By Marilyn Odesser-Torpey, Associate Editor.
A year and a half ago, Scott Zaremba removed all the roller grills from his Zarco 66 stores. “We weren’t doing a very good job of merchandising them, so they became almost an expense item for us,” the Kansas retailer explained. Now he is in the process of putting them back in, but with a new twist.
“People love roller grill hot dogs, so we have to have them,” he noted. But unlike most c-stores, the grill at the Zarco 66 stores will no longer be a do-it-yourself affair.
Zaremba, whose chain operates 10 stores, is making the roller grill part of his made-to-order foodservice concept. “We’re not selling two for $1 roller dogs; we’re doing quarter-pounders with buns that we bake on site.”
Zaremba said he feels this use of the roller grill helps to differentiate his Zarco 66 stores from the competition. “We have the best presentation—customers get to see the food they’re ordering, then we prepare it for them. It’s not just an appliance now; it’s a dynamic display.”
The grill has also allowed Zaremba to expand his entire foodservice menu with hash browns. “Our stores serve breakfast all day, so we like the roller grill potatoes because they do not dry out, and they stay crispier than hash browns made any which way,” he said. He added that they also allow him to easily create value combo meals for any daypart.
For the little space it takes up on a counter and the ease of operation, the roller grill can say a lot about how retailers handle hot foodservice. Customers expect to see the grills in c-stores and they are comfortable interacting with them, said Brad Duesler, president and CEO of Middleton, Wis.-based Food Concepts Inc., foodservice consultants. But in most cases, they do not expect to be surprised.
“Now the breadth of products, including Mexican and Asian items, available for the roller grill is so great that I see a significant number of retailers installing multiple units in their stores,” Duesler noted.
In addition to the traditional hot dogs, many retailers are featuring such ethnic specialties as chorizo and jalapeño and cheese dogs. These are particularly popular in U.S. Sunbelt states where there are larger concentrations of Hispanic populations, but they are also rapidly becoming mainstream flavors throughout the country.
Ethnic and other unusual, upscale items add value to the grill menu. “You’ll always have the customer who wants the basic hot dog, but higher ticket items can appeal to a different demographic group who are willing to spend more for something special,” Duesler said. He also reminds his c-store clients to encourage customers to make their grill selection into a full meal by bundling selected items with chips, beverages and desserts.
Duesler suggested that retailers have at least two roller grill units, one for hot dogs and other sausage products, another for breaded items, such as egg rolls and taquitos. “Keeping breaded and non-breaded products separate eliminates the possibility of grease and flavor migration that is likely to occur if all of the products are prepared on one grill,” he said.
When expanding beyond hot dogs, retailers should also remember that various products require different cooking times. Many of today’s roller grills have at least two independent heat setting zones, but to be really sure that all food is thoroughly cooked, Duesler recommended preparing items in the precook chamber first.
“The more real estate that is dedicated to roller grills, the more eye and aroma appeal, and the more it looks like you’re seriously into the foodservice game, that you’re invested in the business,” he said. Duesler also noted that manufacturers are designing grills that are less institutional looking, so they can be a more attractive part of the store décor.
In a “Prepared and Ready-to-Eat Foods at Retail” report published last July by market research firm Packaged Facts research, 46% of consumers who have purchased prepared foods in a c-store in the last three months said they bought a hot dog or roller grill product. Pizza came in one percentage point higher, sandwiches one lower.
“Obviously, there are still plenty of consumers who want roller grill products. Despite a health and quality onus, the interest and usage is definitely there, and, with so many interesting products available now, retailers can find products that skew younger, as well as ethnic,” said David Morris, managing consultant of Kaleidoscope Research Consulting, and author of Packaged Facts’ syndicated foodservice studies.
Morris pointed to 7-Eleven as a company that knows how to “harness the roller grill with trends,” such as Buffalo chicken rollers, taquitos and bacon and cheese potato stix. 7-Eleven has also expanded its roller grill menu to encompass breakfast with maple pancake sausages. “Adding even one or two more items to incent interest and add more variety can increase sales,” Morris said.
In a shaky economy, budget-friendly options are always welcome, and, if handled correctly, the roller grill can offer good food at modest prices. “If the products are fresh and presented well, the roller grill could be great introduction to the rest of your foodservice menu,” Duesler said.
Have it Your Way
Customization is important to many consumers, Morris has found, so retailers who have self-serve roller grills need to pay close attention to the condiments they offer. “Condiments don’t make food fresher, but the ability to customize gives the perception of freshness,” he said. Just as the grill itself should be kept well-stocked with fresh product, a clean, filled and appetizing-looking condiment display can do a lot to elevate the image of the roller grill.”
Ted Roccagli, retail marketing manager/business coach for Mansfield Oil, which serves more than 300 convenience stores throughout the country, pointed to Tulsa, Okla.-based QuikTrip’s roller grill program as a model for the industry. “Their roller grills have the impact that comes with well-thought-out product assortment and careful monitoring to make sure the grills are always fully and freshly stocked,” Roccagli said. “Mansfield respects that model and we pattern the roller grill programs we bring to our stores after it.”
Many consumers also like to see brands they trust. That is one reason why Mansfield works with grocery wholesalers Core-Mark International and Thomas & Howard, Roccagli explained. “Customers respond to brands such as Ball Park hot dogs and Hillshire Farm sausages. When customers see a quality name, they associate that with a quality experience.”
Another reason for working with wholesalers is that they can significantly reduce the cost of entry into the roller grill category for c-store retailers. “A roller grill can cost upwards of $1,800, but, if you purchase a certain number of cases of product from the wholesaler, that price can go down as low as $500, or you can purchase the grill at full price and get free cases of product,” Roccagli noted.
Although the traditional hot dog is still the number one roller grill choice of consumers, Rocaggli said that over the past year, he has been seeing quite a bit of interest in the breaded, all-white-meat chicken “dog.” “Chicken is such a huge component of convenience store foodservice sales that it just makes sense,” he said. “It also meets the need for a more healthful solution that an increasing number of consumers are asking for.”