It wasn’t long ago that buying a cup of c-store coffee was uneventful: a couple of pots, usually one decaf and one regular, sitting on the counter. No big deal. Today that picture has changed, now including coffee bars, design flourishes and a broad range of condiments.
The revolution perhaps offers a glimpse into the future of the roller grill, says Brad Duesler, president and CEO of Food Concepts Inc., a Middleton, Wis.-based retail merchandisingsolutions provider.
“The coffee industry has been the leader in customer interactivity and service,” Duesler says. “The use of colors and graphics in merchandising and presentation, the smoother lines in equipment and the increased consumer interaction have taken the coffee purchasing experience to the next level.
“This type of reawakening is starting to happen in the roller-grill category as these machines are being transformed from hot-dog producers into day-part solution providers with expanded offerings such as ethnic and flavor profiles—egg rolls, taquitos, Tornados, spicy sausages.”
The transformation has been evolving since the late ’90s as retailers have placed more emphasis on foodservice, according to Rick Kellam, director of sales/retail, c-store channel for St. Louisbased equipment manufacturer Star Manufacturing. “Demands for the roller grill have expanded from three to four hours a day to 24/7,” he says. “In 2003, it became apparent to us that retailers were very interested in merchandising the different day-parts with many types of products.”
Of the 80,000 c-stores that offer foodservice, 67% have roller grills, says Timothy Powell, director of research and consulting for Chicago-based Technomic Inc. And the number of new food items being designed for grills is a strong indicator that this foodservice icon is not going away anytime soon.
“Roller grills have been on the rise, at least from an anecdotal standpoint, as c-stores have added items that have experienced rapid growth, such as taquitos, sausages and different lines of hot dogs, for example,” Powell says. “With the growth of roller-grill items, expect the equipment to also remain steady or even grow a point or two.”
Total sales for hot dogs are about $600 million and are expected to grow by 4% to 4.5% (including inflation), says Powell, citing Technomic’s recent study “Handheld Entrées in C-Store Foodservice.”
Neil Kelley, director of business development for Norwood, Mass.-based Home Market Foods, has more than 20 years of experience in the roller-grill business with companies such as Oscar Mayer and Ruiz Foods. At Home Market Foods, Kelley helped bring to market Cheeseburger Rollerbites, which are in the shape of hot dogs but have the taste and appearance of a hamburger; and Chicken Rollerbites, which look like a hot dog but answer customer demand for more chicken products.
This segment has “always been ripe for growth,” says Kelley. He believes cstore customers are comfortable buying product from the roller grill as long as “it’s appealing, has a good value and tastes good—the reason for the continued expansion in this segment.”
In addition to spicy flavors and breakfast items becoming more popular, Kelley says other trends include a demand for greater variety as operators expand their grill business by incorporating multiple grills and warmers to meet multi-day-part demand and expand retail bundling options, including two-for-$2 and fountain add-ons.
One can’t deny the value of the hot dog and its many variations, but the opportunities stretch way beyond the dog. As the roller-grill “back of the house” mentality fades, these c-store staples are being eyed by many small to medium operators as a foodservice main attraction. This elevated status and often more visible physical location in the store means that visual appeal, ease of use, design and customer interactivity are important elements of a roller grill.
MORE FOR LESS
In light of the economic times, it’s not surprising many retailers are seeking lower-cost equipment options. Several major manufacturers are responding to retailer demand for more affordable equipment with new introductions. Star Manufacturing, for example, has added a Grill Max Express value-conscious line to its high-performance Grill Max Pro Series. The line of roller grills will debut at the NACS Show this month.
According to Star Manufacturing’s Kellam, the influx of new roller-grill products—combined with retailer efforts to offer food for all day-parts and meet snack demands—has called for more roller-grill space to heat, hold and merchandise the additional product mix and increase sales.
“The proliferation of product has driven retailers to expand their rollergrill equipment from typically one unit per store to now as many as six grills per location in some chains,” says Kellam. Star has received requests from its customer base for less expensive roller-grill equipment, including from the company’s new line, which features a simplified body and design, nonstick-coating options and lower profile. The new series also features a longer-life motor and drive system.
“The increased demand for equipment that can handle product for the different day-parts has forced us to provide more ‘grip and turn’ options … so the large variety of food items can turn on the grill,” adds Steve Lombardo, Star’s vice president of sales and marketing. “We also added dividers so breaded product could be on one side of the grill and dogs on the other.”
Wisco Industries, Oregon, Wis., has just launched a project that’s going in search of a better way to manufacture a hot-dog roller grill. At press time, the company was in the second month of the product’s development, with expectations of rolling it out next year.
“We want to construct a machine that will deliver the product quicker and give the self-serve consumer the reassurance the product is well-cooked, well-presented and safe,” says Brian Canfield, sales and marketing manager for Wisco.
