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Indie Closeup: Bowled Over by Convenience

The pandemic ended their bowling alley ambitions, but the Seiders found redemption in the c-store business
Photograph courtesy of Seiders Variety & Sporting Goods

To Geno and Laura Seiders, COVID-19 proved to have an unexpected silver lining attached to it.

The owners of Seiders Variety and Sporting Goods, Hodgdon, Maine, watched helplessly as the pandemic put an end to their successful Hill-Top Lanes bowling alley business, which they took control of in late 2018.

In short order, the couple picked up the pieces and pivoted to new retail opportunities that have allowed the couple to weather the storm. They christened a convenience store located near the New Brunswick, Canada, border along U.S. Highway 1 in March 2020—just as COVID-19 was emerging. They opened a sporting goods store in March 2021 and, in October 2022, debuted retail fueling connected to the c-store.

Perhaps the linchpin of the entire expansion initiative is the Seiders’ 2019 investment in a bottle redemption center. The facility, which allows consumers to dispose of empty bottles and receive a modest rebate, proved so successful that it has served as a springboard in propelling the other retail ventures.

“Because alcoholic beverage sales skyrocketed during COVID, our bottle redemption center became even more vital to offer,” said Laura Seiders. “People drank more and had to dispose of a lot of bottles—we suddenly began getting truckloads of used bottles.”

Bowled Over

The redemption center, situated on a 3-acre parcel, served as the vehicle for the couple to financially rebound from the now-closed bowling alley—and pivot to these other retail opportunities.

“We purchased the land in 2017, where the bowling alley had been located. The parcel also had a former retail grain and feed store—plus a green house,” said Geno Seiders, a native of Caribou, Maine.

When the bowling alley closed, the Seiders mobilized. First came the c-store. As it debuted, the couple embarked upon an ambitious building renovation program to what is one long building located on the 3-acre parcel. “We separated this very long, large building into quadrants: one housed the former bowling alley, another the redemption center, another the c-store, and another the sporting goods store, where we sell ammunition, fishing and hunting accessories, and much more,” he said.

The redemption center became a cash cow as people stocked up on alcoholic beverages of all kinds and needed to jettison bottles. Profits there provided enough leverage to boost the Seiders’ fortunes with their fledgling convenience store. In October 2022, the Seiders received the green light to start selling fuel, offered from a single multi-pump dispenser.

Fueling Futures

“It was a huge process to get the okay on the gas pump and tanks,” said Laura Seiders. “We were able to identify a local business development firm that helped us obtain funding. We also received a partial grant that helped expense the venture, but had to foot the bill for the rest.”

Receiving the go-ahead for fuel was based on a painstaking state and local approval process for installing underground storage tanks (USTs), multi-pump dispensers (MPDs) and other fueling accessories. “Because of the supply chain problems, the costs for these things went from reasonable to essentially tripling,” said Geno Seiders, who offers unbranded regular unleaded fuel.

Most fueling customers are traditional motorists, but the Seiders anticipate selling fuel to snowmobilers and other recreational vehicle owners down the line. “One major advantage of bringing in gasoline is that we’re the only fueling station along Route 1 for roughly 40 miles,” Laura Seiders said. “We are also conveniently located on an arterial snowmobile trail, and are hoping the addition of gas will bring in even more sledders.”

She added, “We’re really trying to be something for everyone. We sell the typical c-store fare, but also established a unique retail strategy to showcase a host of new things. Overall, this journey, since the pandemic, has been a bit of an ordeal. But I’m glad to say we’ve been fortunate to have stayed one step ahead of it all.”

Seiders Variety and Sporting Goods Factoids

On footprint expansion: The Seiders, in summer 2022, added 2,500 square feet to the store to incorporate outdoor goods, firearms and ammunition and fishing bait. An additional 1,100-square-foot expansion is in the works for 2023.

On merchandising home goods, crafts and apparel: The Seiders added a line of outdoor apparel, including hats, gloves, shirts and more—many of which feature a customized Seiders store logo. Laura Seiders integrated home goods, gifts and decorations into the sets. “We sell a lot of local craft items from local entrepreneurs who make soaps, candles, signs, mugs and T-shirts. On the food side, we bring in artisanal products supplied by local folks, such as pickled eggs, BBQ sauce, cotton candy and coffee,” Laura Seiders said.

On the challenge of finding and retaining workers: “We once found that people will come work for us briefly and then move on,” Laura Seiders said. “Lately, we established better continuity with a sustained work force. We have two girls that help run the store and a crew of four part-timers to man the redemption center. I also have another job, so I have to spend a lot of nights overseeing store-level responsibilities, such as invoices and payroll.”

On destination food fare: Seiders sells what it calls a “Steak Bomb,” a footlong sub that resembles a Philly steak. “We go through so much steak during the week, it’s crazy. Pizza is also popular. Geno lived in Boston for a while, so we introduced a Boston-inspired sub, and also a Cuban sandwich,” said Laura Seiders.

On what 2023 holds in store: “We want to get our projects completed to allow us to get a little downtime, some breathing room,” she said. “We’ve been approached by folks to re-launch the bowling alley, but it’s not in the cards presently. To operate a bowling alley, you need people who really have a specialization to do it. It’s more complicated than people think.”

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