From Shabby Shack to Convenience Castle

After $3 million investment, Metro Petro transforms into campus jewel.

Samantha Strong Murphey, Freelance writer

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When the medical start-up Clay Lambert worked for was sold to a bigger corporation, he cashed out big time. With a background in international diplomacy in the Air Force and the State Department, Lambert was well suited for his position as international marketing manager with Minneapolis-based Advanced EuroScience. He had the global perspective the job required. But when the company was sold to Boston Scientific, his focus turned local.

“After that, I didn’t work for three years,” Lambert says. “I didn’t have to.”

 But when his wife, Mia, told him he needed a job, he knew exactly what he wanted to do. He called up a friend in the convenience business, took him to lunch and convinced him to sell one of his gas stations.

“He wrote a number on a napkin and slid it over to me,” Lambert says, “He said, ‘That’s how much you owe me.’ He sold it to me right there at lunch.”

Nine years ago, Clay purchased the CITGO franchise, the building and the half-acre of land it stood on. It was, by his measure, a “junky-looking station” built in the 1960s with 175 feet of retail space and a small rollover car wash.

“One employee would run the whole thing,” he says. “I hated working there.”

Lambert endured managing the station for a few years before the University of Minnesota announced construction of a new football stadium just a few blocks away, giving him an extra boost of confidence in the potential of his location. When he was sure the stadium was funded and under way, he and Mia decided it was time to transform their station from the ground up. Their almost $3 million overhaul opened for business in 2008 and stands today, an ongoing artwork of Lambert’s unique perspective on how the c-store industry and his own community come together.  

Inside and Out

Lambert’s new station, Metro Petro, is a two-story store with 3,500 square feet of retail space, a 100-foot tunnel car wash and four fuel dispensers, double the capacity of the old station. This finished product may seem like a magical transformation, but getting there was no wave of a wand. It took mind, money and hard work.

First things first: Pick a color scheme. Everyone Lambert talked to at every trade show he attended offered the same idea: red, white and blue. But Lambert wanted something different. When he and Mia were on vacation in Bulgaria, inspiration struck. “I saw this gas station that was so cool-looking,” he says. “Orange, silver, rust, black. I loved it.” Step two: Hire a designer. The most important thing Lambert looked for was a feminine touch. “The old station was so junky and dirty and old,” he says. “It didn’t have anything females wanted, and they’re really who I wanted as customers. They tell their friends about businesses. They’re loyal customers, and generally, where the girls go, the boys follow.”

Judy Grundstrom of Minneapolisbased design company IOTA was just the woman for the job. She took the color scheme and ran with it. The store uses eight different hues of orange and metallic silver interior paint. Recyclable European tiles line the building’s exterior and skylights dot the roof. Despite the fact that Minnesota c-stores can’t sell strong alcohol, Metro Petro has a state-of-the-art beer vault with an automatic sliding door.

“Judy is very high-end,” Lambert says. “We had to scale her back a bit. At one point the contractor asked me if I knew how much the light fixtures Judy wanted cost—$32,000 a pop.”

The one place Lambert let Judy’s creative energy and expensive tastes run free was the bathrooms: detailed wall tiling, hooks on the walls, Dyson hand dryers, and just single-use rooms (no stalls).

“Police officers can’t use bathrooms with stalls, and we wanted ours to be police-friendly,” Lambert says. “It’s free security.”

Lambert says he went overboard on safety measures, an important part of attracting female customers.

“The gals are my canaries in the mine shaft,” he says. “If I don’t see girls at my gas station, I know something is wrong—the lighting is bad or something is broken. I’m always monitoring that.”

Lambert widened the store aisles to afford customers some breathing room, installed his cash register away from the door to discourage robbery and established an outdoor kiosk for full-service gas pumping.

“It’s so the gals don’t have to get out and get dirty, and it’s just more security for them,” Lambert says. “That kiosk keeps opportunists away from the pumps.”

So far, Lambert’s precautions are working. Metro Petro has never been graffitied or robbed, and his online reviews are raves, especially from females and especially about the bathrooms.

“It’s a beyond-rare occasion when you find a clean and, yes, pretty bathroom. I give you an A, Metro Petro!” says Janna H. of St. Paul in her review on Yelp.

In addition to its bathrooms, Metro Petro’s manicured landscaping, with 30 different flower species and more than 450 plants, garners a sense of respect from the neighborhood.

Lambert, who was a gardener in college, got permission to landscape city property along the L-shaped sidewalk around his corner store as long as he promised to maintain it.

“We dug out 4 feet of old dirt, 45 years of who knows what was there,” he says. “We brought in brand new black dirt and put in new irrigation for the sod and the plants. We’re very happy with the color. It softens the experience for the customer.”

Now, Metro Petro is a bee heaven. There are beehives installed on the roof, and soon Lambert plans to sell his own urban honey and honey-based products.

