Ethnic Foods Push Roller Grill Sales

Roller grills, the backbone of many convenience store foodservice programs, continue to provide chains with an inexpensive, labor-friendly foodservice concept that allows store operators to expand their fresh food offering.

By Howard Riell, Associate Editor.

Discussions about trendy ethnic roller grill items require participants to learn a number of words in Spanish. Now, as retailers continue to push the envelope in the race to be the first to market with new products, it may also be time to brush up on your Yiddish.

More than a year in the planning, 7-Eleven debuted its first-ever kosher grill this August at a store in the heavily Orthodox Jewish enclave of Monsey, N.Y. The good fortune of franchisees and brothers Anthony and Michael Mendicino is twofold: the concentration of consumers with very specific dietary requirements and the relative lack of kosher restaurants and other prepared-food options.

The Mendicinos held a Customer Appreciation Day on Aug. 5 offering free samples of their kosher grill offerings: beef frankfurters, hot and spicy beef links and Polish sausages, as well as knishes and kosher condiments—along with kosher Slurpee drinks for sale, face-painters, music and clowns.

As part of the store’s remodel last year, 7-Eleven added a second grill, which lit a light bulb over the brothers’ heads. Since eight out of 10 of their customers keep kosher, why not meet their needs?

The store had long sold kosher pre-wrapped sandwiches, milk, baked goods and frozen meals, but nothing hot and ready to eat. They hired a pair of Orthodox Jewish chefs and ordered the food product from kosher purveyors.

“This is something our guests have wanted for years,” Michael Mendicino said. “‘When will we have hot dogs too?’ they kept asking. We have some packaged kosher sandwiches and snacks, and we tried a kosher hot dog vending machine once. That worked for a while, but when the company servicing the machine was sold, it became a problem. Now the community is really buzzing about the kosher grill.”

Community Buying In

Rabbinic oversight of kosher food standards—a requirement for the items—was assigned to Rabbi Zushe Yosef Blech. “We thought it would do very well and the response from the community has been phenomenal,” Mendicino said. “Sales have been through the roof.”

Indeed, the store quickly sold 400 hot dogs in a single day, and the kosher dogs have outsold the standard ones, by a 10-to-1 margin. Blech said the kosher items have had enormous crossover appeal to non-Jewish customers because of their perceived healthier ingredients.

The grill items are available for both lunch and dinner. An overhead sign reads KOSHER HEAVEN AT 7-ELEVEN and informs customers about the kosher supervision.

The Mendicinos reached out to 7-Eleven zone merchandiser Robin Murphy about the need to separate the kosher and regular grill. “I visited their store multiple times and saw residential developments being constructed where the primary residents were of the Hasidic Jewish faith,” Murphy said. “In addition, a new synagogue and yeshiva (religious school) were being built about two blocks from the store, and a girls’ school was nearby as well.”

Murphy knew the hurdles that had to be cleared. “We needed to have a ‘glatt’ kosher product, which is the designation necessary to gain rabbinical supervision,” she noted. “It took us several months to find the right vendor and products.”

Globex Kosher Food Inc. of Brooklyn created exclusive recipes for the Monsey store, while most of the condiments are being sourced by Heinz. Aside from the dedicated grill and condiment bar, a separate storage area for the kosher products has been designated.

Ethnic Opportunity

The potential of adding new ethnic fare to a store’s roller grill offering comes at a good time, according to Chicago-based research and consulting firm Technomic Inc. In late August, the company released findings showing that consumers’ desire for ethnic food away from home hasn’t slowed one iota.

Better still, Technomic executive vice president Darren Tristano noted, “Chain restaurants aren’t meeting current consumer demand for new foods and flavors.”

Only a quarter of consumers polled as part of a recent survey said they are satisfied with the availability of ethnic offerings at limited-service and full-service chains. “This translates into opportunities for operators to differentiate their menus and gain market share with globally-inspired offerings,” Tristano said.

But authenticity is crucial when it comes to making an ethnic food purchasing decision—a factor that seems perfectly suited to the kosher world, where consumers are not only acutely aware of, but insistent upon authenticity.

Technomic also found that three out of four consumers purchase ethnic foods and flavors away from home at least once a month. Not surprisingly, the trend is strongly driven nationwide by Asian and Hispanic respondents, with 90% and 88% of these consumers, respectively, buying ethnic food or flavors away-from-home at least once a month. Nor does “ethnic” have to mean international. Nearly nine out of 10 consumers surveyed they consider regional U.S. cuisines, such as Cajun (89%) and Creole (86%), to be ethnic.

The growing Hispanic population appears to be driving the spicy trend. As a result, new products are hitting the market to meet the demand. “We believe the Hispanic market is the average consumer buying from the roller grill, so I think everybody is focused on it as much as we are,” said Paul Servais, retail foodservice director for Kwik Trip Inc., which operates more than 360 c-stores in Wisconsin, Minnesota and Iowa.

In addition, more retailers are adding breakfast sausages to the roller grill to entice hungry customers in the morning who stop for coffee on the way to work.

Steps to Success

Retailers can help keep their roller grill program enticing to consumers by keeping it fully stocked with fresh items and by bundling meals, such as a roller grill item, a bag of chips and a fountain drink at a discounted price.

More than ever, consumers are looking for value and QSR restaurants are meeting this desire with cheaper daypart options, like the dollar menu deals offered at McDonald’s, Wendy’s and others.

Today, customers desire a large array of options, but also want to know that their store sells their favorite products. Talking to customers is a great way to get feedback on what’s working, although retailers say customers are not shy about being vocal if their product is missing. Many retailers are sticking to tried-and-true brands and flavors, but meeting the demand for variety with an extensive condiment bar nearby, which allows customers to dress their brat or hot dog to fit their preferences.

Chevron, for example, began rolling out its ExtraGood To Go foodservice program at its ExtraMile stores, which makes foodservice a strong destination within the store.

Banner advertising with beauty shots of daypart items greet customers at the pump. Inside the store, uniform signage and strategically placed spotlights draw customer focus to the roller grill, food warmer and menu board.

The oil company has focused on emphasizing the brands consumers know, and all roller grill items have a designated place on the roller grill, so customers can locate their favorites quickly during repeat visits. In addition, all roller grill items are precooked, which ensures the meats are served safe and heated to the optimal temperature.

As a result, what customers see is ready to eat rather than a sign asking them to come back in 15 minutes, as some chains do when cooking items directly on the roller grill.

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