Convenience Cookout

Lyons Filling Station brings summer foodservice outside.

Samantha Strong Murphey, Freelance writer

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With the stiff competition of a Kwik Star station across the street, the owners of Lyons Filling Station in Clinton, Iowa, say trying new things is a matter of survival.

“[Kwik Star] can offer things so much cheaper than we can. We’ve really had to use our imaginations to get people in our door,” says Ellen Determan. She and her husband, Pat, operate a small six-pump Phillips 66 station on Main Avenue, near the junction of Highway 136 and Highway 67 North, in a bustling business district. Ellen usually comes up with the innovations, scrappy ideas based on making what they already have work better for them.

Here are some of the steps the two have taken to distinguish their customer experience:

  • Lending a Hand: Lyons Filling Station installed call buttons on two of its fueling pumps so physically disabled or elderly customers can drive up and send a signal to the store for assistance in pumping gas.
  • Ladies’ Day: On Wednesdays from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m., Ellen’s father comes to the store for “Ladies’ Day” to pump gas and wash the windshield of any female customer who requests it.
  • Local Preference: Lyons is almost exclusively locally supplied. The store gets its meat from a local Fareway grocery store butcher shop, rolls and buns from local Sweetheart Bakery, paper products from local Gateway Supplies, and so on. “I even switched dentists, because we had a local dentist coming in twice a day,” Ellen says. “We do business with the people who do business with us.”

The site’s biggest innovation, however, is its summer cookouts. For the past three years, the Determans have brought “Det’s Diner,” their in-store restaurant, to the parking lot from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays. Just recently, they expanded to five days a week. Pat’s catchphrase for the diner—“It’s all good!”—applies to the cookouts as well. Each day has a different theme, and everything’s popular. The made-from-scratch pizzas they sell on Thursdays went so fast they now offer take-and-bake versions.

“Teachers from the new nearby middle school come down and eat three times a week,” Ellen says. “We get a lot of construction workers and people just coming up and down the avenue wanting to see what we’re doing.”

This innovation is definitely paying off. When the in-store diner first opened, it brought in $100 to $200 a day. Since they started doing cookouts, that figure has jumped to $700 to $800 just during lunch.

The summertime cookouts have also boosted sales of the inside diner’s winter menu. In addition to a full breakfast menu, Det’s Diner offers different specialty dishes each day. In winter months, Wednesdays are meatloaf days, Ellen’s mother’s timetested recipe. “We literally cook 50 to 60 pounds of meatloaf on those days,” Ellen says.

The menu—inside and out—is constantly evolving to meet customer’s desires.

“We’ll do whatever anybody wants,” Ellen says. Because of a customer request, the store now offers melon grown nearby on the banks of the Mississippi River. Ellen and Pat also try to live by the adage “Waste not, want not.” If they don’t sell the rotisserie chickens they offer inside, they use them to make wraps to add to a cooler of ready-to-eat sandwiches.

“A lot of what you do is trial and error,” Ellen says. “You’ve got to make sure you’re working with good recipes and you’ve got to be consistent. If you say you’re having something, you better have it.”

Ellen says she has talked her husband into a lot of ideas. “Sometimes I think he could kill me for it, but sometimes he’s glad,” she says with a laugh. “We really get along 98% of the time, but occasionally it’s challenging to work with your spouse.”

At the end of the day, Ellen says their success boils down to how hard they’ve worked. “When you go into debt to buy a store, you’re really going to have to make it work,” she says. “You have to come up with creative ways to keep your head above water and flat-out refuse to fail.”  

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