Let It Roll

Despite an increase in foodservice options, c-stores remain a haven for roller-grill aficionados.

Let It Roll

June 2024   minute read

By: Terri Allan

While many convenience stores continue to upscale their foodservice offerings—and garner raves from customers and shareholders alike—for some guests, nothing compares to classic c-store cuisine. “The roller grill remains an important part of c-store foodservice programs, and there remains a core consumer group who are roller-grill enthusiasts,” said Sandie D. Ray, vice president, foodservice marketing and data analytics at Ruiz Foods.

Indeed, according to a recent survey of 2,500 consumers by sausage and hot dog provider Johnsonville, 71% said roller grills in c-stores are “very important” or “extremely important,” said Kim Main, senior director and general manager, foodservice. When asked why, respondents said that they like that they can see the product in advance, pick the product they like best and customize it to their specifications. Moreover, according to Main, 40% of the respondents noted that “they can’t get the roller-grill experience anywhere else.”

Ray added that there have been instances when c-stores have removed roller grills from their stores only to receive backlash from guests. “Sometimes, they’ve lost the core roller-grill consumer to a competitive location that offers products like Tornados taquitos,” she said.

According to Food Concepts, Inc., a marketer of roller grills and other foodservice equipment, as recently as 2019, well over two-thirds of all c-stores featured roller grills. And despite the interruption caused to foodservice sales by Covid, the segment remains an important contributor to c-stores’ bottom lines. Roller grills account for 14% of overall foodservice in c-stores, Main said, and Johnsonville is projecting channel sales to grow 5% from 2021 to 2024.

Foodservice Complement

Ed Burcher, partner with the Business Accelerator Team (BA Team), which advises c-stores, conceded that some clients are pushing back on roller grills to concentrate on freshly prepared and made-to-order items. “I think that’s a missed opportunity,” he said, pointing to the emergence of popular grill items like Tornados and other globally inspired offerings that “have helped roller grills evolve. I’m still a huge believer in roller grills.”

Rather than competing with fresh food offerings, roller grills complement them, according to suppliers. Said Ruiz Foods’ Ray, “It’s been exciting to see the growth in the breadth of hot food offerings in c-stores, as well as the elevation of overall quality. … More and more c-stores are showing [that] they can compete with fast food and that they’re in the food retail business.”

The availability of both prepared foods and roller-grill items help differentiate c-stores from QSRs, Ray said. Erin Mueller, director of sales and marketing at Padrino Foods, which supplies tamales for roller grills to c-stores including RaceTrac, Pilot Flying J and OnCue, said that because roller grills—in addition to freshly prepared foods—widen choices for customers, they help drive traffic.

As an example, she pointed to a traveling couple—one who likes fresh sandwiches and salads and one who prefers roller-grill items. “Roller grills make you more of a destination,” Mueller said. Padrino Foods’ business hasn’t been affected by advances in c-store foodservice, she said, pointing to the tamales’ “restaurant quality” and use of only fresh ingredients. “They’re the same tamales you’ll find in a suite at AT&T Stadium, home of the Dallas Cowboys,” Mueller said.

“Covid made it hard for roller grills,” Mueller said. “Some questioned whether the grill would survive.” Fortunately for Padrino Foods, its tamales are fully cooked and individually wrapped and arrive frozen at c-stores. (They go directly from the freezer to the roller grill, requiring about 30 minutes to heat through completely.) “Although the roller grill took a hit during the pandemic, our wrapped tamales were popular,” she said.

Moreover, according to Johnsonville’s Main, the pandemic shed a “halo” on the importance of cleanliness in c-stores, including at the roller grill. “People want to see that the area looks clean, that it’s sanitized and that there are wipes available to clean the tongs,” she said.

Mueller added that post-Covid, “We’re seeing an uptick in roller-grill sales as people are traveling again.”

Wide-Ranging Consumer

One of the appealing dynamics of roller grills is the wide net they cast when it comes to consumer demographics. Ryan Boone, corporate chef at QuikTrip, which offers a wide array of products in the space, said, “There is no singular roller-grill customer. Our roller-grill customers are [composed] of skilled laborers, professionals, high school and college students. Because roller grills serve up the ultimate convenience food, they’re perfect for guests who don’t have as much time to wait for hot food as does a made-to-order customer.”

Roller grills make you more of a destination.”

But with the emergence and popularity of new roller-grill items—such as those with a global flair—the segment is becoming increasingly appealing to younger consumers. Pointing to items such as taquitos, BA Team’s Burcher said, “The demographic is skewing down in age. These items are attracting a younger consumer.” Such movement bodes well for roller grills going forward.

As in other in-store food categories, one of the most common flavor trends for roller-grill items today is bold options. Rutter’s offers roller-grill items such as Tornados, egg rolls, hot dogs and chicken roller bites. “Hot and spicy choices are currently dominating the market,” said Philip Santini, senior director, advertising and food service at Rutter’s.

