As one of the largest franchisees of the Nice N Easy convenience store brand, Clifford Fuel Co. Inc., a petroleum marketer and c-store retailer throughout central and northern New York, pairs the brand recognition and reach of a large c-store chain with the more intimate management of a small franchise.
Founded in 1961, the Utica, N.Y.-based fuel company is a wholesale supplier of Citgo, Mobil and unbranded gasoline, diesel fuel, heating oil and kerosene. The company supplies more than 30 stations—including independent and franchised stores, four of which are independent franchisees operating under the Nice N Easy fuel brand. In addition, Clifford Fuel operates 22 retail locations, 13 of which are Nice N Easy Grocery Shoppes, and also leases two stores to Nice N Easy operators.
Clifford Fuel began its long relationship with Nice N Easy Grocery Shoppes in the early 1980s and has grown steadily ever since.
“We began by leasing a gas station we owned to Nice N Easy right after they started operations in 1980,” said Jim Clifford, president of Clifford Fuel.
A Complete Offering
John MacDougall, president of Nice N Easy, approached Clifford Fuel to rent the service station in Herkimer, N.Y. from the company. “We supplied the gas and he ran the store, and that was only their fourth or fifth store. We were just a petroleum marketer/wholesaler at that time. That was the infancy of the convenience store industry as we know it today,” Clifford said.
The relationship worked for both sides and blossomed. About five years later, Clifford Fuel converted another store it owned to the Nice N Easy brand and began operating as a franchisee, and from there the partnership grew to the 13 franchised locations it operates today.
Clifford Fuel doesn’t stop its services at fuel and convenience stores. It also has been in the car wash business for more than 20 years, giving customers just one more incentive to drive onto their lots. Currently, the company runs six car washes, four of which are positioned at Nice N Easy stores, and operates its own fleet of delivery trucks throughout central and northern New York.
“I think the car washes interact well at the sites,” Clifford said. “Between the convenience store, the gasoline and the car wash, it just gives people another reason to come to the site, and it’s another service that we provide at the site. They all kind of complement each other.”
Benefiting from the Brand
Working with a large chain like Nice N Easy helped Clifford Fuel learn to be a convenience store operator, an important profit center for the company that has helped it expand through the years when other local fuel distributors failed. “We get the benefits of an 80 or 90 store chain when we’re only operating 13 stores,” Clifford said.
Those benefits include increased purchasing power and access to various marketing programs that the company puts together—from direct mailings to community programs that promote the brand—as well as advertising packages, not to mention the brand name recognition itself.
“We’re in the same markets as a lot of the Nice N Easy corporate stores, so we get the benefits of the brand name and all the marketing that goes into their own stores here as well,” Clifford said. “Plus, because they are such a progressive chain that likes to introduce a lot of new programs, we are in a position to take advantage of the ones that work and pass on those that aren’t as effective.”
Clifford noted that Nice N Easy also organizes a myriad promotional programs for the community and holds several events in the central New York area to benefit charitable organizations. His employees are encouraged to participate in the events, including a variety of walks and runs with the American Heart Association. The charitable promotions are always tied back into the store. For example, cashiers will wear shirts to promote a current charity event or community promotion, alerting customers to the cause.
Clifford Fuel continues to expand its network of stores under the Nice N Easy banner. In June, it purchased a store in Alder Creek, N.Y., which it gutted and completely remodeled under Nice N Easy’s latest store design. The new store opened in August and provides a heavy foodservice offering, including a full sub sandwich bar, pizza program and extensive coffee line.
Clifford credits Nice N Easy for its strong food presence, which franchisees can draw from. While the Alder Creek store is doing well with its new sandwich bar, the company offers a Subway at two of its Nice N Easy franchises.
Last December, Clifford Fuel also acquired an existing Nice N Easy store in Taberg, N.Y., that had been owned by a franchisee, and which the company already supplied with fuel. It remodeled the location with new counters and lighting, expanded the foodservice offering and reopened the store last May.
“Nice N Easy was very helpful regarding the layout plan,” Clifford said. “They helped us design the customer flow, decide on the equipment purchases, and they were especially helpful in the food area—we added a full sub bar, pizza and soft-serve ice cream.”
But support and services alone aren’t what inspires Clifford Fuel to remain with the Nice N Easy brand. “Their people set them apart from other chains that I’m aware of. They’re very supportive and they also are visionary in a lot of ways,” Clifford said. “They allowed us to do a lot of things in the industry by just kind of paving the way for us. John MacDougall, Peter Tamburro, Fran Duskiewicz and their outstanding staff continually bring new marketing, operational and technological programs to our attention and are then available to help our people with the implementation.”
Clifford added that employees all feel a sense of pride since Nice N Easy was named Convenience Store Decisions’ 2009 Convenience Store Chain of the Year. “It’s been a great relationship for a long period of time with us,” he said. “We’re proud being a member of the chain.”