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Anyone who watches "Project Runway" — my all-time favorite reality TV competition — knows that in the world of fashion, "one day you're in, and the next day, you're out." Lately, I've been wondering if this mantra might also hold true in the world of convenience with respect to the quintessential c-store accessory for decades: the roller grill.
When consumers think of bad convenience store food, the roller grill frequently comes to mind. And with retailers spending millions of dollars to upgrade their foodservice offerings and shake that negative image, it's got me questioning whether roller grills may soon become as outdated as polyester leisure suits and Members Only jackets.
As it turns out, I'm not the only one contemplating the future of roller grills in c-stores. A debate on this very topic sprung up recently in Convenience Store News' Foodservice Group on the LinkedIn social network, between industry consultants Steven Johnson, founder and president of Tacoma, Wash.-based Foodservice Solutions, and Larry Miller, president and CEO of Miller Management & Consulting Services in Orlando.
In his post entitled "Roll, Roll, Roll Away Roller Grill," Johnson said 40 percent of the convenience sector has shed the roller grill, and he predicts we will be seeing less and less of it in coming years, as more exciting, new food options make their way into the convenience channel. He cited 7-Eleven, which "has left the roller grill at the back door and recently introduced stay-fresh bananas, pizza and chicken wings," as well as Sheetz and Wawa, both of which "offer a full range of prepared food choices."
"Consumers young and old are demanding more choice, fresher quality and more contemporary food options," Johnson noted in his LinkedIn post.
On the other hand, Miller argued that since all 147,000 c-stores will never be able to compete on the same playing field as Sheetz or Wawa, roller grills will have a place for a long time yet.
"I believe roller grill programs will be going through some changes, but it is by no means time to have the bugler play Taps or begin to plan the funeral for the roller grill in the convenience store channel," he said.
In fact, he suggested convenience store retailers consider getting a few of the new large-capacity roller grills and create a massive presentation similar to what operators such as QuikTrip, RaceTrac and Speedway have done. "Great profits, lower labor commitments, ease of cleaning and low cost of entry all add up to a pretty good program," Miller contended.
So, who do you agree with? Are roller grills in or out?
In my view, both men make good points. I concur with Johnson that we will see more convenience stores do away with roller grills in favor of made-to-order programs. However, I also agree with Miller, who believes roller grills will continue to play a major role for those operators whose customer base and/or ability to execute are not aligned with providing a more advanced and differentiated foodservice experience.
It really comes down to a retailer's individual foodservice style.
For roller grills to stand the test of time, though, the c-store industry as a whole must get better at keeping them full, fresh, clean and stocked with customer favorites, as well as new varieties and limited-time offers. And let's not forget the importance of condiments.
Ask yourself: are your roller grills making the cut?