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Indie Closeup: Inside the ‘Hot Dog Store’

Flea market, campgrounds help make this location a winner with wieners
J&J Country Roads Store
Photography courtesy of J&J Country Roads Store

Justin and Jody Fox, co-owners of J&J Country Roads Store, had an inside track about the retail location they would eventually own one day.

The brothers had been working as Pepsi-Cola retail delivery truck drivers in the Pence Springs, West Virginia, region, counting then-Country Roads Store as a retail customer on their route. Pence Springs is an unincorporated community in Summers Co. that lies along the Greenbrier River southeast of the state capital, Charleston. These days, they no longer deliver Pepsi products, but merchandise them from their cold vault and fountain program.

The brothers, knowing little about operating retail, took a leap of faith to acquire a store they considered to have significant upside—starting with a wildly successful hot dog merchandising program. They took their first foray into convenience retailing in early 2020 when former owner Leslie Persinger opted to sell out.

Assuming control of the newly named J&J Country Roads Store in January 2020, along with store manager and Justin Fox’s partner Amanda Ratliff, the team is carrying on Persinger’s legacy at the former Exxon-branded unit that now offers Liberty-branded fuel. It also sells off-road diesel, kerosene and fills propane tanks.

Stocking everything from fuel to septic systems, J&J Country Roads Store also touts what’s known as its signature item: an authentic West Virginia hot dog consisting of mustard, onion, chili and slaw—and applied to the dog in that order.

Let’s Be Frank

Ratliff said Persinger opted to sell the store in late 2019 due to failing health. Learning about the development as they delivered Pepsi products, the Fox brothers pounced on an opportunity, taking control just as COVID-19 struck.

“There are a lot of moving parts to this—permits, certifications daily financials, operations, employment, product ordering and more,” said Ratliff. “At the beginning, I ran the store during the week when Justin and Jody worked for Pepsi. Justin opted to exit that job recently and is now full-time at the store.”

It's a good thing. Over the years, the store boasts this lofty accomplishment: 2 million frankfurters have been sold. “People call us the ‘hot dog’ store,” said Ratliff, who uses Brown Foodservice, Louisville, Kentucky, as its hot dog product supplier and H.T. Hackney Co., Knoxville, Tennessee, as its primary wholesale-distributor.

“We sell around 100 units a day. Everyone says that our homemade chili is what makes it special—that plus the mustard, onions and slaw. We also steam our buns.”

On Sundays, hot dog sales grow to anywhere from 500 to 700 when the local flea market opens. It takes five foodservice workers to oversee the Sunday hot dog business, as lines to get into the store snake out to the parking lot, she said.

Read ahead for six questions posed to store manager Amanda Ratliff:

Q: How did you and Justin get involved in convenience retailing? And what is the best part of the job that keeps you motivated?

A: We had seen that the store was for sale. It is a huge part of Summers County—anyone that goes to the Pence Springs flea market on Sundays knows about stopping by to get breakfast and hot dogs on their way home. The best part about working and owning the store is our customers. We have many that are in here four to five times a day.

Q: How does the team go about finding and retaining solid workers?

A: We have had a hard go at finding some employees. Some have been hired but only worked a few days and then quit. Some think it’s an easy job—that it’s just a ‘gas station.’ But it is a lot more than that. Justin and I are here six to seven days a week and have five other employees that help run the store. Our daughter, Lakelyn, has been working with us since we took over.

Q: How would you describe the clientele—from locals to vacationers?

A: We have many locals we see every day, and in the summertime we have a lot of campers, as there are camp grounds all around us. Many of them are here every evening, and always come to see us before they leave for the winter—some call to check in to see how everyone is doing. That’s refreshing.

Q: Talk about what makes your hot dog program the centerpiece of the foodservice program?

A: Hot dogs have been a staple of the store for many years. Leslie Persinger owned the store for 21 years before we bought it—and hog dogs were offered before Leslie ran it. We had to train for about two months on the hot dogs and to learn all the other moving parts of c-store operations. One difference with the wieners is our secret chili and slaw recipe.

Q: What are some other in-store categories that help boost dollars and unit performance?

A: We have a full deli menu and groceries, hardware such as toilets, hot water heaters, wall heaters, wood stove accessories, pipe and pipe fittings. We even sell septic systems. I like to say that we have everything from hot dogs to hardware.

Q: What was the reason for switching fuel brands?

A: Prior to buying the store, Leslie said Exxon wanted him to upgrade equipment but he’d have to expense most of it. We engaged with Liberty Petroleum, which was willing to expense the new pumps if we made the conversion. We don’t offer pay at the pump, as customers have to come inside to pay for gas.

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