firstclass foodie

Trend-setting fuel marketer Bill Knight serves up ’chef-crafted meals to go’ at his amazing NexStore MarketPlace in one of South Florida’s most affluent locales.

The birds living in the lush foliage adorning the NexStore MarketPlace in South Florida’s affluent Boca Raton community couldn’t have it much better. Thrushes and mockingbirds look happy and well fed, just like the human patrons that frequently shop the 25,000 sq. ft. restaurant that doubles as a discount fueling center with a convenience store.

Bill Knight, principal of Knight Development Group, which started work on the MarketPlace concept about four years ago, began his career in the convenience store business in 1969. His one-ina-million Plaza Real/Premier Karwash combination store helped him earn a CSD Up & Comer Award in 1995. He sold his convenience store properties in 2002 to focus on building the NexStore

MarketPlace—a full-service restaurant, “food factory” and catering operation that coincidentally sells discounted fuel and houses a convenience store.

“We took a giant leap with this store and made fuel secondary—we made the market the true destination,” he says. “We’ve watched the Dean & Deluca’s and the eatZi’s of the world, and this concept is probably more like eatZi’s than anything else I’ve seen. We offer 350 different full meal solutions. People find things to eat here—healthier foods, great low-carb meals, sugar-free foods—that they won’t see in other places.”

Any facility with more than 40 ” firstclass” chefs, as well as a staff of artisan bakers and butchers on site, clearly views itself as a serious foodservice contender. The restaurant nets sales of more than $30,000 on better days. While the 24-hour convenience store, which is located at the front of the facility and has a separate point of sale for in-and-out customers, contributes its share of sales, the chefcrafted foods provide the real draw.

The restaurant’s average ticket is about $13. Menu items include sushi, homemade meatloaf, family-size pizzas, spare ribs and hand-carved ham, but the menu is too extensive to even attempt to list in its entirety. Best-selling items include beefsteak ($9.99 retail), sausage & vegetable lasagna ($4.99), pizza and fresh-grilled steak and fish. Knight and his staff of “foodies” developed all the recipes and food systems themselves.

Nothing quite like it
A “Chef’s Showcase” station overflowing-with spreads, side dishes, prepared salads and other foods from around the world is the beating heart of the restaurant. But the market has several other “venues,” as Knight calls them, including a Starbucks-style caf, a bake shop, several open-air merchandisers filled with grab-and-go items, a sushi station and a made-to-order sandwich counter.

The restaurant also offers a wine selection that’s larger than those found at most wineries, and a cheese selection— more than 400 varieties—that would put a gourmet supermarket to shame. The wine presence will only grow, since Knight plans to implement additional “tweaks” by converting part of the restaurant into a fine wine shop. A veritable garden of fresh-cut flowers frames the store’s main entrance.

Catering represents another major profit-center for NexStore. Knight believes he has a distinct advantage over traditional caterers, where the customer would visit the caterer’s office without ever seeing the food. At NexStore, potential catering customers see, smell and taste the food first-hand. Knight hired a catering specialist who’s dedicated solely to running the operation. Overall, he’s pleased with the volume and the buzz the restaurant—the catering ops included—have produced.

“I’ve never seen anything like it, and I fully intend to take it across the country,” says Knight. “I can understand why people would want to duplicate it, but that’s almost an impossible job. For new sites we open, this store [in Boca Raton] is going to become a commissary. Our kitchen is large enough to handle the volume of another four to five stores.”

The Boca Raton NexStore MarketPlace benefits from a unique location. More than 75,000 people live and work in the area surrounding the store, which is located at the foot of the I-95 off-ramp. Two business parks are within walking distance. And the customers come in droves; during peak times, as many as 30 people gladly wait in line to pay for their meals.

Around lunchtime, it gets pretty tricky finding a place to park in the restaurant’s lot of 112 spaces. Knight considers the congestion a good problem, but he’s not done trying to improve the experience. The facility rests on three acres, but Knight acquired another 1.5 acres to put in more than 100 additional parking spots. He recently gave up on one particularly creative solution he thought might alleviate some of the bottlenecking.

“We tried valet parking,” he says. “We thought we could ‘stack’ the cars to solve the problem, but it didn’t work. It was an interesting experiment.”

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