MINNEAPOLIS -- Convenience retailers accommodate customers seeking coins with an array of change-maker items positioned at the check stand. A higher-level example of the concept is epitomized at 36 Lyn Refueling Station, a c-store located in Minneapolis that for years has fancied itself as a local community influencer and advocate for those struggling for quality, affordable food in a local food desert.
36 Lyn Owner Lonnie McQuirter and Social Media Director McCrae Olson, along with its eight other employees, are instrumental in fashioning the store as a community mecca and gathering place. Never was there a need to galvanize and calm a community more than during the spring and summer of 2020 following the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis.
On an ongoing basis, though, pumping up the brand’s social-media presence is a sure-fire way to get through to people on several levels. And 36 Lyn obliges. Olson started at the store in 2016 working as a cashier, and “on a whim, I started doing social-media functions, like posting activities at the store. Over time, Lonnie shifted my role in this direction and made social media a full-time position. There was a need for it,” he said.
Olson, who spends a lot of his time out in public creating videos, said McQuirter perceived social media as a great way to “get out in front of the story, to make people laugh, provide entertainment and alleviate some of the misery in the world. We take pictures of customers and their dogs out in front of the store. I get out into the local area and then post content on Instagram,” said Olson, 32, who also appeared on the “Big Brother” TV series years ago. “It all fulfills a sense of community. That’s always been our goal, because people are looking to escape.”
Similar to many independent retailers, 36 Lyn has an innate goal to champion local food and beverage brands. Not only does the store stock them, but some of the brands get free exposure when Olson produces what he calls “compelling Instagram video spots,” which drop a couple times a month.
“I cut my teeth on making commercials as a videography major [at Hennepin Technical College]. It’s a soup-to-nuts drill, and the local brands all appreciate the free exposure,” he said.
One local Twin Cities brand that has reaped benefits from 36 Lyn’s social media effort is Ommie Bar from Ommie Snacks, based in Chanhassen, Minn. “The video I created was of me trekking across the frozen Minnesota tundra, and … there it is—the Ommie Bar! The spot works, it’s funny,” Olson said.
Another brand that’s been showcased on the store’s Instagram account is Big Watt Beverage Co., a Minneapolis coffee shop that also manufactures energy drinks. The video that Olson created focused on the can’s redesign initiative, all set to 1990s-style music.
Olson said other beneficiaries of the 36 Lyn social-media machine include local businesses Craft & Vine Picklery, North Fusions CBD and Afro Deli & Grill.
Minneapolis-based Afro Deli plays a significant role in supporting 36 Lyn’s foodservice program, providing direct-store delivery of falafel and Southwestern wraps and other healthy fare to the store. In the summer, 36 Lyn partners with a third-party food truck, which positions the vehicle outside the store, providing more food choices.
Customer-invested always, 36 Lyn also procures local brands based on customer requests. “We scout for products and have a real advantage to do this over larger c-store and gas brands,” Olson said. “One female customer asked if we had dehydrated milk. We didn’t, so Lonnie found it and brought it in for her. I think we have a ‘Cheers’ atmosphere here, where our staff knows everybody’s name.”
36 Lyn Refueling Station Factoids
- Receiving acclaim: 36 Lyn secured Minneapolis/St. Paul Business Journal’s Fast50 award in 2017 and Inc. magazine’s Inc. 5000 as a top Minnesota company.
- Sowing local healing: After the George Floyd tragedy in 2020, 36 Lyn did its best to try and heal a broken city. “People set up chairs at the store. They were out all night with us. We wanted to make people feel safe and be community leaders who set the tone,” Olson said. “I think Lonnie really rallied the troops. We said to the community, ‘We are not going to be afraid.’ ”
- Finding indie inspiration: 36 Lyn has “adopted a Midwestern “sister station” in Lou Perrine’s, Kenosha, Wis., which dealt with its own social unrest in August 2020. “Lonnie has gotten to know [Owner] Anthony Perrine and is inspired by what they execute from a community standpoint. They both are kindred spirits and have become close,” Olson said.
- Activism: McQuirter is regularly active in dialoguing with state and local politicians. He is also well connected with the Minnesota Retailers Association and was elected chair of the association in 2018.
- Informal mission statement: “Be better than a local gas station,” Olson said. “And, I like to call 36 Lyn the ‘punk rock’ gas station. We are definitely an outlier.”
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