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Indie Closeup: ‘There When Our Customers Need Us’

Express Mart makes meeting neighbors’ needs a rallying cry
Home Service Oil Co.'s Express Mart convenience store
Photograph courtesy of Home Service Oil Co.

BARNHART, Mo. — Express Mart is looking in 2022 to build on its longtime mission of making “every day better for our customers, our employees and our community. A better day starts here.”

“Here” is Barnhart, Mo., home to Express Mart’s parent company, Home Service Oil Co., operating nine Express Mart c-stores across Jefferson and Washington counties just south of St. Louis.

The Express Mart effort is helmed by a seasoned team of industry veterans, including Vice President of Retail Jeff Mesplay.

In business since its inception in 1930, the chain’s goal is to ensure that customers receive the best values on fuel, drinks and snacks, as well as hot-and-ready breakfast sandwiches, fresh-baked cookies, roller-grill items, sub sandwiches and more.

“As a long-standing footnote in Jefferson County, Express Mart prides itself on being there when our customers need us,” says Mesplay. “We are very proud to say that during the entire pandemic, we did not have to close down or modify the hours of any of our locations. Being deemed a ‘critical business,’ we stepped up and provided top-notch service to those who were also deemed critical, or for individuals who would rather visit their local c-store over a large supermarket/big-box store.”

Read ahead for more from Mesplay about how Express Mart coped with out-of-stocks and labor issues through the pandemic. 

Q: Did you experience any labor challenges during the pandemic?

A: Yes, at one point in 2021 we were down 20% to 25% of our staff. We had a two-month stretch in Q1 and Q2 where candidates were not showing up for interviews, not returning phone calls. Worse, we would take the time to interview and hire individuals, only to have them never show up for their shifts. Our stores were left scrambling trying to cover scheduled shifts. Things have gotten a little better for us, but we still have a few issues getting people to fill out new-hire paperwork in a timely manner so we can get them in the store and trained.

Q: How did you keep employees engaged through the pandemic?

A: In 2021, we partnered with local nonprofit Living Life on Two Wheels to raise money to bring the Strider Foundation’s Learn to Ride program to every elementary school in Jefferson County. (The Strider Education Foundation Inc. is a South Dakota non-profit corporation with a primary purpose of distributing Strider bikes to children and individuals with mental, physical or financial need, through organizations committed to teaching them how to ride.) Fundraising has always been something that brings out the competitive side of a few of our store managers. When the stores have friendly competitions for bragging rights or actual prizes it always helps boost up the store and bring them closer together as they strive to achieve a common goal. Through our fundraising efforts at our nine Express Mart convenience stores we raised over $35,000.

Q: Has the chain experienced supply-chain distribution issues and, if so, what are the biggest pain points?

A: Yes, we have experienced critical supply chain issues in the last year and a half to two years.  We have had continued outages from all our vendors, from Frito-Lay to Pepsi-Cola and [The Coca-Cola Co.], plus more. Many of our vendors have decided to limit their offering, focusing specifically on their core items or high-volume movers. Keeping our stores stocked with the products our customers were looking for—and at the price they expected—was a challenge for us. An additional disruption we had in supply was the stock of our own private-label soda and coffee cups. We cannot get anything private-labeled from our current supplier, which hurts us from a brand and marketing standpoint.

Q: How did these issues affect your store offer?

A: One … is our fresh-food offering. Here at Express Mart, we have two Express Mart cafes that offer a wide variety of fresh, hot, prepared-daily food. With supply chain issues and disruptions, we have had to substitute several ingredients or products, which have caused consistency issues with our food. Our customers rely on us in many cases to have their go-to breakfast, lunch or favorite snack … and we let them down when we do not have the ingredients or products they expect.

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