In 2010, Jeff Lenard, spokesman for the NACS, the Association for Convenience & Fuel Retailing, effectively summed up a growing industry trend: “We’re changing from gas stations that happen to sell food, to restaurants that happen to sell gas.” Five years, later the trend shows no sign of slowing down, considering that 80 percent of all fuel purchases in this country are made at convenience store retailer.
According to NACS, convenience stores have offered fresh, prepared food for years, but it is only over the last decade that the trend has accelerated. Perhaps American consumers have finally been able to move past the stereotype that gas stations are an untrustworthy places to have a meal. To a large extent, the industry can thank leaders like Sheetz for raising the bar on foodservice and opened its first convenience restaurant in Altoona, Pa.
Single store owners, like Knucklehead Bend Market & Eatery in Bedford, Ind., are also leading the way by offering a full menu of freshly made food and a motorsports-themed c-store.
You don’t just have to be part of the automobile culture to survive either. Check out Thrillist’s 13 best restaurants in gas stations (and try not to eat your screen).
Focus on Food
One of the greatest things about America is our freedom, particularly our freedom to choose a double cheeseburger with bacon over a kale smoothie. While people like actress Gwyneth Paltrow are launching organic take-out companies, gourmet burger chain Shake Shack is poised to open hundreds of locations across the U.S. in coming years.
Similarly, Freddy’s Frozen Custard & Steakburgers just opened 21 stores in 21 weeks, and is on track to open a total of 45 stores this year in a mix of old and new markets.
While it’s true that Americans are eating healthier, there is still a strong undercurrent and demand for classic roadside dining. So, the question is, will gas stations rise to the challenge and capitalize on this opportunity?
If You Grill It, They Will Come… If You Don’t Gross Them Out
It all goes make to operations. Does your store have curb appeal? If you are, in fact, filling up tanks, does your forecourt send the message that this is a sanitary place to eat? Greasy/grimy cars outside a place where people eat will always be a delicate balance, so the operator has to do their part to make it a sanitary environment.
Don’t give customers a reason to leave your property ready to write a negative Yelp review.
We’re not exaggerating these concerns. Just last week, Cintas Corp. released the results of a Harris Poll it conducted on the cleanliness of a business. Overall, 85 percent of Americans would not patronize a business with negative online reviews about its cleanliness.
Of course, restaurants and hotels ranked at the top of the list of businesses where cleanliness most greatly impacted buying habits. However, respondents also listed convenience stores and gas stations. It’s all related!
In summary, gas station restaurants continue to evolve and the future is bright. Operating a “hidden gem” of a restaurant can be fun, but you still need a loyal customer base. You need to make that first good impression to get customers in the door.
Just ask Al Hebert, a medical journalist who blogs at GasStationGourmet.com.
“The average person just fills up their tank, pays with a credit card and drives off,” Hebert told the Washington Post. “But if you just walk a few feet from the pump to the store, you might discover one of the best eating experiences of your life.”