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VOL. 46 | NO. 35 | Friday, September 2, 2022

Pilot Flying J, others chains see challenge, move to meet it

By Catherine Mayhew

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Not so long ago, when motorists pulled off the interstate for a pit stop they might buy a bag of peanuts or a candy bar at the convenience store. Not so much anymore.

Buc-ee’s may offer the most comprehensive selection of roadside snacks, but it’s far outpaced in terms of sheer numbers of locations by other travel centers that are significantly overhauling their product offerings.

“Most evolving convenience retailers of all sizes are upping their food service game with these mega stores with multiple food stations,” says Greg Lindenberg, an editor for convenience store trade publication CSP. “And bean-to-cup coffee is becoming standard at state-of-the-industry retailers.”

Knoxville-based Pilot Flying J is the largest travel center company in America with more than 740 locations. For truckers, that means laundry services and hot showers. For the rest of us, it means a widening selection of hot meat-and-three type meals, chains like Subway and Dairy Queen – and the irresistible Cinnabon outlets.

The chain is in the process of remodeling some of its travel centers and has introduced a new Tex-Mex deli concept called Burrito Junction in some stores. It features a make-it-your-way line of burritos, tacos, bowls and quesadillas available 24 hours a day. Some outlets also feature a custom line of clothing from Buffalo Outdoors that includes hats, tank tops and T-shirts.

Love’s Travel Center, with more than 530 outlets nationwide, has 17 locations in Tennessee with plans to open more. It has its own branded line of products and 2022 plans are to introduce new hot and fresh food options, including breakfast, sandwich and salad items made fresh daily.

Lindenberg says 7-Eleven is “getting into the game with its new showplace Evolution stores that act as live test sites for the chain’s latest innovations and digital bells and whistles.” Each Evolution site is different, but some include a cigar humidor, frozen margaritas, a wine cellar and covered outdoor seating. Evolution stores are in Texas, New York, Virginia, California and Washington, D.C., but the company is eying other locations for expansion.

Pennsylvania-based Wawa is expanding into the Volunteer State with a Nashville store in 2025. It says it expects to add up to 40 more locations in the next few years.

It’s not a travel center, but its model is similar to Buc-ee’s, focusing on the in-store experience rather than what’s going on at the gas pumps.

Wawa has its own line of branded beverage and food products, hot soups and a deli station that features made-to-order sandwiches. Like Buc-ee’s fans, customers who love Wawa will drive past other convenience stores to patronize a location.

And if you need some extra cash, Wawa’s ATMs have no service charge.

Wawa’s plans to open 54 locations nationwide this year. While focusing on neighborhood stores, the chain is also eyeing getting into the travel center sector.

Lindenberg says careful growth will allow Buc-ee’s, Wawa and the 7-Eleven Evolution stores to maintain their mystiques.

“While the chain and others like it could quickly saturate the markets if they grow too fast, right now there are few enough of them to maintain a Coors beer or Krispy Kreme-type draw when those were harder to get,” he says.

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