On a Roll: Envisioning Roller Grills After COVID-19

Retailers pivot to new and improved operations as states slowly reopen foodservice programs
roller grilled sausages
Photograph courtesy of Love's Travel Stops & Country Stores

CHICAGO Convenience-store operators, rejoice: Early signs indicate that customers are eager to use roller grills in a post-pandemic society.

More than half (52%) of consumers said that they will resume traditional c-store foodservice purchase behaviors within a week of restrictions being lifted in their home state, while 75% said they’ll do so within a month, according to the second-quarter 2020 C-Store Consumer Marketbrief by CSP sister research firm, Technomic, Chicago.

Despite the optimism, though, consumer demand for safety has surged amid the pandemic, raising the question of how similar—or different—roller grills will operate in the coming months and years compared to pre-pandemic times.

“Much depends on local regulations around self-service, of course, but the majority of customers do want to come back to the roller grill,” said Donna Hood Crecca, principal for Technomic. “With limiting exposure to the virus top-of-mind for consumers, however, bringing them back may require implementing additional safety measures at the roller-grill station to reduce touchpoints and improve overall sanitation.”

What does this mean for roller grills as states reopen and COVID-19 cases rise?

CSP spoke with retailers, food analysts and roller-grill experts to find out.

Adapting and Evolving

Roller grills were hit early in the pandemic due to its self-service nature and risk of spreading germs. In March, retailers nationwide halted roller-grill operations along with self-serve coffee and bakery programs. But with many states now in ending lockdowns and some operators re-establishing self-service options, food safety has become even more critical, and the future of roller grill remains spotty.

When Pilot Co., a 750-store chain based in Knoxville, Tenn., paused its roller-grill program, its only prepared foodservice options available for purchase were packaged deli items. Three months later, Pilot resurrected roller grill as permitted and provided single-use, disposable sleeves for customers to use while handling tongs.

"Imagine a little kid grabbing their own hot dog off the grill and making it their own. That means something."

But even with these precautions in place, the future of roller-grill operations is unknown, said Brian Ferguson, vice president and chief merchant for Pilot Co.

"The future of self-serve operations is continuing to change, especially as recommendations and guidelines surrounding COVID-19 evolves," Ferguson said. “Due to shifting consumer shopping habits as a result of the pandemic, we are still evaluating how roller grills will be received.”

Unlike Pilot, Circle K, a division of Alimentation Couche-Tard Inc., Laval, Quebec, never mandated a chainwide roller-grill shutdown. Instead, Circle K’s corporate team allowed each business unit to follow its local guidelines and decide whether to pause or continue roller-grill operations, said David Hall, vice president of global foodservice for Circle K.

Some retailers moved roller-grill items into heated merchandisers to be clerk-served at the start of the pandemic. Maverik, a 342-store chain based in Salt Lake City, used this method or, depending on state mandates, removed the option entirely. In areas where Maverik shut down roller grill, the chain used these items to make pigs in a blanket—miniature sausages or hot dogs wrapped in bacon or croissant pastries. These mini dogs are now sold in the hot food warmers, said Kyle Lore, corporate executive chef for Maverik.

“We were already doing [pigs in a blanket],” Lore said. “A bunch of our sales from roller grill have migrated to those.”

But moving roller-grill foods to merchandisers can get pricey, said Tim Klinedinst, channel marketing manager of convenience stores for Tyson Foods, Springdale, Ark. Roller grills on average cost anywhere from $600 to $800, and heated warmers are about $400. Removing the self-serve roller grill option and adding a new merchandiser could place a financial burden on a retailer and become a “tough pill to swallow,” Klinedinst said.

“Most operators have planned capacity for warmers,” he said. “Big chains can maybe afford to do a little more, but for independents and small chains, that is a tough sell for them to give up [the roller grill], especially if they recently invested in one.”

Another downside of transforming these items into heated, pre-packaged products is that it “takes the fun out of roller grill,” said Barbara Barry, COO of food-safety consultancy FoodSignPros, Broomall, Penn.

“The customization aspect of the roller grill is the fun part about it,” said Barry. “Imagine a little kid grabbing their own hot dog off the grill and making it their own. That means something. That’s what a roller grill is for.”

A New Solution

What can retailers to do keep roller grills up and running safely? Barr suggests they explore new technologies that allow roller grills to operate at minimal risk.

“We knew that COVID-19 was going to have a negative effect on the roller grill once the pandemic hit,” said Barr. “We knew that roller grill was about to close, and we knew we needed to do something about it.”

FoodSignPros recently launched its Airshield Food Protection System, a barrier that prevents airborne hazards from entering roller grills. The Airshield is a physical barrier that resembles a sneeze guard and is placed atop the roller grill. It serves as a canopy over the grill itself, and once in place, uses air-curtain technology to prevent hazardous bacteria from getting into the roller grill area. So, if someone coughs at the roller grill, the Airshield’s technology will block germs from entering the grill, the company said.

"The future of self-serve operations is continuing to change, especially as recommendations and guidelines surrounding COVID-19 evolve."

FoodSignPros is working with the Food & Drug Administration (FDA) to bring this technology into the administration’s food-safety code. If successful, this could make air-curtain technology required for retailers with a roller grill, Barry said.

With similar intentions, Tyson is working with food-merchandising solution provider Food Concepts Inc., Middleton, Wis., to test new plexiglass sides and back panels that cover an entire roller grill. These barriers will only allow customers to grab their food with tongs from a small opening at the front of the grill compared to the sides and back usually being open, said Klinedinst.

“If the customers do not feel safe, they will not [use the grills], and [the operator] won’t be making money,” he said.

No matter the format, new roller-grill solutions present an opportunity for c-store operators to reposition themselves as safe food destinations, said Sandra Deas, senior marketing director of platform innovation and foodservice for Ruiz Foods, Dinuba, Calif. Retailers have a chance to showcase new protocols with convenient foodservice to consumers who’ve never considered c-stores as a foodservice option.

“Communicate more broadly to your current customer base, but also reach customers who often drive by and choose the nearby fast-food restaurant,” she said. “Customers will know that not only are you safe, but that you offer convenient, quality food.”

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