CSP's 2017 Indie Influencers

By 
Abbey Lewis, Editor in Chief, CSProducts

independent retailer statistics

This is an origin story. It’s a story about the heartbeat of an industry. It’s about grit, strategy, smarts and stamina. And at its center: independence.

The 10 retailers featured in CSP’s inaugural Indie Influencers list have clout—from D.C. to their street corner. Their authority is bigger than their store counts, none larger than 10 locations. There’s a native son, a chef, a neighborhood king and a balloonist.

And though there are plenty of great independent retailers in the United States—tens of thousands, actually—these 10 operators define what it takes to be a mom-and-pop business in 2017. At the heart of each story is the steady beat of the industry they love, each with its own unique, independent rhythm.

The NIMBY Slayer

36 Lyn Refuel Station

Community Hub

Lonnie McQuirter | 36 Lyn Refuel Station

Minneapolis

Lonnie McQuirter’s dad used to own a cleaning company. His mantra: Treat your employees well. When that little boy grew up and took over his dad’s convenience store, he too put the employees first.

“You have to take care of those that take care of you,” McQuirter says. “We’ve always paid our staff a living wage since we’ve been in operation. And all of our community outreach comes from there.”

The store—branded BP but with McQuirter’s own brand, 36 Lyn Refuel Station, above the door—is situated in the central flow of urban Minneapolis, at a blue-collar/white-collar crossroads. The store itself “is kind of a pig with a lot of good lipstick on it,” says McQuirter. Bone broth, vegan jerky and almond milk sit alongside c-store staples in the matchbox-sized store. In front of the acrylic sliding windows at the counter are locally made snacks and a heaping pile of bananas.

Operating in a dichotomy of pervasive not-in-my-backyard (NIMBY) sentiment and neighbors who bring him home-cooked lunches, McQuirter is a stakeholder in the community.

36 Lyn not only supports various local organizations, but it also serves as a meeting place during street fests. He has turned off his pumps for an entire day to host classic car shows, bands and food trucks on the forecourt. The employees are outside with their customers, enjoying the sunshine and cheering right alongside them.

“[These events] help our customers see them in a different light, in a more relaxed setting,” he says. “They start to look at us a little differently.”

The Chairman

Political Hero

Rahim Budhwani | 6040 LLC, Encore Stores

Birmingham, Ala.

Call him an accidental retailer.

“I was joining to just be a silent partner with someone else running the operations, but at the last minute he had a change of mind, and I ended up owning a store,” says Rahim Budhwani. “Without having any previous knowledge of the c-store, [I had] a really tough time [understanding] everything in the industry.”

That learning curve hasn’t held him back. Budhwani now runs 10 stores in Alabama and is the chairman of NACS, a role he earned through years of action and engagement.

“There is a simple saying: Either you can be at the table or on the menu. I choose the first option,” he says.

During his acceptance speech at the 2016 NACS Show, Budhwani stressed the need for continuous education—for and by retailers. “Our elected legislators most of the time don’t understand our industry,” he says. “They don’t really know what goes on to keep our stores open, and how one of their decisions can cost hundreds of thousands of dollars.

“The best way is to educate them. Meeting with them and creating a bond really helps us to put our side of the story in front of them.”

One of Budhwani’s greatest concerns for indies is their ability to keep up with the industry’s current evolution.

“This industry is changing on a rapid scale,” he says. “Large companies have upped their game so much that [there will] come a time when you are going to grow—or you have to go.”

The Convenient Gourmand

Iconic Indie

Denise Molnar | Tioga Gas Mart, Whoa Nellie Deli

Lee Vining, Calif.

It’s not on a busy street corner, or even in a city center with lots of foot traffic. Tioga Gas Mart is literally on top of a mountain, at the entrance to Yosemite National Park. The pass that leads to the store sometimes doesn’t open until July, when the snow finally gives way to summer.

“Our property was one of the only undeveloped large private parcels left in the county,” says manager Denise Molnar. “Being at the entrance of [Yosemite] and near the highway, my father saw opportunity for a business.”

The Tioga Gas Mart and Whoa Nellie Deli are considered by food fanatics (as well as the Los Angeles Times, Gourmet and National Public Radio) to be one of the country’s best hidden dining destinations. Reviews online are nothing short of gushing.

Molnar credits her customers for that evolution. All the retailer did was listen.

“For those who don’t want to spend a lot of money, we have pizza by the slice,” she says. “And then there are those who come to enjoy the great view of Mono Lake and celebrate their anniversary and want a bottle of wine and a fancy entree.”

