Embracing the Past and Present
Garrison Pointe's new store hearkens to earlier times.
Garrison Pointe is brand new to the c-store scene, having opened its Fort Smith, Ark., store in March. Yet, strolling through the site, one easily drifts back to the city’s founding nearly 200 years ago along the Arkansas River.
Though not nearly as old, Garrison Pointe oozes with history of its own. Nursing-home developer Rick Griffin owned a lot on Garrison Avenue, the main street in Fort Smith’s historic downtown, and saw a need for a c-store in the area. A couple of years ago, he called up local fuel tycoon Jeff Frost and asked if he knew anyone who had a clue about convenience stores. Frost knew just the man: Doug Pinkerton.
Forty-two years ago, 8-year-old Pinkerton moved from California to Fort Smith with his parents. His grandmother owned a farm she could no longer care for alone. They moved to Fort Smith to help her temporarily in what was planned to be a short stay, but they never left.
Pinkerton’s father, Don, bought a liquor store in Fort Smith in the 1970s and ran it for 30 years before deciding to retire. “I told him I would purchase the store from him,” Doug says. And when he did, his father decided to put off retirement and work alongside his son.
“He enjoys work,” the younger Pinkerton says. “Work is his life. He’s one of those guys who just can’t sit still.”
So father and son partnered up, expanding the property to include gas pumps and a c-store. When Don finally did retire five years ago, Doug bought him out. And when Griffin reached out to him about opening a second c-store down the road, he was ready.
Garrison Pointe opened for business in the heart of a downtown that is increasingly contemporary yet seeded with history. The idea of having two c-stores just five blocks apart may be a bit risky, for fear that the newer site will cannibalize sales from the old, but so far both stores seem to be prospering.
“My other c-store is a few blocks down the road,” Pinkerton says. “We haven’t affected its sales at all, but this new store is already outselling the other store. In just four weeks, we were already at 60% of the other store’s gross, and our other store is probably one of the top five in Fort Smith.”
The store is situated on Garrison Avenue, the main road that commuters traverse during the workweek. About four blocks from the river and the Oklahoma state line, the store caters to both locals and workers crossing the border. Fort Smith’s downtown workforce consists of 6,000 to 7,000 people, and the traffic that passes by Garrison Pointe is about 18,000 cars daily. Designed by Paragon Solutions of Ft. Worth, Texas, the building strategically uses the limited space on the property (4,300 square feet for the c-store and 2,300 for the liquor store) and attracts the clientele driving by—upscale working professionals—without betraying the old-time, Deep South feel Fort Smith is famous for.
“Capturing the local historical feel while bringing the latest in technology was the unique challenge on this project,” says Paragon president and store designer Mike Lawshe.
True to History
Rich in history, Fort Smith is perhaps best known to outsiders as the setting for Charles Portis’ classic 1968 novel “True Grit,” the story of a woman, Mattie Ross, who seeks retribution for the murder of her father. The classic was given fresh breath two years ago when eclectic directors Joel and Ethan Coen released a film adaptation bearing the same name.
Fort Smith’s downtown features a civic center, several hotels and the Fort Smith Museum, “all to encourage people to come downtown and see what Fort Smith was all about many years ago,” Pinkerton says.
As a new part of the cityscape, embracing the past is just good business. “We were looking for a railroad-station-type look,” he says. “Downtown has a lot of history here and we wanted to stay with that theme.”
The building’s exterior is adorned with brass marshal’s badges to honor the Marshal’s Museum, for which local residents are raising funds to build.
“We haven’t gotten it up on the walls yet,” Pinkerton says, “but we’re going to honor some of the people who were famous in Fort Smith with photos and informational plaques.”
However, while honoring the past, Pinkerton is also taking care of the people who make up the present. Don Tankersley, with local company Tankersley Food Service, helped Pinkerton develop a foodservice plan for the new store, and local c-store product provider Jim Gladwell aided with the rest.
“He made sure we had everything we needed, all the way down to shelving,” Pinkerton says of Gladwell, “anything to make the store look nice.”
Garrison Pointe also sells a local premium coffee, Miss Ellie’s, whose branding includes little signs that share a little local history—some nice and some, well, a bit naughty.
