There are three words that, when put together, simply don’t sound good at all:
Gas Station Food.
What might come to mind is potato chips and candy bars. If you are thinking about convenience store gas stations, you might think of over- or under-cooked hot dogs, or day-old donuts.
But look around and you might see the hottest new trend in gas station ownership: real restaurants.
Gas station owners make very little money on gasoline; perhaps just a couple of cents per gallon. That’s why they usually offer items with high markup, like candy bars and soft drinks, or lottery tickets. But many stations and convenience stores are finding a new way to produce revenue, and that’s by offering well-prepared fresh meals for a sit-down breakfast, lunch or dinner.
The National Association of Convenience Stores has taken notice, declaring restaurant food as the next best way to make the convenience store more than just a pop-in place.
“You really need something (besides gas) to drive the profits, and food is a great way to do that,’’ said Jeff Leonard of the NACS.
As the NACS website notes, “while convenience stores have offered fresh, prepared foods for years, it is only over the last decade that the trend has accelerated. The result is that convenience stores have continued to evolve from gas stations that happen to sell food to food retailers that happen to sell gas.”
There are examples all over the country.
In west Los Angeles, a gas station owner named Richard Speckman told CNBC he decided to spend $300,000 to upgrade his Mobil station by adding a restaurant, and teamed with a local man working for a restaurant chain to open his own shop, the Corner Deli and Grill, which specializes in Mexican food.
The Food Network show “Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives” found a place called Chef Point in Watauga, Texas, that offers lobster bisque, duck escargot, chicken scampi and their specialty, bread pudding, as well as the opportunity to get your vehicle filled up as well. The owner, Franson Nwaeze, could not get financing for a restaurant, but he could get financing for a gas station, so he invested in the convenience store and opened his gourmet restaurant at the same time.
Then there is the story of Al Hebert from Abbeville, La., who now operates a website, www.gasstationgourmet.com, and has produced videos of gas station food stops.
It started for Hebert when he and a friend stopped for gas at a Chevron station in Crowley, La. He entered the gas station shop and “it smelled like home cooking. I said ‘Are y’all cooking in here?’ and found out they were indeed.”
What he found was a restaurant that offered pork roast, rice and gravy, green beans and had a nice sit-down diner. Hebert realized he had discovered an American quirk that was not fully appreciated or understood.
“Once they get you inside, you can have some of the best culinary experiences you will ever have,’’ Hebert said.
As Hebert noted, with “pay at the pump’’ technology, there is often no reason to go into the gas station building at all, and that does not benefit the gas station owner.
“At a lot of these places, it’s just a guy who is trying to compete with the big chains, and has to come up with something innovative when it comes to food,’’ Hebert said. “I am always impressed with how these guys do it. They have a way of doing business that is kind of charming.”
Truck stops are as American as highway driving, and truck stop food is sometimes remarkable as well. But convenience store gas stations don’t have the parking, or are rarely in areas with heavy truck traffic, to invite the professional drivers.
So they have to depend on the family or business driver to notice that they can get gas and great food at the same place.
“There’s great food and creative people preparing it,’’ Hebert said. “Customers simply need to take that short walk from the pumps to the store for an amazing dining experience.”
Kent McDill is a staff writer for Millionaire Corner. McDill spent 30 years as a sports writer, working for United Press International and the Daily Herald of Arlington Heights, Ill. From 1988-1999, he covered the Chicago Bulls for the Daily Herald, traveling with them every day through the nine-month season. He also covered the Bulls for UPI from 1985-88, and currently covers the team for www.nba.com. He has written two books on the Bulls, including the new title “100 Things Bulls Fans Should Know And Do Before They Die’, published by Triumph Books. In August 2013, his new book “100 Things Bears Fans Should Know And Do Before They Die” gets published.
In 2008, he resigned from the Herald and became a freelance writer. The Herald hired him to write business features and speeches for the Daily Herald Business Conferences and Awards presentations.
McDill also writes a monthly parenting column for the Herald’s Suburban Parent magazine.
McDill is the father of four children, and an active fan of soccer, Jimmy Buffett and all things Disney.