As patrons enter any of the seven Gulf-branded Fat Dogs Travel Centers in Nebraska, they’re sure to notice the large white all-capital-lettered sign at the doorway proclaiming: “YOU ARE NOWHERE.”
“The message can be interpreted two ways,” said James “Jim” Riewe, president of Fat Dogs, owned by Wilkinson Cos., North Platte, Neb. “On one hand, our seven locations are remote—in the middle of nowhere, it’s like finding an oasis on a long trip.”
On the other hand, when travelers enter a Fat Dogs store, they can read the sign to mean, “you are now here,” says Riewe.
“It’s a dual message that people can look at it either way,” said Riewe, who has overseen operations at the Nebraska-centric brand for eight years, joining up after years working for big-box retailers Walmart and ShopCo USA.
One major competitive advantage of Fat Dogs Travel Centers has no mixed meaning: The seven-unit retail brand offers a strong one-two punch of serving local customers and over-the-road truckers and traveler—all the time verifying its retail proficiency along the Interstate-80 corridor.
With traveler-customers, both Riewe and chain owner Mark Wilkinson have crafted a cogent mission. “We want people to regard us as that ‘first right turn’ as they get off the interstate for fuel, food, staples, general merchandise and clean restrooms,” Riewe said. “We want residents to see us as the local go-to place, and have rolled out a dynamic loyalty app to keep them coming back.”
The company has an effective synergy that melds Riewe’s inside merchandising acumen (35 years running big-box retail) with Wilkinson’s career as a developer of retail properties, including hotels. Wilkinson possesses a strong vision for prudent site selection, and also understands the intricacies of fuel marketing, said Riewe.
It has all allowed Fat Dogs to live large in the Cornhusker State.
Nebraska Through and Through
The company’s goal is to expand the travel center footprint prudently—and do it exclusively throughout the state of Nebraska. Currently, the brand is building two large Fat Dogs travel centers—14,000 and 18,000 square feet, respectively—in Grand Island and Lincoln.
“Currently, those properties house smaller, existing Fat Dogs stores—about 2,000 to 3,000 square feet,” Riewe said. “By mid- to late 2024, we’ll close those and immediately flip the switch to activate the new locations being built on those footprints. The transition will effectively triple our foot traffic.”
Fat Dogs, which has about 140 employees, was a brand inspired by Wilkinson, his nickname as a youth. It’s logical that the brand would make hot dogs a centerpiece of their foodservice offer, which they have along with Bahama Mama, Tornados taquitos, burgers, pizzas and more.
“We sell foot-long 100% Hillshire Farm all-beef hot dogs, and it serves as one of our signature items,” Riewe said.
The commitment to Nebraska retail is more than brick-and-mortar, but centers on what’s inside each location. From an experiential perspective, “we are big on showcasing the state. We allocate two beer cooler doors to Nebraska-made craft beers, and ‘frost’ the brand logos onto cold vault windows to add extra appeal,” said Riewe.
On most interior inside walls, Riewe and his team deploy sheet-rock that’s embossed with “presentable” graffiti that includes the brand logo as well as artistry devoted to various local icons, landmarks and sports teams, he said.
No two Fat Dogs Travel Center are the same within a customized, non-cookie-cutter approach to design. “There’s always some ‘newness’ going on,” said Riewe.
Fat Dogs works overtime to be a sustained asset within local communities, which Riewe considers “the lifeblood of our business. We might be a travel center with folks coming from other places, but off-season we are that year-round local destination—and always remember it,” he said.
The commitment to local is further demonstrated with a recently launched Fat Dogs loyalty app. “We always ask, how can we get people from the gas pump to the store? The app is a solid way. In the early going, we’ve designated select daily specials around it, such as ‘Double Points Tuesday’ and ‘Wine Wednesday’,” he said.
Other in-store draws that enhance the Fat Dogs’ experience for locals and travelers include ubiquitous 1980s rock music playing from overhead speakers, plus “a lot of bright, shiny ‘stuff’ for people to soak in. It’s all a very open, transparent design,” said Riewe.
Hot to Trot
As he looks back on the scorching summer of 2023, Riewe said it behooves all retailers to remain one step ahead of the game, to be prepared for seasonal challenges and opportunities.
From a beverage standpoint, Fat Dogs has viewed Frazil beverage dispensers (Freezing Point LLC, Salt Lake City, Utah) as an effective, viable profit center, driving both planned and impulse tickets.
“We really do well with it. It’s more than just the typical SKUs, but have enjoyed success with energy drink and cold coffee slushies,” said Riewe.
During summer selling, assurance of cold product is a task all retailers need to operationally oversee. “We conduct rigorous assessment of all assets in April,” Riewe said. “We make sure that rooftop HVAC condensers are functioning properly, and have an in-house maintenance team that travels up and down I-80 visiting all stores to address any issues. We have local electricians and HVAC experts on speed-dial to get same-day fixes if needed.”
If there are any temporary glitches, store managers pull dairy items from walk-in coolers and move them to open-air coolers on the sales floor or to back-room cold spots. Stores have, on average, 11 cold vault doors and four to six freezer doors.
Open-air coolers house sandwiches, cheese curds, fruit cups and more, while freezers stock kids ice cream, ice, frozen meal solutions and more. “We also have ice bins outside and we brand and provide for our own ice,” he said.
Looking to 2024, Riewe is eager to unveil the newest Fat Dogs travel centers, and the company will continue to pump investment into its recently acquired Time Saver c-store brand, which is Phillips 66 branded. The synergy between Fat Dogs and Time Saver is apparent—marked by two unique fuel brands and two different retail formats, as Time Saver stores are far smaller and cater to a unique clientele.
As the company expands its employees will help power the movement. “All our growth serves as a great opportunity for our employees who want to grow with us—and we’re known for promoting within,” said Riewe. “We’ve seen cashiers progress to assistant store manager, then to store manager and promoted to operations.”
The company recently integrated what Riewe calls the “Culture Index” that helps put more science into hiring. “We are bent on putting the right people in the right seats. We are seeing better engagement with associates, and are teaching and training people all the time,” he said.
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