From hot dogs and sausages to ethnic foods like taquitos and egg rolls, roller grills continue to prosper at conveniece stores.

September 12, 2012

Jun 13, 2012, By Howard Riell, Associate Editor

Roller grills—if handled correctly—offer a great opportunity to grow sales. But as simple and relatively labor-free as they are, they still require management oversight, employee training and some marketing savvy.It’s not that complicated, but it is that essential.“Let me give you an analogy,” said H. G. Parsa, chairman of the Department of Foodservice and Lodging Management at the Rosen College of Hospitality Management at the University of Central Florida in Orlando, Fla. “Every dining room table has salt and pepper. They’re not exciting, but everybody has them. Roller grills are the workhorses of convenience stores, and they make money.” As far as return on investment, roller grills are practically unparalleled. “The equipment has one of the highest payoffs. It’s attractive, and the best part is it doesn’t take space,” Parsa said. “Plus roller grills are easy to clean and require no labor. The products sell themselves. It’s a small size but can hold a lot of hot dogs, bratwurst, taquitos, sausages, whatever. It looks pretty and attractive, and it smells good. That’s the key.”While roller grills may have been stigmatized in the past, the high quality items now available are attracting a wide audience. “It’s blue collar food with crossover appeal,” Parsa said. “Construction workers, children, students, everyone it seems, is a potential roller grill customer. When you factor in the economy and product promotions, the roller grill offers tremendous value. It’s not a thriller, but it sells.”C-stores can also all but skip trumpeting the grill. “People know it’s where it is,” Parsa pointed out, “and they’ll go get it. The only thing is to make sure the food is fresh, and that the grill is maintained properly. You can get one big one, but two small ones work much better.”

Building Sales

How to make the most of a store’s roller grill station?

“A number of key areas come to mind,” said Darren Tristano, executive vice president of Technomic Inc. in Chicago. “The first is enhanced flavor. Operators can differentiate the flavor of the product served on the roller grill. Add flavor inside the product as well as spicy sauces and dips to create craveability and give consumers a greater demand driver.”

The second part, Tristano explained, has to do with innovation. “By developing different ethnic products like Mexican taquitos, Italian and polish sausage and bagel dogs, operators can broaden the appeal,”he said. “Differentiation by quality is also important. Higher levels of quality products provide a better-for-you appeal that is conveyed through the branding.”

Two additional key factors are portability—emphasizing the portability of the product that requires only one hand to eat and can be eaten on the run—and price point, Tristano said. He recommended bundling meals with chips, cookies and a drink to promote greater demand among value-seekers.

Attention to Detail

Even with quality products and a value price, freshness reigns supreme. “I took over a store where they really weren’t doing a whole lot with the roller grill at all,” recounted Steve Vieira, a district manager for a group of franchised Circle K locations in Pittsburgh owned by Duxbury, Mass.-based Verc Enterprises. Verc also directly operates 23 convenience stores in Massachusetts and New Hampshire. “They would throw hot dogs down in the morning and the same ones would be on there 10 hours later.”

Vieira, whose background includes food industry experience, knows what he is talking about. Under his stewardship, the Circle K roller grill sales have skyrocketed by close to 400% in the last seven months.

Hot dogs, Vieira noted, are only good on the grill for a lifespan of four hours. “If they don’t sell within that four-hour span they’ve got to go. You’ve got to put fresh ones on and you need to get the area clean. You’ve got to have the condiments available. It’s all about eye appeal and keeping everything fresh.”

At Vieira’s flagship store, he has the grill running from 10 a.m. to 10 p.m. “As I saw sales starting to increase I kept expanding that. I now run the grill 24/7 with the exception of when they shut it down for about two hours at night to do all the cleaning,” he said.

The store was rebuilt about seven years ago under previous ownership. “I don’t know if they had grills prior to the rebuild, but we now have two three-foot grills going around the clock,” Vieira said.

The unit offers a wide variety of products prepared on its grills, including hot dogs; cheeseburger dogs; pepperjack hot dogs; chicken; beef and pepperoni-and-cheese tornados; Buffalo-chicken roller bites and pork egg rolls. The store recently introduced a combo deal—a hot dog, fountain soda and bag of chips—for $3. “I’m expecting that to really take off for the summer,” said Vieira.

Too few c-store operators understand just how integral roller grills can be to their success. Fortunately for Vieira, he isn’t one of them. “I really believed that there was a lot of opportunity here,” he said. “There was a lot of training that had to be done with the staff. We had to get everybody on board. They had to know that it was important to our bottom line, and that we wanted to grow the category.”

Each of the employees has received training on the proper procedures for setting up, cleaning and maintaining the grills and condiment section.

The chances for success were so great, Vieira recalled, and owner Leo Vercollone’s belief so strong that it became a challenge he could not refuse. “I mean, there was just so much opportunity to grow this category, and we ran with it. It was important to Leo and it was important to us as a company,” he said. “It’s something that we wanted to look at and make sure we were giving due justice. Even I’m shocked at the numbers.”

