Rockville, Md. “If anything, I would say that what’s newer is the type of surface on the actual rollers. Back in the old days they were just the chromed-plated steel rollers. They were kind of hard to clean and you would have some sticking. Today’s rollers are smooth and much easier to clean.”

Making the change in materials even more important has been the growth in the number of products that can be prepared on the grills. “It used to be just hot dogs,” Bendall said. “Now you go to a 7-Eleven and they’ve got about 10 different products on their roller grill. Some of those things, like the breakfast items, would have slipped on a traditional steel roller grill. That’s why these newer units have a little bit of a grip to them. They grip these different types of products while still cooking evenly.”

The cost for units made with the newer material is usually only a couple of hundred dollars higher. “It’s not a real big upcharge on the units I’ve looked at,” Bendall said.

Variety Driving Sales
John Zikias, vice president of marketing at Louisville, Ky.-based Thorntons Inc., said that while meat products like traditional hot dogs still represent a big portion of his chain’s foodservice business, consumers are also responding to other items being prepared on the roller grill. “One of the things we’re trying to do is offer different assortments by store.”

For example, Tornados by Ruiz Foods, are showing strong growth at the 165-store chain. “Product variety is helping us with our margin a little bit because the overall net cost on tornados is a bit lower—you don’t have the bun and as many of the condiments,” Zikias said.

Foodservice providers like Thorntons have also had to contend with a considerable jump in raw cost of goods on hot dogs. “So having a broader foodservice offering is helping us balance out our margin a little bit.” In fact, Zikias added, margins on these newer roller grill items are currently running about 15 points higher than a hot dog, which he called “pretty significant.”

Bendall said there are two main considerations when sizing grills. One is the number of items management intends to offer on them. Since showing customers the full selection is important stores need to have grills big enough to accommodate larger menus.

“Second, even if your volume isn’t very high, but you peak at lunch, you want to have enough product on there so customers are getting something that is fully cooked,” Bendall said. “It takes a while to cook something on a roller grill, so you have to plan accordingly. Anticipating your volume and meeting the demand is an extremely crucial part of success.”

With those considerations in mind, Bendall said it is probably a good idea to get a sizable unit. “Again, you don’t want it so big that you can’t afford to keep it full all the time. It doesn’t look too great if you’ve got two hot dogs on a grill that holds 40,” Bendall said.

Through Consumers’ Eyes
Overcoming the longstanding stigma associated with the roller grill is also a challenge. “This is one area we have spent a lot of time working on. As we have rolled out new grills what we’ve done is installed grills with digital controls,” Zikias said. “Usually you put the product on the roller grill to get it up to temperature and then move it forward to sell it. The problem we had before is that people would turn up the heat in the back a little bit to bring it up to temperature quickly, and then they’d forget it and leave it there.”

The chain responded by using the timers on the units. The grills bring food items up to temperature, but then shuts down, bringing them back down to the desired temperature of about 150 degrees. “Then we bring it forward,” Zikias said.

These steps effectively extend the life of the grill, as well as prevent employees from burning the product.

“We’ve worked pretty hard in trying to make sure that the appearance of the product on a roller grill is good,” Zikias explained. “We’ve also found a way, through our POS system, to track waste by daypart. Hot dogs obviously can’t scan, but we have a mechanism where they can be entered pretty easily into the POS, and so we track waste electronically. That helps us with our par levels.”

Making certain that products continue to look good on the grill is a matter of working tirelessly with store employees, Zikias explained. “We want them to understand that this is really an important program. If we’re going to be better at food we’ve got to look like we’re better at food. It’s a matter of having the management team be sure to take a look at it when they’re on store visits.”

Thorntons has a team of four regional foodservice managers, each of whom make regular visits to a group of 40 stores to work with general managers to make sure they are executing at the high level expected of them when it comes to foodservice consistency, quality, service and cleanliness.

To support the roller grill, Thorntons has an array of fresh condiments, such as tomatoes, jalapeños, onions and peppers.

“We have always tried to make sure the consumers can dress up their hot dogs any way they want,” Zikias said. “Our team members get the sense that it’s an important part of our overall foodservice program and have really stepped up to ensure the toppings bar looks inviting.”

The chances of a roller grill turning a c-store into a destination location are slim, Zikias conceded. “It just doesn’t offer the variety of products to be a standalone destination. Even if you expand the size of your grills a little bit it’s hard to get too much product diversity on a singe grill,” he said. “Plus, typically the problem with roller grill products is that they are a little higher in fat—it’s not something customers are eating every day. You can go to McDonald’s a couple of times a month, but you can’t eat there every day.”

Protecting the Investment
Just as finding the right product mix is crucial, getting the longest life possible out of a roller grill is important.

“As with every piece of equipment in the store, retailers want to protect their investment in roller grills. Clean it every day. The rollers need to be wiped down and scrubbed off,” Bendall said. “There is also a grease tray underneath that needs to be removed and cleaned at least once a day. It’s a fairly easy process, but when it’s not done regularly, the equipment will begin to fail.”

An option that makes sense is having a sneeze guard on the unit. “If you’re going to have self service hot dogs, health departments virtually everywhere are going to make you have a sneeze guard, and it’s a practical investment because it helps customers feel safer about the food they are eating,” Bendall said. “I even see a lot of sneeze guards on units that are stored behind the front counter. Too much safety is never a bad thing when it comes to serving fresh food.”

Another accessory that can make life easier is a bun warmer. Many units come with a compartment under the actual roller grill that can hold buns and keep them warm.

In terms of routine maintenance, store managers should check the cook temperatures daily. In most cases, health inspectors won’t ask how long food has been sitting atop a roller grill, but rather at what temperature the product is held. “It’s got to be out of the danger zone, which means 140 degrees or over,” Bendall noted.

In fact, keeping the temperature adjusted correctly is an excellent way to help overcome the automatic resistance many customers have to anything sitting on a roller grill. “The tendency when you throw some new product on there is to turn the control way up in order to get the temperature up quickly. But then your product generally shrivels up, and after a little while doesn’t look as good,” Bendall said. “If you time yourself right and keep the heat a constant low, acceptable temperature, hot dogs will tend to look nice and juicy and more appetizing for a longer period of time.”

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