Move over, better burgers: There’s a new hot dog in town.
The roller grill has long been c-store territory, but as new and established restaurant concepts elevate encased meats with unique proteins, breads and toppings, convenience retailers have new opportunities to boost sales with expanded offerings. Even simple changes, such as introducing a toppings bar, can improve value perceptions and even day-part sales.
“Hot dogs are truly a must in convenience stores because of the low costs, but it is a value offer, and the definition of value has changed dramatically over the last four years,” says Joe Chiovera, principal of XS Foodservice and Marketing Solutions, a consultancy with ofices in Dallas and Minneapolis.
Over that same stretch of time, a slew of quick-service and fast-casual restaurant concepts devoted to all things encased meats have popped up nationwide. There’s Denver-based The Uber Sausage, which expanded in 2013. Scotch and Sausage, the brainchild of chef Trevor Ball, opened just last summer with a selection of 24 seasonal sausages paired with lettuce and sauerkraut. Dog Haus in Los Angeles recently opened its first franchise location. Last year, Tasty 8’s Gourmet Hot Dog opened in Raleigh; and Los Perros Locos, o‑ ering a variety of all-beef Colombian hot dogs, opened in New York.
The food-truck scene is also staying strong with some haute-dog-centered operators, from Weiner Wagon in Kansas City to Mastiff Sausage in San Diego, Sausagefest in Las Vegas and Goldis Sausage Co. in Austin, Texas. Some, like Haute Sausage in Chicago and Seoul Sausage in Los Angeles, have gone brick-and-mortar.
Full-service independent restaurants are also getting in the game. According to menu-analysis firm Food Genius, the term “sausage” alone can be found on more than half (60%) of menus across the United States, with the strongest presence in the Northeast and Great Lakes region of the Midwest.
“Even with the close of the iconic Hot Doug’s in Chicago, we are seeing more high-end, quality hot dogs on menus across the nation,” says Darren Tristano, executive vice president of Chicago-based Technomic. “There are also a number of specialty sausage concepts emerging. These will impact consumer perceptions of dogs and sausages, and that impacts c-stores as well.”
Perhaps the biggest threat (or inspiration) remains QSRs—especially Sonic, with its lineup of regionally focused hot dogs, coneys (dogs topped with chili) and the new Lil’ Doggies. Starting at $1.29, these mini versions include a Chili Cheese Lil’ Doggie topped with warm chili and melted Cheddar cheese; a classic Lil’ Doggie topped with ketchup and yellow mustard; and a Baja Jalapeño & Chili Lil’ Doggie topped with chili, spicy cheese sauce and jalapeños.
Even Dunkin’ Donuts tested a cheese-infused, dough-wrapped dog in the Chicago market. No word on any national plans for those two-for-$2 dogs just yet, but consider yourself warned. Likewise, chicken giant KFC just released a hot dog in the Philippines: Dubbed the Double Down Dog, this cheese-infused dog comes wrapped in fried chicken, which stands in for the bun.
Given all this increased attention on encased meats, it’s no surprise that many c-stores have already stepped up their sausage platform to remain relevant and viable in an increasingly competitive market.
There are different levels c-stores can take in terms of how haute they want to get with their hot dogs. For some, it’s baby steps; for others, it’s all or nothing.
It’s unrealistic for most to go from zero to 60 when it comes to building a better hot-dog program. But increasing quality—from the bun to what’s in between—is an important first step. “The quality of bun and variety of toppings that regionalize dogs are increasingly important to the appeal, customization and consumer purchases,” Tristano says.
Luckily, many manufacturers and distributors have responded to this growing need, and this has helped open doors for other c-stores considering taking the haute-dog plunge.
When it comes to the buns, says Chiovera, some retailers are experimenting with individually wrapped, direct-store-delivered products that can thaw out on an as-needed basis. Compared to a buns-in-a-bag situation, this reduces waste and improves sanitation as more customers help themselves at the hot-dog station.
Smaller eight-count packages also allow retailers to thaw and warm a wider variety of bun offerings at a time. Aside from the traditional soft, white bun or poppy-seed version, Chiovera has seen retailers use wider Portuguese rolls, pretzel buns, brioche-style bread one might use for a lobster roll, and other artisan-like creations.
