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Indie Closeup: How Tobies Station Drives Sales on 2 Fronts

Minnesota independent retailer offers host of amenities at dual-retail enterprise c-store and restaurant
Tobies Station convenience store
Tobies Station and Tobies Restaurant & Bakery co-owner Chris Hickle and his sister and co-owner Pam Zabrok. | Photograph courtesy of Tobies Station

From car wash and scratch-made indulgent baked goods to electric-vehicle (EV) charging and robust jerky merchandising—Chris Hickle is hitting on most all the cylinders a small-size convenience-store retailer can.

The owner of both Tobies Station and Tobies Restaurant & Bakery in Hinckley, Minnesota, Hickle offers a formidable one-two retail punch: Customers visit the on-site restaurant and then conduct some fill-in buying at the c-store. Those entering to buy fuel or EV charge may then decide to enjoy a sit-down restaurant meal next door.

The synergy cuts both ways for the two side-by-side entities located off Interstate 35, halfway between the Twin Cities and Duluth.

“We appeal to those traveling up and down I-35,” said Hickle, a former airline pilot who retired years ago to oversee the Tobies retail duo. He owns both stores with his sister, Pam Zabrok, and mother, Sue.

“Everyone who travels this corridor knows about us, and a majority come from other states. Because there’s no big-box chains close to us, this gives us a strong competitive advantage,” said Hickle, whose wholesale distributor is Farner-Bocken, Carroll, Iowa.

Here are six reasons why Tobies has remained a regional retail force since 1978:

1. Bakery behemoth: The c-store doesn’t sell as much confection as other c-store retailers might, and that’s OK with Hickle. The brand sells huge volumes of sweet snacks baked fresh onsite daily—the sweet indulgence most customers choose. The fare includes glazed doughnuts, long Johns, apple fritters, caramel and cinnamon rolls, which sell for $3.75 per unit. “At both stores, we have wall-to-wall customers [waiting for baked goods], a larger bakery case in the restaurant where there’s more room. The c-store offers a smaller merchandiser. Regardless, we box them up as fast as we can—it’s full throttle,” Hickle said.

Bakers produce caramel and cinnamon rolls all day long. “On a busy day, it’s 120 to 130 pans,” Hickle explained. “We proof and bake them with a machine, transfer to a dough sheeter, use a roller and ‘guillotine’ cutter. Staff takes the product off the line, places them on pans and then transfers some to the freezer to thaw later.”

2. Meat snack/jerky juggernaut: Dried meat snacks lost about 13% in dollar sales in 2023 within convenience, according to Circana data. To Hickle, the poor performance is a rumor. “We expanded our beef jerky more than ever before, selling 10-pound bags of mainly Jack Link’s, Slim Jim, Old Trapper,” he said. “We also have had continued success with Jack Link’s meat and cheese refrigerated combos and cold-pressed sandwiches. For us, a lot of our customer base is transient, vacationers—and jerky fits the bill on protein for them. We designed a slatwall and increased product footprint by 100%: if we had a 10-foot section it’s now 20 feet. The slatwall is 7 feet high and 12 feet wide.”

3. Solid staff history: The Hickle family built the c-store in 1978 and the restaurant in 1966. “We have 40 folks at the c-store and 110 to 130 people to staff the restaurant, depending on the season,” Hickle said. A lot of the overall staff has been a sustainable force, particularly the c-store. “We keep our store staffed well, but see some challenges on labor especially at the restaurant, where more training is necessary,” he said. “The c-store has a good core of long timers. Our only issue is that two nights a week, we can’t stay open 24 hours because we’re unable to cover those overnight shifts.” There are more “moving parts” at the restaurant to find and keep good people, he says.

4. Energy balancing act: Some Midwest retailers who typically tout renewable fuels might take a pass on creating EV-charging stations, as it serves to undermine the volume of renewable fuel sales, and thus impacts corn farmers. Hickle sees room for both energy opportunities without compromise. On the fuel side, he brands Minnocco [known as Minnesota Independent Oil Co.]. “It’s gasoline developed for members of the MSSA [Minnesota Service Station & Convenience Store Association] by members of MSSA,” said Hickle. “This allows us to own and control our own brand while offering renewable fuels that are grown and refined in the Midwest [bio-diesel, E85, E30, E15 87, 89 and 91 octane fuels]. We lean a lot on sales of Unleaded 88 [15% ethanol]. We have blender pumps to blends right into the MPDs.” Hickle is eager to eventually upgrade to new MPDs down the road, since it was November 2016 when “we last invested in new dispensers, which are now considered somewhat outdated.”

On EV charging, the footprint of the two stores is enough to support ample space for Tesla super-charging units, of which there are eight. “The c-store space is somewhat tight, but we have auxiliary space on the total footprint. Tesla owners come to charge and often eat in restaurant while waiting,” he said, speaking about the Tesla on-site lease that started in 2015. “We don’t own the charging slots, but certainly benefit with the c-store and restaurant business.”

5. At the car wash: Hickle’s touchless car wash offers two bays, supported by PDQ’s LaserWash 360 Plus Car Wash System. He loves the way the new system increases efficiency. “With the former equipment, the wash used to shut down when equipment touched, say, a car side mirror—such as vehicles with extra-wide ones. This system resets itself automatically via sensors [that detect specific vehicle design differences]. We wash about 250 cars on a good day, maybe 40 to 50 cars on less optimal days,” he said.

6. Interior upgrades: Hickle refurbished Tobies c-store in 2017. “We remodeled it because we know how important it is to have a clean and new updated look. Customers don’t want to go to old rundown c-stores,” he said.

On the branded side, Hickle partnered up with Caribou Coffee on a franchise [footprint 200 square feet] and has watched the coffee program flourish.

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