CSP Magazine

Opinion: Can C-Store Wieners Still Be Champions?

The wiener wars ignited by Burger King’s introduction of $1.99 grilled hot dogs in February has consumer and industry eyes trained on a staple of convenience foodservice.

Should c-store operators be concerned about the ramifications of a major quick-service restaurant’s (QSR) foray into a key category? Absolutely. QSRs earn far more consumer visits than c-stores do for prepared foods, and many enjoy national footprints, strong brand recognition and massive marketing budgets. Burger King is certainly positioned to steal traffic and sales from convenience outlets with this product rollout.

Can c-stores capitalize on the craze? Absolutely. Thanks to Burger King, hot dogs likely have never been so, well, hot.

Bring It On

Burger King’s social media announcement of the new product created a lot of buzz, unleashing an online battle involving cheeky hashtags and Twitter exchanges between the burger chain and competitors who are put off by its encroachment on their territory.

Among the first to take issue was 7-Eleven, which released its “Hot Dog Bill of Rights” outlining its own program’s advantages, such as 24/7 availability, customization via numerous toppings and value through its $2 Big Bite hot dog and Big Gulp combo. Fast feeders Checkers Drive-In Restaurants and sister concept Rally’s Hamburgers shot back with a 79-cent hot-dog promotion announced with a full-page ad in USA Today carrying the challenge, “Hey, Burger King, it’s time to compare wieners.”

The media attention on hot dogs is marketing gold for the category.

The media attention on the sparring and online activity around hot dogs is marketing gold for the category, just in time for prime selling season: the dog days of summer. While the overall hot-dog market has softened in recent years, as per scan data, consumer interest in high-protein foods, unique flavors and portable options is strong. Several manufacturers now offer reduced-fat or higher-protein hot-dog options, as well as spiced and trending flavor profiles, and are playing up natural and similarly appealing attributes. Savvy c-store operators will do well to showcase the quality, value and customization facets of their hot-dog offerings in creative promotions to retain their loyal customers. They can also capitalize on the category’s center-stage status to potentially attract new customers and drive sales this summer.

Fresh vs. Indulgent

This heightened awareness of hot dogs comes at a unique time in the evolution of c-store foodservice. As operators strive to increase their selections of healthy, fresh prepared foods, many are grappling with the role of the roller grill and of hot dogs in their foodservice programs.

The discussion can get contentious. I’ve seen foodservice strategy development sessions turn into near free-for-alls when someone suggests doing away with the roller grill altogether. Some stakeholders immediatelyrecognize the potentially devastating effect on sales if their core customer were to be denied a favorite item, while others urge a shift to solely offering made-to-order fresh foods as the key to future growth and success.

The argument illuminates a dynamic tension in the c-store channel between fresh and indulgent foods. There’s no need to jettison either from the menu, however. Time and again, our research reveals that consumers seek a balance in convenience-store food offerings. Hot dogs represent an opportunity to deliver on both fresh and indulgent foods, and they possibly can position c-stores to further engage young consumers, who underindex on hot-dog purchases.

More than half of consumers overall (54%) are interested in hot dogs as a made-to-order option in convenience stores, with millennials and matures overindexing (59% and 61%, respectively). Interestingly, in this metric, Generation Z was on par with consumers overall, at 52%. In this context, made to order could include product cooked in a variety of ways, including on a roller grill, with staff adding fresh, premium toppings selected by the customer. The option of a quality, made-to-order, customizable hot dog likely would have strong appeal to older and younger consumers alike.

Burger King’s introduction of grilled hot dogs is a wake-up call to conveniece-store operators to think about their hot-dog program in new ways. The imperative is not only to ensure the burger chain doesn’t siphon off core consumers with its offering, but also to capitalize on the hot dog’s time in the spotlight and evolve a store’s offering to be more relevant and appealing to current and future consumers.

Donna Hood Crecca is associate principal of Chicago-based foodservice research and consulting firm Technomic. Reach her at dcrecca@technomic.com.

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