Rolling Right Along

RollerGrillEmphasizing quality and a dynamic product assortment has had positive effects on food sales at the roller grill.

By Howard Riell, Associate Editor.

Rollers grills can do a lot, but they do not sell for themselves. Managing roller grill food sales is no different from other foodservice categories in that convenience store operators need to deliver quality food that is aggressively promoted and merchandised, not simply left in a corner and forgotten.

When executed properly, the roller grill can create excitement—excitement about the menu, which boasts more variety and quality than ever before; excitement from the additional opportunities for attention-grabbing promotions; and excitement from the increased grab-and-go sales roller grill items help c-stores achieve.

“The roller grill is a huge part of our business and the center of our foodservice,” said Kirk Matthews, senior category manager, TravelCenters of America (TA), Westlake, Ohio. “The business is up and coming and huge because there are so many new things happening on the grills out there.”
Tom Pirko, president of BEVMARK LLC, an international food and beverage advisory firm, said he considers roller grill more than just a menu extension for c-stores. “They are a secret weapon, if creatively employed, to steal share from QSRs,” he said. “There’s life beyond hot dogs.”

Quick Service
Much of the appeal for foodservice in convenience store is immediacy Pirko said. Ideal in the convenience store setting, roller grills take up a small footprint, are low maintenance and provide convenient hot-off-the-grill foods for customers.

“There are all kinds of things happening with new grilled meats right now,” he said. “You can use these machines to create, not only the impression, but the sensation that allows people to walk in and walk out satisfied, because the things really smell good and look good. The old-fashioned machines simply didn’t perform in a way that was attractive, but the newer machines have really gotten it down.”

The key, Pirko believes, is getting the right kinds of products on the grill. “There are more exotic and more interesting things to put on the grill. That’s what it’s all about,” he said. “There is a whole world of products opening up of different kinds of gourmet sausages, for instance. There are literally dozens of them, and these things really taste pretty good and there is a huge demand for them.”

The latest roller grills are better manufactured than their predecessors and offer more variations than ever before.

“The professional grade machinery is better controlled. It’s a lot easier to make sure that you are preparing food that is edible with the newer machines,” Pirko said. Manufacturers have learned how to improve the quality.”

In with the New
Pirko and his colleagues have been looking at the growing variety of items that can be prepared on roller grills and they like what they are seeing. They have also identified what they believe is another highly underutilized, but nonetheless potentially profitable piece of equipment c-stores can try: waffle irons. “They represent a tremendous opportunity,” he said. “You can pop out a waffle in the time that somebody is putting some gas in his car, so they can walk away. There is a whole world of things you can do with waffles.”

Add a host of exciting new chicken dogs, corn dogs, tornados, taquitos or egg rolls and the roller grill program could become the center of attention. “One thing about the roller grills is that if you start putting the right kinds of sausages on, people will pop in and pop out with something to eat in their hands and they will be satisfied,” Pirko said. “If you get them in the right context what you’re really doing is putting your hand in the pocket of the quick-service restaurants.”

Pirko believes the high-quality sausage items he is talking about will fall in line with an acceptable price point. In fact, he said he finds one of the more interesting aspects of c-store economics today is that they are gaining the ability to sell more expensive products.

“The whole alternative beverage business has thrived, for instance,” he pointed out. “Look at Monster, for instance.”

The growth in sales of energy and sports drinks at the expense of traditional soft drinks stands as proof, he suggested, that the convenience store channel has become more adept at marketing products with higher price points and profit margins.

“Convenience stores are in head-on competition with quick-service restaurants and if you do it right you really have an advantage,” Pirko said. “You can really move traffic through the store profitably, if you up the ante and produce something that is quick and high quality. I think the real issue for everybody in the business is not only how do we do it economically and quickly, but how do we present a different image in terms of higher quality?”

Merchandising, as usual, can prove critical to the entire enterprise. “Success can be a matter of how you present it,” Pirko confirmed. “You have to present the right image.

Food for Thought
Ammunition in the ongoing war against fast feeders is always a plus.Recent research by Chicago-based Technomic Inc., makes it clear that foodservice is a key area of opportunity for convenience stores, with current sales estimated at $11 billion.

“As revenues from gasoline and tobacco products fall, foodservice sales are increasingly becoming convenience stores’ most profitable category,” the research company reported.

In fact, the convenience store segment comprises about 29% of retail foodservice, and almost 2% of the total foodservice industry, Technomic found. Annual growth of 2.5% is predicted.

“Convenience stores have shifted their focus to provide a wider variety of fresh, high-quality food offerings to help gain a greater share of stomach and compete with restaurants,” said Tim Powell,  director of research and consulting services for Technomic. “At the same time, there seems to be significant room for c-store operators to generate increased food sales by translating existing traffic into purchases.”

In fact, the market share grab to which Pirko referred is happening. More than half of American consumers now pick up snacks from prepared food sections of convenience stores, up from just 37% in 2010. Roughly 22% of consumers told researchers that they occasionally get breakfast from a convenience store during the week, up from just 12% three years ago.

In addition, 13% of consumers buy breakfast from convenience stores on the weekends versus 7% previously, Technomic reported.

There remains much more market share for convenience stores to latch onto. On weekdays, Technomic found, only about one out of five consumers (17%) it polled in a recent survey indicated that they purchase lunch from a convenience store. Conversely, 56% said they opted for a fast food restaurant at lunch.

“I think the dividing line remains the perception of quality,” Pirko said. “Once you’re able to convince someone that you’re offering something that has a higher quality level, that’s when the business gets interesting. That’s when you can really satisfy customers who are on the move.”

He added,”As long as it looks relatively fresh and you’ve got something interesting, you’ve got a really cool business opportunity.”

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