CONTINUED: C-Stores Step Up Their Game
For many, stepping up a predominantly self-serve hot dog operation to the next level means an expanded toppings bar beyond the basic mustard, ketchup and relish.
QuikTrip Corp., Tulsa, Okla., upped its toppings bar a few years ago as part of a storewide remodel to offer guests more customization and value. The new, refrigerated self-serve station offers about 10 different toppings, including jalapeños,
sauerkraut, fresh pico de gallo, onions and a variety of mustards and mayos. The chain also added taquitos, chorizo links,
jalapeño cheddar and smoked sausage, country sausage, corn dogs, buffalo chicken bites and even egg rolls to its popular roller grills.
“Our volume is so heavy now that we’re constantly monitoring the toppings to make sure they’re fresh and stocked,” says Mike Thornbrugh, a spokesperson for the company. “It’s really no longer about c-store vs. c-store. Our philosophy is that retail and restaurants in general are trying to enhance or add onto what they currently have.”
While the toppings are free and dog prices still hover around $2, the expanded program has drawn increased traffic and “more importantly, we like to think we’re good listeners and are responding to what our customers want,” Thornbrugh says. It’s all about perceived value and, of course, the convenience of customization.
The third level on the spectrum of encased-meat evolution is to offer it crew-serve. With a full-service food and hot-dog program, kitchen space and certain equipment solutions are key.
“If you’re already making fresh-to-order sandwiches, you might as well offer made-to-order hot dogs,” says Jason Lemons, foodservice manager at Sprint Foods, which recently opened the upscale convenience store Metro Market in downtown Augusta, Ga. (CSP—Jan. ’14, p. 46).
But roller grills, the traditional c-store sausage medium, can be limiting to full service. “They are engineered to have longevity and not over-caramelize and are a fixed size. Putting a larger size or certain types of premium hot dogs or sausages on the roller grill won’t always work,” says Chiovera.
That’s why some full-service retailers turn to rapid-cook ovens or even traditional grills to cook their hot dogs. New England operators still seem to swear by their steam tables, he says.
At Metro Market, 100% Black Angus beef hot dogs are char-grilled just before the lunch rush in the back prep kitchen, then held in hot wells and topped out front on the finishing line on the same refrigerated prep table used for sandwich fixings.
Customers can choose from a selection of specialty hot-dog creations such as the Mardi Gras dog with pulled pork (a distributed product rethermed in-store) and a choice of barbecue sauce and Cajun seasoning, or the Yellow Jacket topped with bacon mac and cheese. There’s even a bacon-wrapped hot dog on the menu.
The elevated hot-dog program is just one piece of the pie for Metro Market. “We want to be a one-stop shop: Maybe you forgot to get eggs, but while you’re here you might as well get lunch,” Lemons says. And an upscale one at that: Metro Market’s mission revolves around the classic comforts but “spiced up a little,” he says. That has helped bring in an equal demographic of men and women, along with ofice workers with a few extra bucks to spare. Metro Market also carries a liquor license that allows patrons to enjoy their hot dogs with a beer or glass of wine in-store or on the patio just outside.
That’s the thing: A full-service hot-dog program gives leeway to charge slightly more for specialty items and toppings. And that’s a good thing, Chiovera says, because “with commodity price inflation and the introduction of Angus, the cost of the end product is very high.”
Case in point: Metro Market charges $3.99 to $5.99 for its offerings, though there are weekday deals. Even self-serve, roller-grill-centric retailers find they can at least charge a little more (think 35 cents) for hot toppings such as chili and cheese, says Chiovera.
And variety, of course, is important with a full-service menu. Aside from traditional hot dogs, corn dogs are making a comeback.
Metro Market serves its version in the shape of a corn muffin.
“We’re seeing a true evolution of foodservice in convenience stores, and hot dogs are a natural part of that,” says Chiovera. “As restaurants and QSRs raise the bar and American palates get more and more sophisticated, we will see more convenience stores elevate their game.”