“Miss Ellie’s Coffee has even named some of their coffees and cappuccinos after historic figures here in town: Rooster Cogburn coffee, Judge Parker coffee, Miss Lora’s cappuccino.” Pinkerton says with a chuckle, “Miss Lora owned a famous brothel, I guess you’d say.”
Courting the Commuters
Honor the community, attract the commuters—one without the other is an incomplete strategy, as far as Pinkerton’s concerned.
“We’re upscale and pretty high-tech,” he says. “We have a few things in the store that few others in the area have.”
Those include a fancy do-it-yourself malt maker and a sanitary lid dispenser that releases fountain drink lids one at a time. The store also has a steel canopy over its three pump islands with a custom architectural design. But the biggest attractions to local working professionals are Garrison Pointe’s gourmet deli and adjunct liquor store. Pinkerton brought in a Boar’s Head consultant and two local chefs to create delicious sandwiches and a wine expert to help them make wine selections.
“Wine is not a big seller in Fort Smith in this area, but we’re changing that,” Pinkerton says.
The store has plans for full-fledged catering in the future, but for now its sandwiches—prime rib with horseradish, avocado chicken salad, roasted turkey club, etc.—are drawing crowds.
“Last Thursday was our biggest day,” Pinkerton says on an April day. “We served 170 for lunch, and we only have seating for 30.”
His head chef, Brian Russell, has lived in Fort Smith all his life and has worked in local restaurants since childhood. Russell leads the staff in trying new dishes: lasagna, cod, specialty salads and so on.
“We throw things in from time to time just to see what people want,” Pinkerton says. “We’re not just a sandwich place, but that’s our forte.”
Open refrigeration units on the inside floor of the store promote sell to-go sandwiches and salads, ideal for nearby offices. The store also features a drive-thru window for the deli, another convenience for busy lunch hours. Fruit, cheese and meat trays already are part of the store’s offering, and Pinkerton intends to expand the gourmet-food selection.
“It’s more of a higher-end concept, but we’re taking care of lots of business meetings and parties downtown,” he says. “It’s doing very well.”
Foodservice is an increasingly major player in the c-store world, and Pinkerton is playing. “People don’t want just a fried burrito anymore,” he says. “There are a lot of c-stores out there where you can sit down and have a very good soup, sandwich and salad. People would be surprised.”
Garrison Pointe is also well stocked in milk, produce and other grocery essentials to fill the needs of the many people who live, and not just work, downtown. Pinkerton says there’s no other grocery store in the area.
The liquor store, which shares a common wall, but not a connecting interior entrance due to Arkansas state law, also embraces the upscale feel. “We have chandeliers, we have rock or brick walls. In all the interior, you don’t see any sheetrock,” he says.
The liquor store has a drive-thru as well, another sign of that balance between class and convenience. It has a wide selection of wines and liquor.
“We do a high volume at the other store but it’s not upscale,” Pinkerton says. “It’s a totally different clientele. With both stores, we have the best of both worlds.”
As the store starts out, marketing is especially important. They hired a local company, Rightmind Advertising, to get the word out.
Rightmind created Garrison Pointe’s website and social-media sites and is making the store mobile-marketing-friendly.
“They have QR codes in the store so when somebody walks up to do the door they can take a picture of our advertisement with their phones, and it goes right to our website,” Pinkerton says. “They can print off coupons and place deli orders.”
But technology isn’t the only way to send a message. When the store opened, Pinkerton had 300 to-go menus printed that were gone in days. As the business continues to grow, the community will grow around it. The Griffin family, the landlord and major property owner in Fort Smith’s downtown, has plans to further develop the community’s center.
“Rick has intentions of building condominiums along the river,” Pinkerton says. “He’s trying to get a dry cleaner to come down here, and a grocery store.”
Before Garrison Pointe, Pinkerton’s other store was the closest gas station to downtown. “We needed this, and people are really happy with us here,” he says. “We’ve had strangers thank us for building this store. They’re really proud of it. It’s really convenient for them.”
Pinkerton’s advice to other operators is just like his store: one part high-minded, one part old-fashioned.
“In this business,” he says, “you have to know what kind of customer base you’re dealing with and key in on them. In addition to that, people are looking for good, clean bathrooms.”