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Indie Closeup: For Dhaliwal, Timing Is Everything

3-store owner eager to re-establish hot-food program, grow his company
Fresno Chevron, Dee Dhaliwal
Photograph courtesy of Dhaliwal & Associates

PLEASANTON, Calif. — A staunch advocate for independent convenience-store and petroleum retailers, Bhagdeep “Dee” Dhaliwal, understands that prudent operational decisions and laser business vision are keys to small-business longevity.

Dhaliwal, an independent Chevron-branded marketer and president of Dhaliwal & Associates, Pleasanton, Calif., recently was poised to build a 5,000-square-foot c-store in Northern California. But he pivoted and offloaded the property to a third party. “I sold the property to a large-size operator … just as COVID-19 hit,” he says. “It was a fortunate move to divest the property.”

Offloading the real estate put Dhaliwal in a position to more holistically oversee his existing retail assets of three Chevron-branded stores.

Dhaliwal is a NACS board member and a founder of the American Petroleum and Convenience Store Association (APCA), an Elk Grove, Calif.-based group formed to unite independent gasoline and c-store owners.

Read ahead for a conversation with Dhaliwal, whose locations include the Fresno Chevron, Lido Faire Chevron and Pleasant Hill Chevron and Car Wash.

Q: When you look at the three stores, can you provide a quick snapshot of what makes them resonate with customers, what sets them apart?

A: One store is a pure neighborhood store, another a freeway store and the third a combination of both types. The stores are located in the East Bay, Silicon Valley and North Central Valley. Our Fresno store is 2,400 square feet with a Jack in the Box restaurant, while the other two have smaller, 1,200-square-foot footprints. One thing all three have in common is they do heavy business during the morning daypart. The Pleasant Hill car wash actually helped us get through COVID, as people were looking to just get out of the house, … and some saw the safety of our in-bay rollover wash as that escape. Our gas sales dropped 70% during the early months of COVID, so the role of the car wash was instrumental during this dicey period.

Q: What were some other effects of the pandemic on your business?

A: We always had 24-hour-a-day operations, but during COVID, we’d lock the doors at night and offer window service only. We discontinued the hot-food program due to orders from the local health department. We’re currently holding off on rebooting it as we wait for the results of the Gov. [Gavin] Newsom recall vote Sept. 14. [Once we know the results], I’ll be able to shed more light on the return of hot food.

Q: How is your business faring in lieu of hot food?

A: We’ve been able to continue with refrigerated sandwiches and salads, while in other store categories, we see cigarette sales going way up, and so did small confection sales. People saw them as micro indulgences.

Q: How would you describe the local retail competition near your c-stores?

A: Unfortunately, we have a Safeway and Costco in close relation to one store, but our advantage as a company is that we’re a little more convenient than these bigger stores. In all three stores, we try to establish strong local relationships with customers and provide that extra advantage [to win the business]. 

Q: How did your labor hold up during the pandemic?

A: Of our 15 retail employees, we had two people who didn’t want to work because they were scared. We offered appreciation bonuses to those who stayed to work, and I made a point to be in each store two to three times a day, mainly to be there for support and set an example.

Q: What’s your goal for the remainder of 2021?

A: To re-ignite the Extra Mile hot-food program. … That’s a priority; hopefully by end of the year. Gas prices are ridiculously high, so we’re hoping for a better outcome there. And, it would be great if school remained open because that would serve as a positive dynamic, a shot in the arm, in stimulating in-store and gasoline sales.

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