Schwan’s Takes On the Roller Grill

Foodservice manufacturer leads brainstorming exercise to expand its reach in convenience stores
Photograph courtesy of Schwan's Co.

HOUSTON — Watch for the roller grill to get a boost in the near future if Schwan's Co. has anything to do with it.

The foodservice manufacturer, known for Red Baron pizza and Minh egg rolls, among other brands, chose the roller grill as the primary focus for its latest Chef Collective event. Schwan's Chef Collective is an ideation process it initiated four years ago. The Marshall, Minn.-based company invites noted chefs to research a market segment brimming with opportunity, brainstorm ideas and sample test concepts to land on a handful of new products to launch after menu proofing and market testing.

"You come up with the flavors, and we'll make it work within our process," said Cecelia Tham, senior product development manager for Schwan's, during a tour of one of the company’s manufacturing plants in Pasadena, Texas.

The special guests for this round of Chef Collective were anxious to get started on the challenge.

"I was pumped," said Stephanie Cmar, a personal chef from Boston and a former "cheftestant" on Bravo TV's "Top Chef" reality competition show.

"In the past we've looked at foodservice in K-12 schools and in healthcare. And as a personal chef, most of my clients request an entirely healthy menu. They want all the fat sucked out of their meal," she told CSP Daily News. "This time it's, 'Don't worry about that. What would taste good?' "

Of course, there are other criteria for the final products. In establishing the goals of the recent Chef Collective—this one a three-day event held in Houston—Schwan's culinary director, Chef Michael Gunn, outlined several concepts to keep in mind:

  • Does the product meet the needs of a convenience store—that is, easy to eat on the go?
  • Can it be manufactured in Schwan's plants?
  • Can it be made with commonly available ingredients?
  • Can it be made at a cost that c-stores and their customers can afford?

To define those terms, the event began with visits to c-stores in Houston to get a feel for what is available now and how customers shop the stores.

A visit to two of Schwan's plants gave the attendees—which, in addition to the chefs, included a company food scientist, a consumer insights researcher and a retail foodservice leader—an idea of the company's egg-roll manufacturing capabilities.

From there, the brainstorming began, with three angles in mind:

  1. C-store treasure hunt. The group focused on ideas sparked by their own experiences in and the recent visits to convenience stores.
  2. Menu magic. This round had participants peruse menus from familiar quick-service restaurants to generate ideas.
  3. State fair fare. Attendees considered dishes from state-fair menus from across the United States, ranging from Unicorn Grilled Cheese to Fried Shepherd's Pie Balls.

Dozens of ideas flowed from the group, from the somewhat obvious (cheeseburger egg rolls) to the unexpected (General Tso chicken taco roll).

"I had tons of ideas coming," said Chef Todd Erickson, who owns a taco shop in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., and a vegan restaurant in Miami. "C-stores have become so embraced by millennials that we really weren't limited in where our ideas could go."

Votes were cast, and a dozen favorite concepts selected.

From there, the chefs led a recipe-writing exercise that would help Schwan’s factory staff create test versions of the products for sampling. That sampling would narrow the field down to two, three or more products that had real potential. Those will get a test run in c-stores for a possible rollout in the future.

Whereas past Chef Collective events have focused on developing better-tasting and healthier foods, this spring’s effort was all about expanding Schwan’s reach into a channel and cooking method—roller grill—it expects to grow, said Polly Madsen, leader of the Chef Collective.

“We see roller grill as a growth opportunity,” she said. “The Schwan’s foodservice division will continue to make investments in the c-store channel because we believe there is the opportunity for tremendous growth.”

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