Growing Roller Grill Sales

From hot dogs and sausages to ethnic foods like taquitos and egg rolls, roller grills continue to prosper at convenience stores.

By Howard Riell, Associate Editor

Roller grills—if handled correctly—offer a great opportunity to grow sales. But as simple and relatively labor-free as they are, they still require management oversight, employee training and some marketing savvy. It’s not that complicated, but it is that essential.
“Let me give you an analogy,” said H. G. Parsa, chairman of the Department of Foodservice and Lodging Management at the Rosen College of Hospitality Management at the University of Central Florida in Orlando, Fla. “Every dining room table has salt and pepper. They’re not exciting, but everybody has them. Roller grills are the workhorses of convenience stores, and they make money.”
As far as return on investment, roller grills are practically unparalleled. “The equipment has one of the highest payoffs. It’s attractive, and the best part is it doesn’t take space,” Parsa said. “Plus roller grills are easy to clean and require no labor. The products sell themselves. It’s a small size but can hold a lot of hot dogs, bratwurst, taquitos, sausages, whatever. It looks pretty and attractive, and it smells good. That’s the key.”
While roller grills may have been stigmatized in the past, the high quality items now available are attracting a wide audience. “It’s blue collar food with crossover appeal,” Parsa said. “Construction workers, children, students, everyone it seems, is a potential roller grill customer. When you factor in the economy and product promotions, the roller grill offers tremendous value. It’s not a thriller, but it sells.”
C-stores can also all but skip trumpeting the grill. “People know it’s where it is,” Parsa pointed out, “and they’ll go get it. The only thing is to make sure the food is fresh, and that the grill is maintained properly. You can get one big one, but two small ones work much better.”

Building Sales

How to make the most of a store’s roller grill station?

“A number of key areas come to mind,” said Darren Tristano, executive vice president of Technomic Inc. in Chicago. “The first is enhanced flavor. Operators can differentiate the flavor of the product served on the roller grill. Add flavor inside the product as well as spicy sauces and dips to create craveability and give consumers a greater demand driver.”

The second part, Tristano explained, has to do with innovation. “By developing different ethnic products like Mexican taquitos, Italian and polish sausage and bagel dogs, operators can broaden the appeal,” he said. “Differentiation by quality is also important. Higher levels of quality products provide a better-for-you appeal that is conveyed through the branding.”

Two additional key factors are portability—emphasizing the portability of the product that requires only one hand to eat and can be eaten on the run—and price point, Tristano said. He recommended bundling meals with chips, cookies and a drink to promote greater demand among value-seekers.

Attention to Detail

Even with quality products and a value price, freshness reigns supreme. “I took over a store where they really weren’t doing a whole lot with the roller grill at all,” recounted Steve Vieira, a district manager for a group of franchised Circle K locations in Pittsburgh owned by Duxbury, Mass.-based Verc Enterprises. Verc also directly operates 23 convenience stores in Massachusetts and New Hampshire. “They would throw hot dogs down in the morning and the same ones would be on there 10 hours later.”

Vieira, whose background includes food industry experience, knows what he is talking about. Under his stewardship, the Circle K roller grill sales have skyrocketed by close to 400% in the last seven months.

Hot dogs, Vieira noted, are only good on the grill for a lifespan of four hours. “If they don’t sell within that four-hour span they’ve got to go. You’ve got to put fresh ones on and you need to get the area clean. You’ve got to have the condiments available. It’s all about eye appeal and keeping everything fresh.”

At Vieira’s flagship store, he has the grill running from 10 a.m. to 10 p.m. “As I saw sales starting to increase I kept expanding that. I now run the grill 24/7 with the exception of when they shut it down for about two hours at night to do all the cleaning,” he said.

The store was rebuilt about seven years ago under previous ownership. “I don’t know if they had grills prior to the rebuild, but we now have two three-foot grills going around the clock,” Vieira said.

The unit offers a wide variety of products prepared on its grills, including hot dogs; cheeseburger dogs; pepperjack hot dogs; chicken; beef and pepperoni-and-cheese tornados; Buffalo-chicken roller bites and pork egg rolls. The store recently introduced a combo deal—a hot dog, fountain soda and bag of chips—for $3. “I’m expecting that to really take off for the summer,” said Vieira.

Too few c-store operators understand just how integral roller grills can be to their success. Fortunately for Vieira, he isn’t one of them. “I really believed that there was a lot of opportunity here,” he said. “There was a lot of training that had to be done with the staff. We had to get everybody on board. They had to know that it was important to our bottom line, and that we wanted to grow the category.”

Each of the employees has received training on the proper procedures for setting up, cleaning and maintaining the grills and condiment section.

The chances for success were so great, Vieira recalled, and owner Leo Vercollone’s belief so strong that it became a challenge he could not refuse. “I mean, there was just so much opportunity to grow this category, and we ran with it. It was important to Leo and it was important to us as a company,” he said. “It’s something that we wanted to look at and make sure we were giving due justice. Even I’m shocked at the numbers.”

One of Vieira’s primary tasks was to make certain his people were thoroughly trained on all aspects of the grills’ operation and maintenance.

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,” Vieira said.

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,” Vieira 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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