Clark’s PNS Plots Its Future

The retailer’s goal to assimilate fuller foodservice and larger stores while exploring new markets are just a few reasons why Convenience Store Decisions has chosen  Clark’s Pump-N-Shop as one of its 2017 Chains to Watch.

By David Bennett, Senior Editor

There are a number of convenience chains in the industry that go about their business quietly, taking advantage of opportunities when they present themselves and are regularly tuning into the needs of their customers.

Arguably, that number is dwindling as large convenience corporations gobble up small competitors and middle-tier operators add so many bells and whistles that they are forgetting that customer service is a priority.

Customer satisfaction drives all operational aspects at Clark’s Pump-N-Shop (PNS). Though the convenience retailer has been busy implementing more conveniences and technological advantages at its locations, Clark’s still maintains a level of customer service that has distinguished it as a c-store operator since it was founded in 1980.

The retailer’s goal to assimilate fuller foodservice, larger stores while exploring new markets are just a few reasons why Convenience Store Decisions has chosen Clark’s as one of its 2017 Chains to Watch.

Clark’s parent company, Ashland, Ky.-based John Clark Oil Co. today operates the growing Clark’s chain. With the company’s vision that customers will want to Return, Refresh and Refuel—Clark’s catchphrase—the growing c-store brand is gaining the attention of competing chains.

The second-generation, family-owned company operates 63 store locations in Kentucky, Ohio, West Virginia and Florida, but that store count will soon change.
Clark’s currently has four new stores under construction: two in Kentucky—in the cities of Lexington and Georgetown, respectively—as well as a new-build in Rio Grande, Ohio and a fourth project planned in The Villages, Fla.

All the new Clark’s locations will feature large beer caves and expanded fountains and frozen drink centers. In addition, each store’s cooler area will average between 12-15 doors of retailing space. Ranging from 2,500-4,800 square feet, the planned stores also offer wider shopping aisles that provide patrons a large traffic area without the loss of shopping options. In addition, new sites boast open-vaulted ceilings, mostly all-glass fronts, wood tile flooring and LED lighting.

Every new location will also feature a drive-through. Clark’s currently has 43 locations with drive-throughs.

Three more store locations are in the planning stages. The company will begin construction later this summer.

“By December, we should be at 70 locations,” said Brian Unrue, director of operations for Clark’s.

FUTURE IN FLORIDA
For a number of years, Florida has been a top state for migrating Americans, and not just for the blue-haired set. Central Florida cities such as Jacksonville, Orlando and Tampa are desired metropolitan cities largely due to unusually strong job creation, reasonable housing prices, plus, the state has no income tax.

Not surprisingly, Florida has also become a target destination of several c-store chains including Kangaroo Express, Thorntons and Wawa.

The business opportunities in Florida were too much for the Kentucky c-store chain to ignore. About two years ago, Clark’s opened its first location in the Sunshine State—northwest of Orlando. Since that time, customer traffic and sales have consistently been off the charts, according to Unrue.

“Our grab-and-go food program is setting huge sale numbers,” said Unrue. “Our cold vault sales are so incredible, and this can only help inside gross numbers, along with great food sales. The weather is so consistently beautiful I believe our patrons just enjoy getting out. We also expected dips when the snow birds would return home, but honestly, we have kept steady sales year-round.”

DELECTABLE DESTINATION
A few years ago, Clark’s executives decided they could offer certain foodservice items at a higher quality than surrounding c-store competitors. Under its Clark’s Café platform, the c-store chain has expanded its breakfast offerings and is putting a greater emphasis on fresher food options. The program consists of full menu offerings for breakfast, lunch and dinner.

Clark’s Café also offers traditional grab-and-go selections including burgers, personal pizzas, pretzel sticks, nachos, honey corn dogs and Tornados.

Krispy Krunchy Chicken, which is also part of Clark’s Café, is a staple in many Clark’s locations and will be part of three new stores under construction. In the fourth location, the c-store is tweaking its newest dining concept: Jack’s South Ashland Deli.

“When we added foodservice in our bigger locations a few years ago, we were not very good at it. Through trial and error and with Brian Unrue’s leadership over the past few years foodservice has grown to be a profitable category for us,” said Rick Clark, company co-owner. “Our partnership with H.T. Hackney and Krispy Krunchy has been invaluable. As a result of everyone’s busy lives, our foodservice program provides a fast hot meal for our on-the-go, active customers.”

H.T. Hackney Co. serves as the wholesaler for Clark’s.

All four locations are designed inside to accommodate Clark’s expanded foodservice format.

“All of the new stores will have foodservice operations and all will have high-top seating in the dining rooms,” said Unrue.

