After rebranding a number of its locations under the CITGO brand, Big Apple Food Stores looks to expand its retail portfolio in 2012.
By Erin Rigik, Associate Editor
C.N. Brown’s Big Apple Food Stores has had a busy 12 months. The 82-store chain with locations in Maine, New Hampshire and Vermont, completed an aggressive push to rebrand a number of its stations under the CITGO banner, and opened a new store in Corinna, Maine.
In 2012 it looks to raze and rebuild two locations and add an 83rd site with a ground-up build, as it challenges itself to find unique new ways to cater to its customers.
In addition to its c-store fleet, C.N. Brown also operates eight touchless car washes, 30 Red Shield Heating Oil locations and two Laundromats on the same property as some of its c-stores, fulfilling its mission to be a “one-stop shop.”
The company also runs a wholesale fuel division, through which it delivers gasoline to 90 locations, and operates the gasoline/diesel offering for five service stations on the Maine turnpike. Big Apple Food Stores are branded with CITGO, Shell, Gulf and Irving fuels in addition to operating a handful of unbranded stations.
Preparing For Tomorrow
When the chain planned its new Maine c-store, it ensured the unit had a modern 3,000-square-foot footprint, and included a proprietary deli and coffee program.
“Corinna is a location in between two major towns, and if you saw it you might think, ‘Why would anyone build a store there?’ But it has great traffic going past and it’s in the middle of a great community with a lot of farms and lumber, and residents who need gas and diesel,” said Jinger Duryea, president of C.N. Brown.
Big Apple also decided to grow its relationship with CITGO, simultaneously giving several locations a facelift in time for 2012. “We had a long relationship with a previous fuel brand, but we decided for various reasons that it was time to make a further commitment to CITGO,” Duryea noted. “We already had 25-30 CITGO locations, and we converted another 45 of our stores to the CITGO brand.”
The chain began with a soft rebranding due to the weather.
“In Maine it’s pretty cold in January, so paint doesn’t work well and vinyl doesn’t stick well, so we had to wait for it to warm up to complete a hard rollout,” Duryea said.
Once spring arrived, the store canopies were all renovated to the CITGO image, some new dispensers were installed and others received new decals. One major change involved adding digital signs where possible, something uncommon in the rural areas of Maine where many of the stores are located. The change allowed Big Apple to switch its system of pricing gasoline over to a computerized pricing program, a change that has simplified the price-changing process.
While it increased its relationship with CITGO, Big Apple also added Irving as a gas brand at other locations.
“At some of our stations it made more sense to go with the Irving brand, and we are planning to grow with them as well,” Duryea said.
With the CITGO rebranding complete, Big Apple ran a gift card giveaway program in conjunction with CITGO, to pull customers into newly revamped stores. The promotion involved offering a QR code that customers could access with their smartphones in order to enter to win a $100 gas card.
“The promotion was only available at the CITGO locations we rebranded. Maine has one of the oldest populations per capita in the U.S., and this program with the QR codes helped us target the younger demographic. We had more than 17,000 entries and CITGO was on the airwaves everywhere. They really did it up fantastic for us promoting this program, and the stores’ new look,”
Big Apple is no stranger to foodservice. The chain first embarked on a foodservice offering 15 years ago. Today, the company leases space to 10 Dunkin’ Donuts franchisees and operates three Amado’s locations, the third of which just rolled out at the end of 2011. C.N. Brown selected Amato’s, a popular Italian QSR, because of its local appeal. The company also co-brands with one Subway and one Noble Romans, using its own c-store employees.
In addition, it offers two proprietary delis and, in conjunction with the deli program, features a Chester Fried Chicken program. Since adding the Chester’s and Amato’s, Big Apple Food Stores has seen an uptick in customer traffic at those stores. Despite the success, Duryea plans to grow slowly and steadily in foodservice rather than aggressively.
“I’ve seen a lot of companies over time get into foodservice and get out. And I look at them and I think, ‘You know, they did a lot right and they still were not able to make it work.’”
Thus Big Apple continues to use different strategies to determine the best offering per location. “We have some tried and true franchisees, where we stick to their formula, but in some stores, we think we would be able to do it ourselves with an offering that better matches those communities without being forced to stick to a specific offering,” Duryea noted.
Carlton Brown founded C.N. Brown Co. in 1948 as a lumber business. The company quickly expanded to offer auto service and oil distribution. In the early 1970’s C.N. Brown began concentrating its efforts on the gasoline and heating oil markets, as the lumber industry began to change. Around that time, Brown appointed Harold Jones, former district representative for Philips Petroleum Co., as general manager and CEO of C.N. Brown Co.
In 1977, C.N. Brown built its first convenience store in Maine, under the Big Apple Food Stores banner. From there the chain grew its fleet of stores, expanding into Vermont and New Hampshire. Today, C.N. Brown is owned by the Brown and Jones families.
“My father, Harold Jones, when he was president, would acquire a lot of stores every year,” Duryea said. “When I became president of C.N. Brown in 1995, I decided that building and buying at that pace, although fun and interesting, if you didn’t maintain what you had, and if you couldn’t bring the locations you had in your portfolio up to the new standards, then you wouldn’t be able to maintain your market share.”
At that time, Big Apple was facing steep competition from national chains entering the area that were building top shelf locations with modern footprints. To stay competitive, Big Apple turned its focus to its operations, reinvesting profits in the company and rebuilding old stores from the ground up to meet the standards required to compete effectively today.
Big Apple Food Stores range in size from small inner city locations to larger locations with a modern footprint. Stores built going forward will measure 4,000 square feet. “As we put in these delis and new equipment like the f’real milkshake machines, we find we need more space in our store footprint,” Duryea said.
Being a small regional chain, helps Big Apple differentiate itself from other companies, in the face of stiff competition.
“Instead of having a cookie cutter program that fits all, we adapt as the community needs present themselves. If a community needs a Laundromat we can do that, and if it needs a car wash or a deli, we can do that,” Duryea said.
C.N. Brown works to give back to the communities it serves, and has been a supporter of the Muscular Dystrophy Association (MDA) for more than 26 years. Year to date the chain has donated more than $4 million to the cause.