RIDGEFIELD, Wash. — For first-time visitors to Cowlitz Crossing, Kara Fox-LaRose recommends ordering the sea scallops. “They’re deep-fried and delicious,” she says.
The item is a highlight of the menu at Cowlitz Crossing, a 5,500-square-foot convenience store that opened in April in Ridgefield, Wash., on property owned by the Cowlitz Tribe, a Longview, Wash.-based group of about 2,000 Indian members recognized federally in 2010 and named for the Cowlitz River.
As president and general manager of the Ilani Gaming Complex, Fox-LaRose oversees a growing entertainment area on Cowlitz Reservation, of which Cowlitz Crossing is a part. The tribe invested in having an interchange built off Interstate 5 about 30 minutes north of Portland, Ore. There, it built the gaming complex, a 400,000-square-foot facility with a casino, 15 restaurants and bars, and a 2,500-seat entertainment venue.
But the complex, which opened in 2017, was just the start of something much bigger.
“This is about building a brand for our guests,” Fox-LaRose says. “Gaming is the centerpiece, and now we’re looking at amenities we can add to make this a longer-term destination.”
‘Best in the Northwest’
Future features will include a hotel and parking garage, but first on the to-do list was a gas station and convenience store.
“Ilani is an arena-sized entertainment center,” Fox-LaRose says. “But we are a tribe that is proud of its heritage and its land, so we wanted to offer amenities that appeal to our local community.”
With little to no experience in designing, building and operating a convenience store, the tribe’s economic development team looked for partners to help. First on board was Mohegan Sun, a gaming and entertainment developer that had helped create the Ilani casino. Next came a gasoline supply partner.
“We partnered with Chevron on the fuel brand,” Fox-LaRose says. “Our goal with Ilani is to become the area’s premier gaming, entertainment and dining center. And we approached the c-store with a similar ideal, to create an experience that stands out from the rest, to be the best in the Northwest.”
The result is an eye-catching store with a unique fuel canopy and facade, 24 fueling positions, tall arched ceilings, unexpected menu offerings and elements that speak to the local community.
For example, just inside the entrance stands an 8-foot-tall figure of a sasquatch, holding a sign that reads “I love Cowlitz Crossing #freshfoodfast.”
“Bigfoot’s a big legend out here,” Fox-LaRose says. “We thought that would be a fun way to engage our customers and encourage selfies and social-media engagement.”
Cowlitz also worked with nearby Maryhill Winery to develop an Ilani-branded wine. Available in Chardonnay and Winemaker Red, the wines are merchandised in a display case shaped like a canoe to reflect the heritage of the area and the tribe.
Other local touches include coffee from nearby supplier Raindrop Coffee Roasters and wild-caught salmon from local vendors. The salmon is part of a menu that includes Fox-LaRose’s favorite—the scallops—as well as fried chicken and a fully stocked Boar’s Head deli counter with self-service ordering technology.
Other eye-catching elements include a tall curved wood ceiling and several TV monitors to advertise both store specials and events at the casino.
“It’s about creating a space that brings forward quality, to really offer a grand experience for our guests,” Fox-LaRose says. “Ilani has really high-quality aesthetics that represent a four-star feel and incorporate tribal design and tradition, a contemporary, urban design with a Northwest feel. We wanted to bring that same Native American heritage to the Cowlitz Crossing.”
The store also links back to the casino in another way: through its rewards program.
“We have the unique opportunity to allow our casino guests to use their Momentum loyalty program dollars at the gas station to fill their tank,” Fox-LaRose says. “Every Momentum dollar you earn is worth $1 in our convenience store. It really creates an added loyalty element for our guests.”
And as a Chevron-branded fuel station, Cowlitz Corner also accepts Safeway grocery points for gasoline discounts.
“We have 90,000 vehicles that go past our facility every day,” Fox-LaRose says. “So we offer groceries, fresh foods, beer and other amenities to accommodate that local need, as well as those passing by.
“We want to serve as an economic partner to the region. … We want our neighbors to be proud of the projects that we invest in,” she says.
So are there more convenience stores in the Cowlitz Tribe’s future?
“There is the potential for an expansion opportunity in this type of business,” Fox-LaRose says. “We aspire to evolve.”
Size: 5,500 square feet
Address: 31801 NW 31st Ave., Ridgefield, Wash.
Fueling spots: 24 fueling positions, plus truck lanes
Opened: April 2019
> Unique canopy and facade design
> Local foodservice, products and decor
> Tall, arched ceiling and large fans
> Loyalty program tied to larger casino and entertainment complex
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