The focus on self-serve is critical because 90% of units are currently in that format—and retailers want to keep it that way. “They don’t want to hire the personnel to serve the food,” Canfield says. “They want to draw in the customer with the foodservice options, which are the secondary feature of a store after gas, but not spend a lot of money maintaining and operating this function.”
READY TO ROLL
Whatever a retailer’s needs, the new equipment coming onto the scene provides a variety of high-quality, lowercost and versatile options. But the challenge is choosing the right machine and program for the store. With support from equipment manufacturers, food suppliers and distributors, the decisions can be less daunting.
Southco Distributing, Goldsboro, N.C., is one such distributor that works with its retail clients to test products and equipment and set pricing for rollergrill and other foodservice programs. Southco retailer partner E.J. Pope/Handy Mart, Mt. Olive, N.C., ditched the roller grill altogether many years ago, but it is now relaunching the concept. According to marketing director Tony Noonan, the 42-store chain has been inspired by the success the larger chains such as Sheetz and QuikTrip have experienced with their foodservice programs.
“We just started testing a new program in two of our stores, and our goal is to install the program in eight more stores by the end of the year,” says Noonan, who appreciates the roller’s lowmaintenance, low-labor needs. “The new equipment … holds product better and cooks more evenly.” Each store will feature at least two roller grills with a mid-size capacity. The objective is to use one grill for hot-dogtype items, including sausages and breakfast products, and the second for other items such as ethnic foods and other handheld products.
Another benefit of the roller-grill program, Noonan says, is the opportunity for more creative and visual merchandising and special offers that tap in-store signage, pumptoppers and window statics to promote combo deals such as a jumbo grill item, bag of chips and 32-ounce fountain drink for $2.99.
GETTING BETTER ALL THE TIME
Temple, Texas-based McLane has taken the partnering concept to the next level by launching a full-service roller-grill program for its retailers. The concept is part of the company’s larger coldchain- solutions platform, including its proprietary Fresh on the Go program, all of which is designed to provide turnkey solutions and a category-management approach to product selection.
Grant Demers, McLane’s product director, says many chains rely on programs funded by the food manufacturers, which means they are “locked into those brands as long as they are under contract for that equipment.”
Although a short-term financial win, such an arrangement, he says, “tends to limit their ability to take a categorymanagement approach to their offerings. In today’s market, such restrictive behavior makes it difficult to meet consumer demands for product variety.”
McLane’s new program offers customers competitive pricing on stateof- the-art equipment (through Nemco), as well as a broad selection of top-selling roller products. The flexibility associated with individual ownership affords the retailer an opportunity to rotate products based on regional preferences. One such case is Centennial, Colo.- based Western Convenience, which has 41 stores in Colorado and Nebraska. The company recently introduced the McLane program in 36 of its stores, and it expects to have the program up and running chainwide by year’s end. The chain is also a good example of the “one-grill-fitsall” concept: It is outfitting each store with one roller grill that can manage several different types of food.
“This program allows you to get rid of nasty equipment, get on a solid program and be in the foodservice business,” says marketing director Mark Norek. “We realized profits immediately, especially with the special promotions we have been offering, such as the two-for-$2 specials.” The new grills also allow for more variety and appeal in signage, he says. ”
Let’s face it: The products in the last 10 years have gotten so much better,” he says. “It would be a shame not to be able to offer this variety to our customers.”
Seeing Better Turns
With more than 20 years of experience in bringing roller-grill items to the c-store market, Neil Kelley of Home Market Foods suggests the following to help retailers maximize the profitability of their roller-grill programs:
Keep the grill/foodservice area clean and equipment in good working condition.
Offer ample product and variety on the grill (more than one hot dog) to accommodate multiple day-parts.
Feature proper signage/POS on and around the grill that describes the products to customers.
Have a variety of condiments available so consumers can customize their products.
“Most c-store operators that maintain these simple standards excel in the roller-grill business,” Kelley says.
Rolling Out New Equipment
New Product: Grill Max Express
Company: Star Manufacturing
Features:This line is the value version of the company’s Grill Max Pro Series, offering high-grip coating, traditional nonstick (for hot dogs) and chrome, which is the most durable and for the budget-conscious. Depending on the budget and retailer needs, four machine sizes are available—30, 45, 50 and 75, in the three coating options—with 15 configurations in all. The numbers stand for the basic number of items that can fit on each grill. In terms of merchandising and curb appeal, the machines can be configured for front-facing entry only with a slanted grill, or a flat grill that customers can access from both the front and back. Look for it at the NACS Show.
More info: www.star-mfg.com
New Product: Roll-Rite Roller Grill
Company: A.J. Antunes & Co.
Features: A challenge that comes with cooking many different items on one grill is ensuring the different-shaped and -coated items turn without getting stuck. While many machines offer the gripped coatings for this purpose, A.J. Antunes’ answer to this concern is oblong-shaped rollers that allow foods—such as taquitos—to cook evenly without getting stuck. Introduced in May, the Roll-Rite Roller Grill’s textured surface grips food and ensures it is continuously turned.
More info: www.ajantunes.com