By Sara Hodon
When putting in a full day of roller skating, customers need something to eat or drink so they can refuel to keep up their momentum. Serving food is another way for FEC or skating rink owners and operators to meet a need for their customers so they don’t have to go elsewhere when they get hungry or thirsty, while also adding another revenue stream to their facility’s bottom line.
“We are unique in our operation. Unlike most skating centers who serve ‘snack’-type foods, we have a complete kitchen with ovens and a fryer which allows us to sell more food items like chicken fingers, chicken wings, French fries, cheese sticks,” said Ron Dillow, owner of Searcy Skate Family Entertainment Center in Searcy, Ark. “In our ovens we can cook pretzels and pizza. Our pizzas are made in-house using premade crusts that are sauced and topped by our employees.”
Dean Hohl, owner of Xtreme Wheels in Crystal Lake, Ill., said he is always open to new ideas when it comes to food service at his rink.
John Shigo, owner of The Strand Roller Rink in McAdoo, Pa., said they only have a limited selection of food because they are tight on space. “We sell drinks like iced tea in cartons, bottled sodas, and snacks like candy, popcorn, and nachos with cheese,” he explained. “We’re keeping the food area as is because we’re limited with space. Customers see the snack bar when they come in, and most of them are familiar with what we sell. If a new candy comes out, we’ll sell that, but otherwise we don’t add new items to what we already have.” He said their most popular candy is Airhead Extremes and Nerds Ropes. For drinks, “anything blue sells,” he laughed. “Blue birch beer is our top seller. We also have a lime soda that we sell in glass bottles, and that’s very popular. It fits the style of our rink, which was built in the 1920s.”
Big Wheel Roller Skating Center in East Stroudsburg, Pa., has a similar issue with limited space. “We call our food area our Snack Bar. We serve pizza, pretzels, hot dogs, popcorn, nachos, chicken fries, curly fries, funnel cake, churros, cookies, and fountain drinks. We also have vending machines that sell candy,” explained Jodi Warner, manager. “It’s working for us, so we’re leaving it as is. We don’t have a whole lot of room for expansion. If we expanded and added something, we’d have to remove something else from our operation that’s already selling. Besides the food, we sell a lot of ‘stuff’ at our snack bar, like novelty items for kids—a lot of glow items, and that takes up space, too.” Warner said everything at their Snack Bar is popular, but pizza and popcorn are their biggest sellers.
A big tip for driving food sales at a rink is to give customers as much of a sensory experience as you can. Start with plenty of visuals, whether in the form of posters, advertisements for certain items, video menus, or a combination of all three. Or, if it’s feasible, boost sales even more by having an open kitchen layout where customers can actually see the food being made. “Kids are sight buyers, so they need to see things,” Hohl said. “I have video menus on our TVs, food display cabinets that are warmers and we put things right up front. The kids can see everything. Roller rinks are 95 percent kids—if they see something, they want it.” Hohl’s most popular food items are “certainly Slushies—we’ve done them for a long time and they do well, although we’ll be switching to Icee, because some people I trust in the industry have switched and they do well; soft pretzels, Italian ice, which we have made for us; and our staples: nachos with cheese, popcorn, hot dogs. We make our own pizzas, and our own sauce, which makes a big difference.”
Dillow uses a similar method to capture the visual elements of his food offerings: “The biggest thing I did about four years ago that made a huge difference in my food sales was I added three 40-inch LED TV monitors above the snack bar,” he explained. “Two of the screens run my food items with photos, and on the third, I loop a video of specials for both the snack bar and the rink. There are a lot of software packages out there to help you do this, but since I am in the IT field, I created them on my own.”
Dillow said their most popular food items are, in order: “French fries, nachos and cheese, and cheese sticks. Our biggest sellers are whole pickles, French fries, nachos and cheese, and cheese sticks.”
And don’t forget about smell. Unlike a poster or video, customers can also follow their noses, literally, to make their next food purchase. Warner said appealing to customers’ sense of smell is effective. “Make popcorn when you have customers in the building rather than before they come in. Have cookies baking—it entices people to come to the snack bar. People smell food and it makes them hungry,” she pointed out. She has two other helpful tips for selling food: “Keep everything fresh—make sure everything is made to order, or can be made quickly. We also upsell—maybe a drink with a large popcorn, or an Icee with their meal. We do combo meals as well—a pizza/fry/drink combo, a hot dog/fry/drink combo, and a chicken/fry/drink combo. We push the combos because they’re a cost savings for the customer and it helps us move the food quickly.”
When it comes to adding new menu items, there are two options. One is to remain faithful to the tried-and-true favorites that kids have been ordering for decades; the other is to offer a few new items from time to time to keep the menu interesting for those who may want to try something new. Warner said, “We don’t add new items. What we have is working, and we really don’t have the room to add more. If we did have room to expand our food operation, I’d like to see a few healthier options, like salads or maybe turkey burgers. But our main age group is 5 to 14, and they’re just not interested in eating healthy. But that is something I’d like to add in the future.”
Shigo said they do add new candy; Oreo Cookie Bars were the last new item added. Dillow changes his menu occasionally. “We work with our food vendor to see what the next hot item is going to be. We will order different items during the year to test and then based on performance and margins, we might make it a regular item to our menu,” he said. “This also goes for under-performing items. If an item isn’t selling, we will remove it.” Hohl said he tries to add a new item at least once a year. “We look for something that we can sell a lot of and have a better profit margin rather than a gimmicky product,” he said.
Operators said food sales have a huge impact on their overall bottom line. “They’re pretty important,” Hohl said. “If I didn’t sell food, I wouldn’t be here. Food contributes to the experience. Kids are here to roller skate but look for those little treats.”
Dillow said food sales matter, but it’s important to have items on the menu that kids will like and actually want to buy. “In our business, most ‘customers’ are children dropped off to skate on Friday or Saturday night. They come with X-amount of dollars in their hand and must decide what to spend their money on. They don’t have a debit card to get more money, so I have to compete with myself. I’d rather they spend it on food items, but I have 35 redemption games, so they have to make up their minds what to spend it on,” he said. “During our afternoon sessions we have more parents in the building with their children so that gives the kids their own ‘ATM’ machine. Also, parents aren’t skating so we have to appeal to them with foods they will also like.”
Warner said their food operation not only drives their skating sessions, but their lucrative birthday party business, as well. “Food sales are very important to us. We have birthday parties and that’s huge revenue for us. And we keep booking them because our food and customer service is good, and the price is reasonable.”