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JERSEY CITY, N.J. -- Can roller grills and a fresh food co-exist as convenience stores seek to upgrade the quality of their foodservice offerings?
In an online discussion on Convenience Store News' Linked In social media group, Steven Johnson, a grocery consultant based in Seattle, recently questioned the logic of 7-Eleven utilizing the roller grill as a mainstay of its stores as it moves forward in foodservice. "Will the roller grill hold 7-Eleven back in the mind's eye of the consumer when it comes to contemporized fresh food relevance?" he taunted.
The industry's iconic chain doesn't think so. At the company's annual University of 7-Eleven three-day Dallas event held in February, new signature food items were a big focus. Paul Pierce, 7-Eleven's vice president of quick service and fresh food told The Dallas Morning News, "we are looking at every food item we sell today," including roller grill items, he said. "That food needs to be better than what you expect in a convenience store. We want our food to be better than restaurant quality."
7-Eleven is targeting a 10-percent growth in food sales this year, which is more than double its typical three to four percent growth in the category, according to the article. It plans to do that, in part, by bringing out "new and innovative items" that customers can't get elsewhere. For the roller grill, that effort includes the test of an Angus beef hot dog that may roll out later this year.
7-Eleven and other forward-thinking c-stores are rolling with an evolved Roller Grill program in their convenience foodservice lineup.
At Susser Holdings/Stripes, based in Corpus Christi, Texas, "the roller grill program is very important to our 'non-restaurant stores' where the primary foodservice offering is our roller grill program," Ben Hoffmeyer, manager for the category, told CSNews Online.
At Chevron's ExtraMile, the roller grill is an important element of the hot food offering with "over half of the sales generated in our hot food sales coming from the roller grill," said Marty Barillas, category manager of foodservice for the San Ramon, Calif.-based chain.
New roller grill items from the leading food companies like Kraft/Oscar Mayer, Sara Lee, Ruiz Foods, Don Miguel and Johnsonville are helping to sustain gross margins in the 70 percent to 80 percent range.
Updated equipment is a good start to keeping up with the Roller Grill evolution. Late last year, 7-Eleven selected the APW Wyott brand from Standex International Corp.'s Food Service Equipment Group as an approved supplier for roller grills.
At APW/Wyott, roller grills "have come a long way over the 60-plus years we have been producing roller grill equipment," said Mike Dowell, director of commercial sales for the company's Standex Cooking Solutions Group. He explained all of the company's roller grills today feature its Tru-Turn and Tru-Heat systems for easy cleaning and product turning, as well as even heating.
Dowell noted the category's more evolved retailers are utilizing either larger roller grills or more units per store. "7-Eleven has two massive APW/Wyott grills and a QT [QuikTrip] or Racetrac has up to six roller grills per store," he reported.
With ExtraMile's "Extra Good To Go" foodservice program, "we wanted to make sure we had a variety of hot foods available for consumers so we decided to roll out the offering with hot food warmers, as well as roller grills," said Barillas. "This allows for a wider variety of product offerings for customers on-the-go."
• Keeping core items consistent and then rounding out the selection to include some ethnic choices. Stripes' roller grill program is consistent company-wide with respect to pricing and core offering, said Hoffmeyer. Stores are allowed flexibility to customize product flavor offerings based on local and regional demographics demands. "For instance, some of our stores located along the Mexican border will carry spicy roller grill items to meet local demographics," he said.
Featuring Johnsonville Sausage products on its roller grill, ExtraMile has had "a great deal of success with the high quality and varieties that we carry," explained Barillas. "The Stadium Brat and All Beef Hot Dog are core items that we sell, but some locations have also found success selling the Italian Sausage, Spicy Sunrise Skillet and the Smokey Cheddar. "We are always looking to see what new products are hitting the market for additional variety, but we also find that sometimes 65 percent to 75 percent of sales are the top 2 to 3 items, so we try to keep the focus on the items that impact sales the most, while still allowing for flexibility in variety."
• Waking up to the breakfast opportunity. Leveraging the breakfast daypart at the roller grill is an opportunity for Stripes, said Hoffmeyer. Currently, Stripes offers Breakfast Sausage at two for 99 cents, but it is also reviewing Taquito items that would also fall into the two for 99 cents pricing strategy. Hoffmeyer added that higher-income areas will increase stock level on the 99 cents premium items, including those for breakfast.
• Utilizing but limiting limited offers. Stripes uses limited-time offers periodically, according to Hoffmeyer. "We will pulse certain premium items at the two-for-99-cents price point such as the Cheddarwurst or Kraft's Corn Dough Dog to help get trial on premium items," he explained. The chain will also be looking at two for 99 cents Tamales during holiday time, as well as several taquito-type items in the summer. But the key to this strategy is keeping the menu fresh without complicating the execution for store operators. That's why limiting limited offers to once a quarter is the magic number for Stripes.
• Focusing on visual merchandising. Stripes is doing this through the use of food images on point-of-sale materials inside and outside of the store, said Hoffmeyer. "Outside the store, we advertise our everyday low price offer of two for 99 cents with beauty shots of our 5-1 jumbo hot dogs," he said. "Inside the store, we use food images on our value menu combo deals, which helps simplify the buying process and ensure larger market-basket sizes."
• Training store staff on program strategy. Keeping grills full of product during all the key dayparts is imperative to a successful program. And to do this, c-stores need to train the store staff appropriately. Dowell praised 7-Eleven's roller management program for its direction on keeping the grills loaded and cleaned.
Hoffmeyer agreed that every store should train its personnel on the roller grill strategy. "If the goal is to drive traffic, make sure to communicate to store operators what the value of each roller grill transaction means to them," he said. "You will be amazed how much better execution you will receive once they understand the components of the program."
And, of course, as with any food offering, the presentation must always be clean, fresh and appealing to the customers who are shopping with their eyes first and foremost, according to Barillas. That good presentation is almost always the result of well-trained staff.
For the future, new products that "further maximize each segment of the day" are expected to keep the category evolving for the convenience channel, Dean Dirks, a foodservice consultant in Gig Harbor, Wash., told CSNews Online.
Dirks also believes it's time for display improvement and marketing supplies to come from roller grill product vendors. "When you operate a QSR, you get a monthly packet of required marketing -- signage that drives sales, combo deals and average ticket." He sees this as imperative to future growth in the convenience channel because "in many cases, retailers don't have the money or time to develop marketing plans and materials" that could elevate roller grills to their next level.