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Indie Closeup: Retailer to the Rescue

Northern California operator becomes base camp for first responders battling wildfires
Crystal View Shell convenience store
Photograph courtesy of Crystal View Shell

POLLOCK PINES, Calif. — Tooraj Agahi, owner of the Crystal View Shell station in Pollock Pines, Calif., took service to a new level this summer as the California wildfires raged outside his Northern California store doors.

Agahi and co-owner Adorea Agahi, his wife, were tasked with accommodating law enforcement folks and first responders at the 3,500-square-foot Shell-branded store in the wake of mass evacuations in the region. People were forced from their homes in this small former logging town located northeast of Sacramento following the Caldor wildfire in mid-August.

In fact, Agahi’s Crystal City Shell was transformed into a 24-hour hub for fire brigades and law enforcement agencies to refuel, use restroom facilities and grab light meals and water. “That has been our goal: To make sure we’re here for them,” says Agahi.

With the local Safeway, CVS and dollar stores all shuttered, Crystal View Shell was set up as a quasi-base camp for the first responders. “We’re the closest place to the fire, so these first responders could have the needed logistics in place,” says Agahi, who received special permission by the local sheriff to remain open. The couple also owns a nearby Chevron-branded station.

Following is a conversation with Agahi about business during the pandemic and through the active wildfire season.

Q: Would you describe the Shell as a neighborhood store, highway store or a little of both?

A: It’s a little of both. The locals depend on us with beverages and value-priced tobacco. But on the other hand, Crystal View Shell is located on State Hwy. 50, and there are more than 14,000 drivers passing by, on average, each day on the way to and from Lake Tahoe, Nev. One thing we are known for—and this makes a big difference if you have a tourist-heavy clientele—are extremely clean bathrooms.

Q: The station is a family-run business since the start. When did you and Adorea get involved?

A: My father-in-law started the business in 1980, and Adorea and myself became active about 20 years ago. The population is around 5,000 here, but we serve more than 7,500 people who live in surrounding areas. We’re a small community with logging as the historical business generator; we had a lot of logging companies back in the 1940s and 1950s.

Q: What food and beverage categories are flourishing, and was the success due to any kind of price/promotion/display initiatives?

A: First off, our motto is based on “customer service, convenience and value.” We focus on those things always. I once operated a 24-hour coffee shop, so I have a strong handle on serving food. We became a Subway franchisee several years ago and currently have five [locations], including at the Chevron station, which we’ve had for 10 years. The other three are standalone. In the Sacramento area, the Crystal View Subway fell into the top 10 for all QSRs in the area.

Q: How do you differentiate yourself in your local market from a competitive standpoint, including destination signature items?

A: Tobacco is big with us. Sales are high. We have core partnerships with Altria and RJR, using scan data as the key to offering targeted discounts. We have a large selection of cigarettes, cigars, cigarillos and chewing tobacco, the latter of which firefighters use a lot of. We also place an emphasis on tobacco-free options that contain nicotine. Compared to most c-stores around here, we have the largest tobacco footprint at about 20 linear feet behind the counter.

Q: Did you experience product distribution issues during the pandemic?

A: We still have packaged candy shortages. We can’t get enough M&M’s Peanut SKUs, plus we have jerky issues. As far as drinks are concerned, we have supply chain issues procuring Gatorade and Coors Light, the latter stemming from the aluminum-can shortage. Large suppliers had production issues, and when that improved there were trucking issues. [A major beverages maker] usually has 65 truck drivers, and that fell to 23 drivers to serve outlying communities like ours.

Q: How have fuel gallons fared during COVID-19?

A: Initially, we lost about 25% in gallons, and it then began coming back to normal. We are in the foothills so most of the stations affected were in the metro areas, where people worked remotely. Here we have many people who can’t work remotely, and this helped sustain weekly and monthly fuel numbers.

Q: What are you looking most forward to the rest of this year and into 2022?

A: Honestly, our focus is to get through the fires.  I do not have any other pressing things in mind other than to continue to stand by our company goal of offering supreme convenience, service and value to customers as much as we can.

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