Clark’s is finalizing its Krispy Krunchy Chicken locations’ new catering menu with delivery available. The catering program is set to roll out this month.

By listening to customers and following sales trends, Clark’s has developed new foodservice strategies for its various markets.

“Once we got in it and learned and worked it we realized that the margin and the additional sales tied to the department were going to be a great addition to our inside sales gross profit. We now want to be your destination of choice for that foodservice item,” Unrue said.

New breakfast items are on the agenda. Clark’s has been expanding its breakfast program to accommodate broader customer demand. So far, the plan is working.

“Breakfast is a huge part of our foodservice program. It accounts for almost 50% of food sales. Mainly due to the high quality and the added attention this segment receives. All items are fresh baked and can be made to order. The customers who are in a hurry to get to their destination love the idea of that one-stop: for gas, coffee, breakfast and snacks for the day,” Unrue said.

Offerings range from fresh breakfast biscuit sandwiches to the Clark’s Cafe Special—two eggs, small biscuit and gravy with a choice of a sausage or three strips of bacon.

But the options vary.

“You can get a biscuit stuffed from a selection of sausage, ham, bacon, chicken and even bologna if you wish,” said Unrue. “Lunch and dinner consists of daily, freshly-made specials, whether it’s steak and gravy, meatloaf, fish, chicken and tenders—made daily.”

DELI AND BEYOND
When it operated, the South Ashland Market had a loyal following in town. Even when it ceased to exist and Clark’s had acquired the business, the deli was so popular with area residents that the chain integrated the name into the new foodservice platform as well as in its new store design.

As company’s foodservice agenda has changed, the deli menu has also. Jack’s South Ashland Deli offers various side dishes and sandwiches including meatloaf, barbecue and tuna salad.

“We really try to do a lot of newer items monthly as a (limited time offer) LTO. If they take off we consider adding them to the menu,” Unrue said. “We have learned that if you are in an area where most customers are the same, and you don’t have people migrating through on a regular basis, your regulars do get tired of the same menu. This is where we would offer daily specials that typically steer away from the normal everyday menu offerings. In these type of delis, people do like and want a change.”

To further push its foodservice to new heights with the deli offering, the c-store is incorporating fresher, more nutritious options for patrons, especially as more stores come online.

“In October we are opening a new concept at two locations, which will be tied in with Clark’s Café/Jack’s Deli, offering soups, salads and fresh, deli-cut sandwiches,” said Unrue. “We have chosen to place one in a residential, high-volume location with lots of rooftops. The second will be off an exit of a well-traveled highway. We are really excited about this new venture.”

To get the word out about its new offerings, Clark’s is promoting deals on the company’s app and on social media. Another item that the c-store pushes regularly is bottled water. Eight years ago, the retailer began carrying its own brand of bottled water.

For its digital marketing strategies, Clark’s partners with OpenStore by GasBuddy.

“Facebook, Instagram, our app and our web page are four of our biggest tools,” said Unrue.

COMMUNITY TIES
Clark’s works tirelessly to strengthen its bonds to local communities.
For instance, the company this year sponsored the 102nd Clark’s Pump-N-Shop Kentucky Amateur golf tournament. The Kentucky Amateur has been contested since 1911, crowning some of the state’s finest golfers.

Clark’s in 2015 established the Rodney Clark Memorial Scholarship to honor Rodney Clark, a co-owner who died in January 2016. Rodney excelled at many of the technical fields offered at Ashland Community and Technical College, which is affiliated with the annual scholarship.

In the entire month of February, Clark’s also collects for St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital annually.

Clark’s revels in being a c-store the community can depend on, whether it’s for good food, affordable prices or just a friendly face. Embraced by the company’s employees, these tangible qualities and practised principles begin and end with the Clark family.

Most industry experts agree that next-generation executives will be instrumental shaping the fabric of the c-store industry. Besides awareness, creativity and desire, good communication is also a key tool.

“We all talk face-to-face in morning meetings with one owner (youngest brother Brent) and usually meet with the other owner (oldest brother Rick) in the afternoons,” said Unrue. “Everyone’s ideas and opinions are listened to and evaluated and if it will benefit the company, it becomes part of the operation. Another huge part is the respect that is shown from the owners to everyone involved in operations. Honestly, it isn’t about the quantity of people but the quality of the people that are involved.”

Clark’s Pump-N-Shop at a glance
• Founded in 1980 by John Clark
• 67 Store Locations
• Headquarters: Ashland, Ky.
• Parent Company: John Clark Oil Co.
• Clark’s PNS President: Brent Clark
• Co-Owners: Brent and Rick Clar

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