“I’ve already received a lot of interest in the honey from the community,” he says. “Instead of Burt’s Bees, I want Clay’s Bees.”

Lambert is always interested in competing with the best. When he installed his new car wash, he held nothing back. After visiting 60 different car-wash conventions, he decided on the MacNeil Conveyor Tunnel Wash, Soft Cloth.

“The biggest thing in the car-wash business is that they break a lot,” Lambert says. “It’s a big piece of equipment and it does a lot of things. When it’s down, they don’t make money. When it breaks, you’re down for at least a day before it can be serviced.”

He hoped getting the best quality available would mitigate that problem. But he didn’t stop there. Lambert doubled the size of much of his equipment, and he added more jets so more water hits the cars.

“My homework paid off, and the big investment paid off,” he says. “I can have three cars in that wash at once, and it only takes 3 minutes to get through.” He doesn’t have a car-wash loyalty program, because they’re difficult to administer with just one store, he says, but he’s pretty liberal with giving away free washes to return customers he sees. “I guess I’m the loyalty program,” he says.

Campus Community

Before they could even get started with construction of the new store, Lambert spent three years in legal battles with the city of Minneapolis fighting over permits, lighting and signage regulations, etc.

“We hired a very expensive attorney and prevailed in the end,” Lambert says. “A huge part of our success came from garnering support from the neighborhood. The local business associations went to bat for us.”

That positive relationship with the community proved to be a huge asset for Lambert long after the store opened its doors. His connection with the area helps him know what to put on his shelves.

“I’m on a college campus,” he says. “My demographic wants name-brand stuff. It’s great for me, because I can keep my vendors pretty selective.”

Metro Petro is a 100% Frito-Lay store—no off-brands—and it doesn’t offer any third- or fourth-tier tobacco products. The cooler doors are filled with Red Bull, Monster, and Coke—nothing off the beaten path. “That’s what they want and that’s what we’re going to give them,” he says.

Lambert finds brand exclusivity to be a good way to simplify his operations. He offers, for instance, only one hot foodservice program, Café Express, and likes it that way.

“We use their wallpaper and décor in that part of the store, and all of their coffee, bakery and roller-grill items have a nice, high-end look,” he says. “We have a great relationship with them. It’s easy. It lets me concentrate on other things.”

Other things such as people. Lambert and Mia draw from the college community to staff the store. “We’re really fortunate to be by the college, because we have a lot of smart people around us,” he says.

Their rigorous hiring process—which involves a phone interview, a seven-page application, an in-person interview and a full background check—has helped them find some great long-term employees, including college students and an older gentlemen “who’s stuck in the ’50s,” Lambert says. He plays Elvis tunes and cracks jokes and is developing quite a following in town. “He’s slowly building up business in the mornings for me.”

The Future

Three years after Metro Petro opened its doors, Lambert feels ready to go back to full-time work elsewhere. Mia already has. She’s a consultant for Boston Scientific, the company that purchased Lam bert’s startup long ago.

“We’ve got Metro Petro dialed in remotely now,” he says. “I can see everything from my cellphone: fuel, bank deposits, invoicing from vendors, scheduling, security cameras.”

He says he’d like to see Metro Petro franchised, but he’s sure that it would work only in an urban environment such as his current location. It’s too expensive to build and not cash in on the healthy margins you get in the inner city. He used to have the most expensive gas prices in town, and he was proud of it.

“Everything is so price-sensitive these days, and we’re all buying into it,” Lambert says. “We’re racing to the bottom and we’re giving up margins. Especially as an owner of just a single store, if I go low against a big chain, they’re going to go lower.”

 Lambert may not have the best prices, but he’s determined to have the best of everything else.

“It’s like going to an upscale department store,” he says. “It’s not for everyone.”

Even if Lambert returns to full-time work outside of the industry, don’t expect him to drop out of sight. He was recently invited to the NACS Leadership Forum in Miami to talk about the important lessons he’s learned from Metro Petro, such as how important the old saying “Location, location, location!” really is, the value of technology for simplifying operations and the importance of offering a whole spectrum of products and services to customers.

“The moral of the story is that you need gas, you need car wash, you need it all to keep everything going,” he says. “Margins are tight and expenses are even higher.”

Lambert should know: He has 13 different permits and licenses to maintain, $60,000 a year in property taxes to pay and $2.5 million of debt still to tackle. But he doesn’t regret a thing.

“You just can’t rent. You’ve got to own it. Own the dirt,” he says. “Because if you don’t, at the end of 20 years of all your hard labor, you have nothing.”

Metro Petro is far from nothing, and although the challenges aren’t over for Lambert, his daring mentality is unscathed.

In characteristic Clay Lambert fashion, he’ll go big or go home.

“If I do franchise, I’m buying 30 stores or nothing,” he says. 

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