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Indie Closeup: A Little Snow Couldn’t Stop Tioga Gas Mart

Catching up, cooling off with a seasonal c-store retailer
tioga gas mart
Photographs courtesy of Tioga Gas Mart

Not many convenience-store operators shutter their business for protracted periods, but Tioga Gas Mart, Lee Vining, California, happens to be one of them. The seasonally driven retailer closes its doors each year after Halloween before reopening in mid-to-late April.

Indeed, like clockwork, the store shut its doors on Nov. 6, 2022, stating on its Facebook page: “It’s a wrap. Big thanks to all our customers and employees. See you in April 2023.”

Wishful thinking—the store was forced to delay re-opening until May 19, according to co-owner Denise Molnar. When it did, Tioga Gas Mart operated in limited fashion, available essentially to local residents—all the result of significant snow totals still blanketing the Eastern Sierras. This led to inaccessibility of the arterial Tioga Pass that leads to Yosemite National Park.

The collateral damage was apparent: travelers and vacationers, who represent a healthy share of Tioga Gas Mart’s business, were unable to make their springtime journey to the state park.

Molnar and her co-owner parents, Dennis and Jane Domaille, were thrown a veritable curve; but like most resourceful independents, they were able to sustain a functional business.

“This season proved to be the second-snowiest ever recorded [by UC Berkeley Central Sierra Snow Lab] over a 77-year period,” said Molnar, who employs 35 full-time workers. The family has owned the Mobil-branded station since the mid-1990s.

What Yosemite-bound vacationers had been missing by Memorial Day was an excellent gift shop chock full of souvenirs, as well as a stellar foodservice menu. The store’s website proudly boasts: “Eat some amazing grub at the famous Whoa Nellie Deli (pictured), grab some snacks, find some great souvenirs, fill up your gas tank or just enjoy the spectacular views of Mono Lake and the Dana Plateau.”

“One of the main draws is our deli, which is best known for our mahi mahi fish tacos,” said Molnar. “The silver lining is that the locals are excited we’re back up and running because when we close there’s not many other food options available in this region. Folks pretty much cook meals at home when we close.”

Fish tacos, which feature a side of black beans, mango, plum and pineapple salsa, are available at $18 per plate. Wraps are popular too, she said. “Everything is made fresh to order daily. We have a whole kitchen staff to support the restaurant, with only five employees working the gas station and store,” said Molnar, whose primary wholesale distributor is Core-Mark.

The Mobil-branded location has four fueling islands and eight Gilbarco dispensers. On a “good day we can pump 4,000 gallons of fuel,” she said.

Snowbound, Profit-Bound

Years ago, when the independent store owners were examining their options about serving as a fueling station, c-store and foodservice provider, they had a choice of picking a couple lanes: one lane was opening a modest-sized foodservice program that would mean less capital investment for space allocation, staff and food procurement.

Molnar selected the more advanced lane: a comprehensive foodservice program that went the extra mile in every way.

“We said that we might as well serve excellent food if we’re going to serve food at all,” she said. To lessen the learning curve for the ins and outs of executing a more elaborate restaurant-style format, Molnar collaborated with local renowned chef Matt Toomey (known for a popular culinary restaurant located in Mammoth Lakes, California) to crack the code on the most optimal and cost-effective way to offer a comprehensive food menu that would be conducive to satisfy both travelers and locals.

On the menu, in addition to fish tacos, “we’re also known for pork chops, spare ribs and Elk chops. We also sell a lot of bottled wine in the $15 to $30 range, while we can hardly keep our craft beers on the shelves. In our restaurant, we serve it by the glass,” she said.

The operating decision for Tioga Gas Mart obviously all fell nicely into place—now the goal is getting those travelers back to the location when the snowpack melted and main road reopened by early summer.

Tioga Gas Mart is a vital resource for more than just food, too. While the entranceway to the state park offers its own dedicated visitors center to greet people, Tioga Gas Mart might as well be the “de facto” welcoming alternative to the Eastern Sierra region.

“By my estimation, we probably field more questions [about the state park and beyond] than the visitors center does,” she said.

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