Embracing the Changing Retail Environment

JohnNewBack in 1997 I had the opportunity to sit down with Dave Thomas, the founder of the Wendy’s chain to interview him about his retail strategy. One of the first things he said to me was, “You know why our hamburgers are square? Because we don’t cut corners.”

Over the past decade many things have changed about the industry, but one thing has become clear: foodservice will continue to take on greater importance as retailers struggle to maintain profits and margins on tobacco. There are no shortcuts to retail profitability.

This is still a radical change for many operators, but it’s a change that they must embrace. I’ve personally witnessed the industry’s evolution for close to four decades. I was introduced to the fuel business at my father’s Exxon stations on the outskirts of the Bronx in Mt. Vernon, N.Y. back in the days when gasoline had more lead in it than a pencil factory and most convenience stores were merchandised around the repair bays.

He began as an Esso dealer in the 1950’s with his two brothers, and it truly was a family business. The three-bay garage where he spent his workday was as much his home as our living room. In time, it would become my second home as well. Long before I saw a food court at a travel center, I was eating meals on an old metal desk that had more oil and grease residue than the chassis of ’54 Chrysler.

One of the joys I have now in my adult life is discussing how the industry has changed with my father, who easily preferred stockpiling engine parts on the side of the building to expanding the station to accommodate a convenience store, food court or even a soda machine for that matter. To him, upscale foodservice was the silver truck that stopped by the station around mid-morning or anything that came out of a tap.

Your Choice to Evolve
Age and changes in the industry eventually caught up with my father and two uncles, and all three decided to retire and go their separate ways in the mid-1980s, as did many of the men who were cut from the same cloth. And it turned out to be good timing for his generation. As the 1990’s rolled around, a new convenience store and gas station paradigm was being introduced and his unwillingness to change would have likely caused him much despair. In “athlete speak,” he walked away on his own terms.

But it’s still in his blood. He often takes time to reflect on the glory days of his youth in the gasoline business. While my father has been a customer at many convenience stores through the years, he clearly had no desire to embrace the changes modern c-store owners must do in order to survive.

“We were mechanics,” he told me recently. “We needed to be realistic toward the end of our run. We wouldn’t have been any good at running convenience stores or fast-food restaurants, and we wouldn’t have trusted anyone else to come in and run them for us. Sometimes, you just have to turn the page.”

On a trip to one of his former stations in the Bronx, we reminisced about other changes in the industry. As we talked, a food truck rolled on by much to the delight of employees at a nearby factory. Through the haze of a muggy New York City morning, I could see a sparkle in his eye that seemed to reflect a lifetime of cherished memories. “Let’s go sit down and grab a bite to eat,” he suggested. I smiled and thought to myself, if he would have been willing to embrace some changes, we would have already been there.


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