The restaurant is tucked behind a traditional c-store. The menu includes its famous fish tacos, ahi  sashimi, grilled pork chops and so much more.

“The intention was to be a mom-and-pop operation with a small deli serving sandwiches,” says Molnar.

“Today we have 35 employees and serve everything from cheeseburgers to wild boar and elk chops.”

The Family Man

Community Hub

Anthony Perrine | Lou Perrine’s Gas & Grocery

Kenosha, Wis.

Anthony Perrine’s parents met and fell in love at his grandfather’s gas station when they were both in seventh grade. They locked eyes while each was working, pumping gas at the then full-service station near Lake Michigan. And the rest is history.

That history, one that started with the original Lou and passed to his son, also Lou, is kept alive by grandson Anthony.

“People like those stories,” he says, admitting that it’s mostly a good thing that people know him wherever he goes. “It’s a small town. I fill out a form somewhere or I say my last name, and people  know.”

But the mom-and-pop shop is evolving under Anthony. An ambitious delivery strategy has the retailer partnering with local restaurants for what he calls a “mini GrubHub.”

For $5, a driver from Lou Perrine’s will bring anything a customer wants from the store—minus beer and liquor—pick up a pizza from a restaurant partner down the street, and deliver all of it to their front door within 45 minutes.

This store has seen generations of loyal Kenosha natives and visitors alike stop to not only fill their tanks, but also shop in between its four walls.

“Do I think my grandpa knew it was going to be this good?” Perrine says. “I think he always assumed it would be busy next to the lake. But I think it was my dad that really saw the neighborhood change—and that really helped open the door to the inside.”

The Good-for-You Gurus

Foodservice Leader

Melissa Rosen and Greg Horos | Locali Healthy Convenience

Los Angeles

Melissa Rosen and Greg Horos want entrepreneurs like them to own a piece of their success story. That’s why the three-store operators are expanding their healthy and sustainable convenience-store model via franchise.

“We’re disruptive with this model, because at the end of the day there’s no pretense to what we’re doing,” Rosen says. “We’re just serving really good food. And I’m excited about being a model to other entrepreneurs and CEOs.”

About that food: Sandwiches, such as veggie-based The Hungry, Hungry Hippy and Indian-cuisine-inspired The Peaceful Warrior, are made with responsibly raised, vegetarian-fed and antibiotic- and hormone-free meats, or can be ordered to accommodate vegan, vegetarian or gluten-free customers. All produce and other ingredients are organic whenever possible, and all bread is purchased locally.

Sure, part of Locali’s success is its Californian customers, who demand sustainable, wholesome and nutritious foods. It just fits their lifestyle. One of its locations is a completely vegan fast-food concept called Localita & the Badasserie.

Whether the model will fit expansion plans into Colorado, New York, Florida, Texas and Oregon remains to be seen. But Rosen is optimistic.

“[In the beginning], both of us said, c-stores don’t have that. … They don’t have fresh,” she says. “We’re really proud of what we’ve brought.”

The Balloonist

Community Hub

Kent Couch | Stop and Go Shell

Bend, Ore.

Kent Couch is not afraid of heights. In 2012, he and a friend strapped themselves to lawn chairs attached to almost 400 balloons and floated thousands of feet in the air for seven hours to raise awareness for Iraqi orphans. When it comes to running his store, Couch is a little more grounded.

Attendants in old-fashioned uniforms clean windshields while they pump gas for customers. And few of those happy customers leave thirsty: The store has a growler station with 30 taps for beer, and another 18 taps for nonalcohol drinks.

Despite the challenges of independent ownership, Couch prefers running his own business to the alternative.

“There’s a lot of bureaucracy you’ve got to get through and different levels of management to approve something,” Couch says. “With us, we can make it really quick.”

Couch dealt with that bureaucracy firsthand working in the grocery industry before he owned his own c-store. “I was a store manager, and right off the bat I was making more money being an independent than I was working for [a major company],” he says.

For Couch, the store’s real appeal is its customer-friendly approach.

“I often have people come in to talk to me personally about how great our service level is, and they all know my name,” he says. “I hope the day I walk out of here that that customer service level will be able to continue.”

The Industry Man

Political Hero

Dee Dhaliwal | Dhaliwal & Associates

San Francisco

Behind Dee Dhaliwal’s mild family businessman exterior lies a well-connected and widely respected industry professional. He owns and operates three c-stores in the Bay Area, with a fourth on the way, but his ties to the industry run far deeper.

Dhaliwal has served on the boards of a host of industry organizations, including NACS and California Independent Oil Marketers Association. Last year, he helped found the American Petroleum and Convenience Association, a coalition of California independent operators.

