KEY WEST, Fla. -- Driving through the Florida Keys to the island of Key West is a breathtaking vision of isles and ocean, tenuously but dramatically connected by a series of bridges--one spanning seven miles.
While one could never say a convenience store could eclipse the beautiful expanse of the Keys, the verdict on this array of independent retailers, regional powerhouses and even a national presence with Circle K, proves formidable.
Certainly the potential for profit is there. Affluent ocean-side residences, time shares, resorts and hotels lure snowbirds, water adventurers and vacationers year round. In the second week of November, posted gasoline prices rivaled Chicago at $3.65 per gallon.
But inside, the five c-stores on this road trip all showed very well, with prominent, often higher-end foodservice displays; well-stocked merchandise and cooler sections; clean restrooms; and competent, friendly employees.
Here's one reporter's impression of the five locations:
Hess is a strong, East Coast gasoline brand with oil company roots and an aged infrastructure with c-stores ranging from kiosks to 2,000 square feet. This one in Homestead, Fla., just before motorists start the drive into the Keys is a larger store, surprisingly large. What stood out was the "Good to Go" branded sandwiches in an open display, with quite a bit of variety and seemingly upscale ingredients. It sported well-stocked shelves, clean aisles and a strong mix of c-store staples. Outside, the forecourt was a bit dated, like many of the business and retail shops in the area--updated inside, but not necessarily outside.
A seemingly new RaceTrac location, it was a larger format at 5,000 square feet. Its foodservice displays were extensive, taking up the front right half of the store. Four roller grills up front along with hot displays for Mexican fare and other grab-and-go options are the first thing the customer sees. The next display unit into the store was set up for colder meals with sandwiches and wraps. Foodservice at this store truly dominated, with fountain, coolers and other c-store merchandise almost framing the food. Outside, the prominent red-with-white-striped canopy stood boldly in the Florida sun, with the front of the c-store complementing the canopy's statement.
From the outside, this Shell-branded site looked like any other gas station--not in disrepair, but assuming the canopy and c-store proportions of the past; however, inside the store, the chain's foodservice offer was updated, with upscale sandwiches in an open cooler. Merchandise shelving too had new design elements, done in black and red. The store was well-stocked and its employees were friendly.
"Chicken done right!" was what a sign out front boasted. And the fried chicken, corn dogs and other fast-food fare had a hardy appeal. It may not be for the salad-and-granola crowd, but the foodservice corner did illicit a down-home, comfort-food feel. The store was very clean and well stocked, with employees intent on addressing customer needs. Outside, the graphics were simple, probably to a fault, but fit in to the laid-back nature of the neighborhood.
Probably a local stalwart, the store had a standard, gasoline-with-c-store feel. This particular one had a rollover car wash in the back. It's interior, however, had a more updated feel, with walls painted in warm shades of brown. It had a display of seemingly upscale sandwiches, as well as well-stocked shelves and coolers. While the cashier took a moment to come from the back room, he was attentive if not overly friendly.
What is apparent from this casual run through c-stores in the Florida Keys was a keen awareness of what it takes to run a c-store. Whether it's the profit potential of that affluent area or a batch of retailers who've simply been around the block a few years, the c-stores in the Keys--unlike their customers--refuse to take a vacation.
Click here to view more photos from this road trip.