Mueller agreed. “C-store customers like hot and spicy [items],” she said, noting that Padrino’s habanero tamale is one of its most popular. At Johnsonville, meanwhile, a recently launched chipotle cheddar sausage is performing “fantastically,” Main said.

International items overall are trending. According to Ray, Mexican is the most desired ethnic cuisine in c-stores, and 50% of consumers want more Mexican variety. Ranchero beef and cheese and cheesy pepper jack are among the top-selling flavors of Tornados, while Ruiz Foods also offers a variety of options for the hot case, including El Monterey empanadas, mini tacos and burritos. Johnsonville has witnessed the growth in flavors at the roller grill, too, and Main said that the company will likely have a Mexican-cuisine-inspired entry in the space soon.

C-store roller-grill sales skew toward the 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. daypart. While breakfast options are available, “Breakfast sales lag behind other dayparts,” said Ben Boyd, vice president, sales-convenience at Tyson Foods, which markets Jimmy Dean-, Ballpark- and Hillshire Farm-branded roller-grill items. He said part of the reason is because of a reduced selection in breakfast offerings. “The morning daypart isn’t fully back from Covid,” Boyd said.

At Duchess, the roller grill is a complement to deli and grab-and-go items.

Speed and Value

QuikTrip’s Boone said, “For customers, roller grills are a way to access delicious food at good prices and at a convenience,” with a checkout speed that’s often faster than a drive-thru’s. Boyd added that particularly during these inflationary times, roller grills can provide a great value to consumers versus other areas of the store.

For retailers, a benefit of roller grills is savings on labor expenses.

We’re seeing an uptick in roller-grill sales as people are traveling again.”

“For operators, roller grills provide a hot food option that requires less hassle than other made-to-order or hot food items,” said Nathan Arnold, director of marketing at Englefield Oil Inc., operator of Duchess c-stores in Ohio and West Virginia. “[They complement] our deli and hot grab-and-go food items.” Sales of roller-grill items at the retailer continue to increase year over year, Arnold said, particularly at stores located near highways and construction sites that cater to “super quick service.”

Burcher said that beyond being labor savers, roller grills allow retailers to manage how they allocate labor costs around the service. “Items can be prepared during downtimes, which takes pressure off the kitchen,” he explained. “You can manage the labor better with roller grills than you can for other foodservice operations.”

Among other benefits of roller grills, Mueller pointed to the opportunity for add-on sales. “Because a roller grill item isn’t a full meal, there’s a good chance a customer will buy something else,” such as a high-margin fountain drink or a candy bar, she said. At Rutter’s, roller grills “provide consistent cooking, ensuring that the quality and expectations of our products are maintained,” Santini said.

But there are certainly challenges with roller grills, too—retailers and suppliers cite waste and management as the most critical. “In larger stores with extensive roller-grill programs, waste and product quality are major concerns,” Santini said. “The high volume of food prepared and displayed increases the risk of wastage, especially if items remain unsold for long periods, leading to potential spoilage.” In general, most roller-grill items remain fresh for about four hours.

Roller grills are a way to access delicious food at good prices and at a convenience.”

“It’s important to be aware of demand,” Boone said. “If you have too much [product], it leads to waste. If you don’t have enough, it could result in a lost sale.”

According to Arnold, additional challenges with roller grills include a “lack of variety” in featured items, often limiting “the unique offerings that a traditional hot merchandiser can allow.” And at Love’s Travel Stops—whose roller grills serve up hot dogs, sausages, Padrino’s tamales, Tornados and other items—supply chain disruptions can be a concern, according to Brian Street, manager, foodservice. Still, he called roller grills “high-demand options” and said they are being added to all new Love’s stores.

Winning Promotions

To drive sales of roller-grill products, marketers recommend that retailers rely on many of the same tools that they use for other in-store categories—marketing at the pump, bundle offers, “two fors” and point-of-sale materials. Some suppliers work with retailers on special, limited-time-only offers. At QuikTrip, LTOs satisfy customer interest for “new and fun” items, Boone said, pointing to products such as the recent jalapeño popper LTO, which was very popular. Burcher said roller-grill items can even be merchandised outside of the grill, such as in sleeves in warming units or as part of touch-screen menuing.

Tyson’s Boyd added that condiments and a fully stocked condiment bar can go a long way in helping to merchandise the roller grill. “Some c-stores post signage on how to make a Chicago-style hot dog, for example,” and offer the needed ingredients, he said. “But the most important advice I give to retailers is to be sure the grill area, the prep area and the condiment area are clean. Those spaces must be constantly monitored.”

While roller grills have been a tried-and-true offering at c-stores for years, retailers are still excited about the opportunity ahead. The entry of new flavors will attract a wider audience, Santini said, while keeping the roller-grill menu fresh and exciting. Boone agreed that flavor innovation will spark consumer interest—“I believe roller grills will push the boundaries of c-store cuisine.”

Terri Allan

Terri Allan

Terri Allan is a New Jersey-based freelance writer. She can be reached at [email protected].

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