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Indie Closeup: The Center of Attention

New travel center delivers a host of amenities and locally sourced goods
Numan Dharani of Abbott’s Travel Center
Photograph courtesy of Abbott's Travel Center

ABBOTT, Texas — When the Abbott’s Travel Center opened Sept. 1, it signaled the culmination of a carefully crafted, surgical site selection process by professionals who know their way around picking retail sites overflowing with potential.

Indeed, the Abbott, Texas-based travel center’s debut was a two-year exercise in due diligence, according to owner Numan Dharani. Now Abbott’s Travel Center is setting a tone in the market about 80 miles south of Dallas for its emphasis on providing all the amenities that reputable travel centers offer, plus locally sourced foods and beverages. Much of it delivered to travelers and truckers who are just passing through.

During the summer of 2020, the Dharani family—led by Numan Dharani, a recent Emory University grad—began construction on the travel center in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic.

An entrepreneur with a background in finance, Dharani and his family were eager to use their competitive vision to attract motorists driving the I-35 corridor from Dallas, Austin or Waco. “We saw a strong demand for this [travel center] because we wanted to be part of the ever-growing over-the-road truck and transportation industry,” said Dharani, who has lived for years in College Station, Texas. “We conducted market research analysis with a third-party company, which provided us the data we needed—daily traffic patterns, fuel throughput projections—to move forward.”

The 12,000-square foot Exxon-branded facility includes six showers for over-the-road truck drivers, a lounge area and more. Outside, Abbott’s Travel Center provides more than 30 truck parking spots and eight diesel fueling lanes.

Dharani discussed with CSP how this business with 10 full- or part-time employees has fared during the early days of its opening, as well as expectations for 2022 and beyond. 

Q: How has business gone during the first weeks of opening?

A: When we opened our doors, it took a while to get the foot traffic we were seeking. We worked hard to establish a new presence in the community. We activated proactive measures such as establishing a Facebook and Instagram presence, renting billboard spaces and worked with city of Abbott to spread the word and leverage municipal resources.

Q: Describe the locally sourced foods and beverages you’ve integrated into the mix?  

A: We have partnered with a roaster based out of Bryan-College Station for dispensed coffee called Polite Coffee Roasters. We use a bean-to-cup machine, which gives you a fresh cup of coffee every single time. Cornucopia Popcorn is a gourmet, eclectic popcorn company from Austin. Jeni’s Ice Cream (based out of Columbus, Ohio) is not local, but they are a national brand with unique flavors. In six weeks, we have sold more Jeni’s pints ($9.99 each) than Ben & Jerry’s.

Baked by Sarah offers freshly made local muffins and pastries from a town near Abbott. Supremo Tacos (in collaboration with U.S. Foods) is our in-house, fast-casual taco concept where you can customize your own taco or breakfast bowl with ingredients such as diced potatoes, bacon, chorizo, sausage, pico de gallo, salsa and guacamole. On the branded side, we serve Krispy Krunchy Chicken and Hunt Brothers Pizza.

Q: What other categories in the store have you tried to set apart?

A: We have a diversified general-merchandise department, a lot of novelty gifts and souvenir items not typically offered at convenience. [We have] giant speakers, mini toy cars and motorcycles for 3- to 5-year-olds, clothing and apparel, plus items for children. In addition, there’s Texas t-shirts, cups, glasses, gloves, collegiate apparel. It’s like Walmart meets Toys R Us, with a broad mix that people can consider for both grocery shopping, as well as holiday and birthday gifting.

Q: What kind of accommodation do you provide in the way of interior seating for dining or other amenities?

A: From a foodservice standpoint, we have limited capacity on tables, one or two, as most of our interstate-traveler guests tend to be in and out with their orders. If they like, we offer all guests access to our lounge area, complete with TV and six massage chairs. … We have an exercise area with treadmill and elliptical machine, and offer six showers [with] soap and towels. Over-the-road truck drivers might forget some of these items, so we want them to have the full experience.

Q: What level of retail experience do you and your family have?

A: My dad has owned and operated grocery stores around the College Station area, and currently plays a managerial role for stores located in the Memphis, Tenn., area. He has operational experience across retail, with experience at both grocery and c-store channels, predominantly neighborhood stores. I recently graduated from Emory University [in Atlanta] and spent time working in investment banking with an emphasis on franchisees and franchisor sectors. My finance background will serve me well with understanding the dynamics behind operational efficiencies and profit margins, understanding and then adapting to what sells and what doesn’t so we can optimize the plan-o-gram.

Q: Have you experienced any supply-chain issues in the early going?

A: In the broader sense, we’ve been fortunate. With equipment, when we started construction in 2020, it was a time when many retailers weren’t active with new stores; thus, acquiring fountain stations, flooring, signage, sinks, restroom facilities, kitchen equipment and more, gave us better buying power. It put us in a great position [on fulfillment and optimizing costs]. On day-to-day or week-to-week ordering, insulated coffee cups and paper products have been an issue. We’ve been challenged getting washer and dryer equipment for our truck-driver guests. (The coin-operated machines were due to arrive in November.)

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