Tioga Gas Mart near Yosemite gets customers to slow down for gourmet food and other unexpected delights.
People don’t need a reason to drive by, but they do need a reason to stop. And Tioga Gas Mart offers plenty of reasons. How many c-stores offer live music?
Located on Tioga Pass in Lee Vining, Calif., it’s on the route of tourists and backpackers on their way into or out of Yosemite National Park. Gassing up at one of Tioga’s eight Mobil-branded pumps is the most obvious reason to pull in, but the live music, gift shop, deli and pristine views don’t hurt.
This family-owned operation opened its doors for the first time 18 years ago and has done so seasonally ever since, from the first weekend of fishing season in April through the end of October. Dennis Donaille is the founder and owner, but his daughter, Denise, is now the store’s full-time manager.
“Dad’s still very involved,” Denise says. “He’s our resident handyman.”
The store offers candy, chips, soda and other traditional convenience items, along with a nice selection of beer, wine, camping and fishing equipment and souvenirs: T-shirts, Christmas ornaments, shot glasses, thimbles and the like.
But it’s Tioga’s in-store restaurant that usually gets the buzz.
Deli of Delights
For the first 17 years of business, Whoa Nellie Deli was run by the same chef, Matt Toomey. He recently moved on to start his own restaurant, but he left behind a unique menu, tailored to please. Denise and Dennis tout it as “the most unusual deli inside a gas station you will ever visit.”
“The quality of the food is really good,” Denise says. “We have buffalo meatloaf and pork tenderloin. People don’t expect to find gourmet food. They expect hot dogs on roller grills. They’re pleasantly surprised.”
Whoa Nellie serves a diverse offering at breakfast, lunch and dinner, but its most popular menu items are fish tacos, lobster taquitos and mango margaritas. It offers a soup of the day along with three daily specials, such as grilled swordfish sandwiches and shrimp linguini.
“Being at the gateway of Yosemite, we have people coming from every corner of the world, and there aren’t a ton of restaurants nearby,” Denise says. “It’s fortunate that we have a lot of hungry people passing through. It allows us to do the volume we do.”