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Indie Closeup: Diverse Energy Plan Drives Tang Mart Higher

Jonathan Tang emphasizes foodservice and a sweeping fuel offering to land new business, and it’s working
Tang Mart
Tang Mart focuses on a diverse fuel offering, as well as an expanded foodservice program. | Photo courtesy: Tang Mart.

As a convenience-store retailer, decisions around electric vehicle (EV)-charging investments are laden with X factors: There’s safety assurance, cost-benefit analysis, space considerations and the critical question of … if you build it, will they come?

Jonathan Tang, owner of five-store Tang Mart based in Gadsden, Alabama, northeast of Birmingham, checked all the boxes when he accepted state grant money and invested in electrification. Tang is currently performing an EV pilot program at a single store in Oxford, Alabama, where he has installed two charging stations with a total of four ports.

Tang sees room for both EV charging and renewable fuels—not an either-or proposition but rather a conversation about “both.”

Tang flashes a well-rounded retail energy plan: the Chevron- and Texaco-branded company, a partner company of Gadsden-based IRA Phillips Inc., sells ample volumes of gasoline, diesel and alt fuels such as compressed natural gas, liquified natural gas and hydrogen—many of the latter tailored to farm equipment clientele.

“Two questions connected to EV charging are, what is safe and what is practical? We took a best-practices approach to the program and are seeing success,” said Tang. “We put chargers away from pumps and tanks and avoided monopolizing exterior real estate … to where gasoline customers would feel inconvenienced by EVs.”

Partnering with ChargePoint, Campbell, California, Tang Mart owns the EV program rather than leasing it. Alabama law allows retailers to be resellers of power, he said. “I own the equipment and pay for the power [based on kilowatt hours],” he said.

Asked about local utility-related challenges, from regulatory to cost burdens, Tang says that utility Alabama Power has been a solid partner across the board. “It’s worked out well. The vehicle-charging rates are acceptable, as we offer DC fast charging and that’s a lot of power to [churn out],” he said.

Tang said EV charging profits are low, but he compensates in other ways—namely via inside staples, snacks and foodservice.

“With the grant money, we didn’t have to put up serious capital to get into the game,” he said. “The motivation is EV charging offers us the ability to be in this space so people know we’re a player. We want to offer whatever energy option people seek—from fossil fuel to EV.”

Diesel Expansion in Progress

Tang Mart, established in 2013, is eager to grow diesel business via both passenger vehicles and commercial drivers.

“When commercial diesel customers buy fuel, they tend to spend a lot on food and beverages,” said Tang, who has established a relationship with Palo Alto, California-based Mudflap, a third-party provider tailored toward commercial drivers, who use its app to seek optimal diesel prices while in transit.

Tang often wins the sale, as he’s known to offer ultra-competitive diesel prices. “We’ve expanded diesel offerings so that it’s more convenient to get in and out,” he said. “Everyone can sell gas, but it’s about what can you do to accommodate an 18-wheeler that arrives on your lot and needs space to fuel up. We can accommodate them.”

The company’s Ira Phillips arm of business has also forged a franchisee agreement with Pacific Pride to offer non-retail fleet fueling facilities, which is considered a strong piece to the business.

Food Strength

One expanding profit center is Tang Mart’s ambitious foodservice program, a solid option for EV drivers while charging.

Tang Mart features grab-and-go breakfast biscuits in sausage, steak and chicken varieties, pizza, barbecue sandwiches and a lot more. “We’ve gotten more into prepared foodservice, no doubt,” said the owner.

“We don’t run from trial and error to find out what items work and which don’t. We tried a new biscuit flavor—a variation of what we have done in the past—and also added a chicken biscuit. We tried an empanada for a limited time, and that’s what it amounted to: it did not have the following we thought and ceased offering it.”

Tang said that “as an owner, you might love a particular item but have to remove it based on lackluster sales.”

Asked if store expansion is in the cards, adding a sixth unit, Tang says it’s always possible if the right deal comes along. “But we’re not force-feeding it,” he said.

But one thing is certain, regardless of how many stores it has in its portfolio: “We want to be your option on the way to work, during the middle of the day and on your way home,” he said.

What Sets Tang Mart Apart?

  • Supreme customer service: The owner hired engaging, friendly employees (25 full- or part-time workers). Tang Mart offer free air for tires. “That’s just some goodwill we can give to the community and our customers,” Tang said.
  • Well-conceived store design: Tang Mart’s design theme is a playful green cartoon dragon, which ties to his heritage: Tang’s father is Chinese. The design was intended to infuse levity and present an approachable, friendly and contemporary feel. “We’ve taken some of those subtle branding elements and Asian heritage and carried them throughout the stores,” he said.
  • Destination spots: Theyinclude “Thirsty Dragon” fountain drinks; “Black Dragon” coffee (bean-to-cup system); “Yummy Yeti” frozen beverages; and “Himalayan Beer Cave.”

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