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Indie Closeup: Lincoln’s Is Not Sleeping on Success

5 years in, owner Guerra offers entrepreneurial tip: ‘don’t get comfortable’
Owner John Guerra (left), store owner Dale Dale (right), assistant store manager Jordan Cole (rear); Lincoln’s Country Store
Owner John Guerra (left), store owner Dale Dale (right), assistant store manager Jordan Cole (rear); picture courtesy of Lincoln’s Country Store

Getting introspective about his first five years as a convenience-store operator, John Guerra jokes: “I remind people that in dog years, that’s 35 years.”

Business challenges can inflate actual time, but Guerra, who operates independent convenience store Lincoln’s Country Store in Warren, Maine, inherited an iconic retail brand in 2019, and he has been instrumental in pushing its future-forward vision ahead each year.

The 4,000-square foot store is situated in a mostly blue-collar community about one hour north of Portland, Maine. Open 14 hours a day, Lincoln’s employs between 24 and 26 workers.

“If you’re an entrepreneur, you’ll love this type of opportunity … and that’s what I am,” said Guerra. “There are three aspects of business that always keep it interesting: customer changes, resource availability and staffing. My advice always is, ‘never get too comfortable’.” 

Having a 360-degree view of operations at Lincoln’s Country Store, which sell Kenoco-branded fuel, is mandatory, said Guerra, a former grocery industry supervisor. Getting “comfortable” might mean one or two store areas—from profit center to fringe department—might not receive the attention the require.  

Deli/Meat Behemoth

When Guerra acquired Lincoln’s following 25 years in grocery, the store had already boasted a solid bakery, deli and full-fledged meat department with an on-premise butcher.

The former owner, Mark Lincoln, established a solid, reputable presence in these areas, and Guerra took it to another level. On the meat profit center, one key decision was branding: it’s known as Hops & Chops.

“My deli/meat manager Dale Dare had owned Hops & Chops locally, and then transferred the name to our store when he joined our team,” Guerra said. “It has made a big difference from a brand equity perspective.”

The brand name is one aspect, and sourcing quality product is another. Dare is adept at procuring top-line meat cuts at very competitive prices, said Guerra. “Dale acquires aged prime rib, Tomahawk steaks, marinated chicken breast, marinated kabob and more,” he said. “The ‘going’ price might be x per pound, but Dare obtains it far cheaper, and we pass savings along to customers. It has really taken off—and most everything is pre-sold. It’s worked so well that we invested in dry-aged beef equipment, which has been game-changing.”

Guerra found that social media platforms such as Facebook can be compelling brand-building triggers—and at Lincoln’s, the deli and meat department have watched Facebook posts from happy customers spawn “a whole rush of new customers. The radius of customers had been 7 to 10 miles, but expanded greatly thanks to Facebook and the exposure we’ve received,” Guerra said.

On the bakery front, which had also been a legacy destination Guerra inherited and later put his stamp on, the department known for seasonal whoopie pies and chocolate cream pies had a successful wholesale business that Guerra opted to scale back due to labor intensity, and then focus more on retail opportunities.

“With bakery, it’s hard to find specialists in a local labor pool. We opted to downplay wholesale and concentrate on the on-premise customer,” he said.

Fuel Stability

Guerra lacked fuel experience when taking over Lincoln’s, entrusting local distributor Fabian Oil, Oakland, Maine, to assume control over weekly distribution and retail price setting for the Kenoco-branded store.

Lincoln’s offers one fuel island on the front of the store and two diesel nozzles at the side. “With prices dropping, there’s been stability—business has been very consistent from a revenue standpoint, as well as foot traffic leading to inside sales,” he said. “I let the gas business practically run itself. We price gas in line with local competitor, and Fabian helps with that a great deal.”

In the grocery corporate world, Guerra was—and still is—a self-described “tech geek” who loves the ins and outs of technology, systems integration and back-to front-end efficiencies.

This led him to have an inside track on selecting the most optimal point-of-sale (POS) system upgrade. “Three years ago, we upgraded our POS to LOC SMS [LOC Software, Laval, Quebec, Canada] that’s doing a great deal to connect fuel island activity to inside transactions—optimizing merchandising, reporting, inventory control, integrated purchasing and more,” he said.

Looking ahead throughout 2024, Guerra said it will be “a good planning year, where I’ll assess the age of various store components—building façade and some inside investments. One vision is building out our footprint.”

The Guerra File

The owner cites at least two aspects of business “that always keep it interesting: customer changes and staffing.” Here’s his take on both:

Customers changes: “One year plus into this retail venture, things changed dramatically with the pandemic. We suddenly saw customers coming in to conduct more ‘power shopping’ of larger sizes of items. By 2022, with the pandemic waning down, customers wanted more pure ‘convenience.’ We added prepared, microwavable meals and bought a rotisserie chicken warmer. It took off well, but the labor needed to support it can be a problem. We can roast up 10 chickens a night and sell most all of them. The problem is you need to have all-hands-on-deck for fulfillment, and that’s where the right staffing became an issue.”

Staffing changes: “I have a great core of associates that are focused on the success of the business. But about those who don’t stick around long, I had to stop feeling bad about people leaving. It’s work to replace people, but you have to have a mentality that the next would-be employee who comes in for an interview will be a ‘sustainer.’ I have an employee who worked in a dental office—no c-store experience. That individual now helps the deli operate smoothly and has become an associate manager.”

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