One of Vieira’s primary tasks was to make certain his people were thoroughly trained on all aspects of the grills’ operation and maintenance.

In terms of routine maintenance, store managers should check the cook temperatures daily. In most cases, health inspectors won’t ask how long food has been sitting atop a roller grill, but rather at what temperature the product is held.

“It’s got to be out of the danger zone, which means 140 degrees or over,” Vieira said.

In fact, keeping the temperature adjusted correctly is an excellent way to help overcome the automatic resistance many customers have to anything sitting on a roller grill.

“The tendency when you throw some new product on there is to turn the control way up in order to get the temperature up quickly. But then your product generally shrivels up, and after a little while doesn’t look as good,” Vieira said. “If you time yourself right and keep the heat a constant low, acceptable temperature, hot dogs will tend to look nice and juicy and more appetizing for a longer period of time.”

Mooyah expects to stand out in crowded burger market with food, flair, service

September 12, 2012

John Stearns, 15 June 2012, Wichita Business Journal

© 2012 American City Business Journals, Inc. All rights reserved.

A Texas-based burger franchise is hungry to sink its teeth into Wichita.

The local burger market is crowded, acknowledges Rusty Rathbun, a Wichita restaurant developer, but he says Mooyah Burgers, Fries & Shakes will stand out.

“There’s nothing like it in Wichita, guarantee it,” Rathbun says.

In the few markets where it’s established, Mooyah is known for its build-your-own burger combinations, myriad milkshake flavors and colorful dining rooms that feature flat-screen TVs and a giant chalkboard for the kids.

Rathbun works with Mooyah as a development agent, assisting Mooyah franchisees and taking a stake in each restaurant he helps. In Wichita, he’s working with franchise owner Anthony Powell, a former anchor on KSN-TV.

They expect to open in a west Wichita location — yet to be disclosed — in August. Powell says he’s waiting to finalize an SBA loan for build-out and equipment.

He says a timetable for future Wichita stores, which he has rights to, depends largely on how the first store does.

A growing niche

Frisco, Texas-based Mooyah fits in the “fast-casual” burger category with the likes of Five Guys Burgers and Fries.

“Fast-casual” means counter service, but food is made to order, so there’s more time between ordering and eating. And consumers pay a little higher price for what they expect to be higher quality.

Wichita’s Five Guys franchisees, brothers Jay and Jeff Miller, say they aren’t concerned about the new competition.

They entered the burger business 2½ years ago and now have three restaurants in Wichita and plan to open two more within five years.

“All we can worry about is ourselves,” Jeff Miller says. As long as Five Guys keeps offering high-quality food and service, the Millers say, they’ll be fine.

Five Guys is the nation’s fastest-growing large restaurant chain, according to food industry researcher Technomic Inc., with sales of $951 million in 2011, up 32.8 percent from the year before.

Mooyah — with just 36 stores, most in Texas — is much smaller.

Darren Tristano, Technomic vice president, estimates Mooyah’s sales at $21 million last year. But that gives it an average unit volume of about $1.1 million, close to Five Guys’ $1.15 million.

“They’re a good brand,” Tristano says. “It’s one that we expect to be a growth chain for years to come.”

Adam Mills, CEO of the Kansas Restaurant and Hospitality Association, says fast-casual restaurants are proving popular.

They cater, he says, to people in a hurry but who seek higher quality food and service and are willing to pay a little more.

However, not every fast-casual burger joint is guaranteed to succeed, as Smashburger demonstrated when it closed its two metro-area stores, the last a year ago. A Smashburger spokesperson could not be reached for this story.

Mills doesn’t know why Smashburger closed here, saying factors could include site, funding, branding or advertising.

Sold on food, experience, support

Powell says he was attracted to Mooyah after meeting Rathbun, whom he calls a “brilliant restaurant person.” Rathbun has developed about 125 Subway restaurants in Kansas and co-owns Wichita’s Twin Peaks restaurant.

After researching Mooyah, tasting the food and meeting franchisees, Powell bought in. He recently finished Mooyah training in Texas.

In Dallas, where burger competition also is fierce, “Mooyah stands above and beyond,” Powell says. “Not only the food, but the dining experience as well.”

Service is huge, he says, and will be his focus. For operations, he’s hired an experienced restaurateur, Bambi Storlie, as general manager.

High-quality food and service are key to competing in a crowded market, agree Five Guys’ Jay and Jeff Miller, and they welcome Mooyah to try its hand at it.

It won’t matter that much to Five Guys, Jay Miller insists. “I’m not going to sweat it either way.”

Franchise fee: $30,000 for first restaurant, $20,000 for each thereafter.

Number of stores: 36. Projected to be 50 by year-end, 100 by end of 2013.