serving the upper crust

Not many convenience stores serve Salad Nioise (Albacore tuna withbaby greens, tomatoes, haricot verts, potatoes, hard boiled eggs, anchoviesand nioise olives with a citrus vinaigrette) or Egg Florentine (classicegg salad with parmesan and spinach on a buttery croissant) as part of theirprepared foods offers. Not many convenience stores offer wine tastings and canapsat the bar either. Then again, Fuel Co. (Charlottesville, VA) isn’t like manyconvenience stores.

Fuel Co. is the creation of philanthropist and vintner Patricia Kluge. One day, while driving between Charlottesville and the nation’s capital, she stopped off to fill her tank (and stomach) only to be disappointed with what she found. She felt she couldn’t be the only one looking for a better, healthier roadside offer, so she began to envision what she considered an ideal fuel stop.

While her single store offers gas and a c-store (customers can get typicalconvenience items like candy, soda and water in the 400 sq. ft. c-store, butthe company also tries to provide unique items like fresh Odwalla juices), itfocuses squarely on gourmet quality food. Kluge started by recruiting Ken Wootento run the operation as the general manager. Wooten and Kluge met when he wasworking at her favorite restaurant in Charlottesville, the Metropolitan. Thenshe went to work on her kitchen by hiring Tim Hockett, a gourmet chef from Chicago,who brought his executive sous chef, Joe Warter, to create a healthy, high-endmenu for a caf and bistro that would be served from the same kitchen.

“When we broke ground the whole concept was tight,” says Wooten. “We knew we wanted to offer the bistro but we wanted to make sure the kitchen would be able to open up on both sides so it could serve the sit-down restaurant (bistro) and the caf. The whole concept is about what we serve, but we didn’t want to overextend ourselves. So we opened the caf, gas and c-store side of things in October 2003; the restaurant for dinner in December 2003; and then offered lunch and brunch in the bistro in March 2004.”

Customers can get espresso, cappuccinoor fruit smoothies in the 2,000 sq. ft.caf next to the c-store. Or they can have an elaborate breakfast andlunch menu to satisfy their appetites, from hot croissant sandwiches with sautedbaby spinach and feta for $2.95, to an Asian Tuna sandwich, which consists ofseared Ahi tuna, red pepper, ginger and wasabi mayonnaise on a baguette for$6.25.

The 1,500 sq. ft. bistro, which is separated from the c-store/caf offer, is meticulously designed with mahogany tables, crisp napkins and beautiful black and white photographs with fuel themes, like shots of vintage service stations or oil wells. Some of the menu items sport “roadside” names, but the food and the prices are unlike anything sold at a typical c-store restaurant. The “Truck Stop,” for example, is a double-cut pork chop, apple, dried cherry bread pudding with fingerling potatoes for $18. And then there’s “Free Wheeling,” a roasted chicken breast, chard, local corn, green beans and ricottastuffed pasta for $17.

Kluge saw gourmet as the only way to go, but it’s fitting because her storeserves an audience far removed from what most retailers would consider theirprimary customer. Fuel Co. is situated near Charlottesville’s historic DowntownMall and just a few miles from Thomas Jefferson’s mountaintop home. The store’sprimary audience: attorneys, doctors and other white-collar professionals.

“Our offer isn’t for everyone,” says Wooten. “But those with distinguishedpalates and a keen eye for style have really taken to it. There’s a comfortone can derive from a well-designed, well-kept space. This isn’t a cookie-cutteroperation; [Kluge] had a vision of the style of the building, the taste of gourmetdelicacies and the microbrew beers offered at the bar. No, it’s not the firsttime a restaurant and a gas station have teamed up, but it’s the first truehealthful, high-end partnership I’ve seen.”

Wooten says the kitchen might see 400 tickets in a day, and considering the price points on some menu items, Fuel Co. makes a nice profit.

In January, the company started cateringevents like weddings and get-togethersat the local university and medical center. Even though fuel is almost an afterthought,it represents 45% of Fuel Co.’s profits, while food (caf, bistro andcatering) makes up another 45%. The rest of the company’s profits come fromsales of convenience items. But in Kluge’s pursuit of what she considers a morehealthful offer, she’s taken the emphasis off tobacco items and put a strongerfocus on things like American-produced wines.

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