“I’m very proud of being chosen by my peers to be involved,” he says. “I think that’s a commendation from them that they think I’m doing something right.”

One key to Dhaliwal’s success is maintaining multiple income sources. “It’s about diversifying,” he says. “I’m getting into properties with multiple uses such as car wash, fast food, a good coffee offering. Those are things that I’m looking for.”

As an independent, Dhaliwal doesn’t have the same resources as large chains, but he does his best to lower buying prices by working with small, local vendors. He cites a local tobacco and candy vendor he works with—a fellow family business.

Dhaliwal hopes to eventually own 15 to 30 stores. “And if I did that, then I would probably want to go and create my own brand,” he says. “That’s the dream.”

The Pit Master

Foodservice Leader

Michael Lawson | The Thumb

Scottsdale, Ariz.

Arizona Diamondbacks pitcher Robbie Ray was recently on a local news station talking about his favorite barbecue joint. He wasn’t talking about a generations-old smokehouse, nor a five-star restaurant. He praised the Brisket Stack at The Thumb.

“The Thumb is unlike any other location out there,” says Michael Lawson, general manager. There’s the 720-gallon fish tank with a replica of the store inside and 50 Arizona license plates plastered above it, created by the hosts of the Animal Planet show “Tanked.” A huge chandelier, the kind you would expect to see in a Victorian mansion, clings to the ceiling.

The gift shop has enough trinkets and knickknacks to fascinate any traveler. Customers can enjoy coffee

and fresh-baked pastries straight from the in-house bakery while they wait for their vehicle to go through the car wash, manned by a crew outfitted in white jumpsuits.

But The Thumb’s award-winning barbecue is the real draw. The Brisket Stack, smoked for 12 hours and topped with an egg, is the stuff of legend—sanctified by a spot on “Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives.”

Owner Kipp Lassetter bought the out-of-use c-store location with the intent of opening the barbecue joint and gift shop from the start. The chandelier, car wash, bakery and other additions grew organically over time.

For Lawson, it’s the people who keep him engaged and happy to come to work every day. “Great employees, great customers and a fun, friendly environment,” he says.

The Hometown Guy

Political Hero

Jared Scheeler | The Hub

Dickinson, N.D.

Jared Scheeler had no plans to make a career of the c-store industry. He was just a college kid working a job. “I originally went to college to go to business school to hopefully work at some big corporation someday,” he says. “I took a part-time job at a convenience store … and fell in love with the industry.”

Scheeler found he preferred building relationships with customers to executives, but he hasn’t missed opportunities to flex his business muscle on Capitol Hill. He testified before the House Small Business Committee in 2015 on behalf of NACS to argue that transitioning to EMV compatibility was too costly, would not make payments secure and would not reduce fraud as much as it should.

“There’s no greater measure of industry engagement than being involved politically at the state and federal levels,” says Scheeler.

In 2013, Scheeler rode the fracking wave from Minneapolis, where he was director of retail operations for Bobby & Steve’s Auto World, to his hometown of Dickinson, N.D. He opened The Hub, the first new c-store in town in more than 15 years. When the price of crude oil dove by 60% in 2014, the area’s overnight prosperity was crushed. The Hub weathered the storm with an operation that revolves around foodservice.

Despite these roadblocks, Scheeler looks forward to what lies ahead. “The future is bright in this industry,” he says. “Convenience stores have been evolving quite a bit over the past decade, and we’re jumping on that train.”

The Foodies

Iconic Indie

Paula Merrell and Franson Nwaeze | Chef Point Cafe

Watauga, Texas

Passing drivers may not know better when coasting by: The gas station-restaurant hybrid Chef Point Café makes the best food in town. “We want to compete with anyone recognized as five-star food,” says chef and owner Franson Nwaeze.

Nwaeze used to work as a chef for such a restaurant, and he and fellow owner Paula Merrell are committed to giving their diners a gourmet experience. The c-store and restaurant even has enough space to seat 300 people for weddings or other events.

Running an independent business, especially one with as many identities as Chef Point Cafe, can be hard without the knowledge and support of a larger company, but Nwaeze and Merrell have recruited family members to help.

“My daughter and my son both work in the business,” Merrell says. “It’s fun to be able to work with the family.”

The owners have nearby property where they plan to eventually open another restaurant, but for now they’re enjoying serving chef-prepared meals and running the business with their family.

 

Nwaeze and Merrell have considered dropping the gas station to focus solely on the restaurant, but they always stop short. The gas station “made us who we are,” Merrell says.