PONTIAC, Ill. — Michael Rubenstein and Chad Wallis, cousins who grew up in rural Missouri along Route 66, were on a “boring” drive home from a Colorado ski trip three years ago when the idea hit them. They would design, build and run a convenience store that would liven up any such dull drive.
President and CEO Rubenstein, with a real estate and supply logistics background, knew how to build convenience stores, and Chairman Wallis, with a c-store and gas station background, knew how to operate them, so they “began a very deep dive and thorough process of figuring out location, our brand, who we wanted to be,” Rubenstein told CSP Daily News. “We really wanted to focus on the family traveler and create a brand that spoke to our Midwestern roots.”
Welcome to Wally’s. Take a look inside …
The newly built, 30,000-square-foot store, which opened in early September on a 20-acre site that only recently was an Illinois cornfield in Pontiac, Ill., between Chicago and St. Louis on Interstate 55, has 76 fueling positions. The site offers diesel at every dispenser and has two lanes of diesel exhaust fluid (DEF).
The fuel is unbranded, and everything is proprietary under the Wally’s brand. (Wally’s fuel is supplied by Chad Wallis’ family business, Wallis Cos., a Cuba, Mo.-based petroleum retailer and wholesaler with a network of c-stores in Missouri. Wally's is an entirely separate, private company, although Wallis Cos. is an investor.)
But the facility wasn’t built to accommodate big rigs, they said. “It’s so tight and the way that the store is positioned, it’s just not comfortable for them as much as it is that not that we don't want him there,” said Rubenstein. “We love the truckers, we welcome them, we welcome all guests who would love to come and have this experience. So just it's just a matter of getting their truck on the lot and getting off.”
“This facility is definitely geared to the road traveler, and a lot of those are trucks,” Wallis said. “I think that's the big differentiator. It’s hard really to define that. We’ve just been open and honest about it. We welcome everyone, but we just don't have a facility really to accommodate those big trucks.”
Wally’s also built a separate canopy with four 50k-watt, high-speed electric-vehicle (EV) chargers and enough capacity for another 12, they said. “I don't know too many people that have actually built their own canopy for the e-charger, so we’ve really made an effort to be able to attract all types of travelers and to be able to spend 20 or 30 minutes inside and walk around and enjoy the experience,” Rubenstein said.
Route 66 Retro Road Trip
Pontiac is a very strong Route 66 community, they said. When visitors enter the store, one of the first things they see is the signage, which reads “Home of the Great American Road Trip.”
“That's really the whole vibe of the store,” he said. “The retro feel. You can see a lot of inspiration from a 70s or 80s family road trip, and from there, we wanted to make sure that the retro feel was tied in with all of the modern amenities—spacious, contactless, the ability for our guests to be able to move around the store without a lot of restrictions.”
The second experience station is Wally’s cafe, which offers specialty drinks. The fountain has 60 flavors. The frozen beverage area features the ‘Sloosh’ in 12 flavors. In keeping with the retro vibe, the fountain has all “old-school” beverage labels from the 70s and 80s. The area also has a kegerator dispenser for nitro cold brew and kombucha. The “party section” of the store has a beer cave.
Along with the c-store, the location has a 8,000-square-foot retail section. “We’ve tried to focus on really going back to the ‘home of the great American road trip’ theme and what people are going to be looking for on that road trip, so we really lean heavily on t-shirts and caps and apparel,” said Rubenstein. “We designed all of our own t-shirts as well as hats, and so we took a lot of time and effort. We made a very conscious decision in the retail section not to just go through a couple large distributors to supply all of our products. We carefully curated a lot of product from different vendors. We have a kids’ section—puzzles and things that families would like to use on car rides, just a really lot of fun types of products.”
It also features Route 66 merchandise. “Michael and I are from Route 66 towns,” said Wallis. Rubenstein is from Sullivan, Mo., and Wallis is from Cuba, Mo. “We grew up loving that small-town vibe and all the people and everything that goes along with small-town USA and Route 66, so we’ve got an abundance of ties to 66.”
They are trying to tie the store into the Route 66 mystique “and also encourage people to go visit the small towns to check out all they have to offer,” said Rubenstein.
Bucking the Tend
The concept—the large format and the offering—draws immediate comparisons to another destination c-store chain, Lake Jackson, Texas-based Buc-ee’s, which in recent years has captured the attention and imagination of travelers—and the convenience retailing industry—with it giant facilities.
“Many of our guests have heard of it. It’s expected. Anyone in our industry that builds a large-format c-store like this on a highway corridor is going to get likened to that. There's going to be some type of comparison,” said Rubenstein.
“We’ve been on our own route, our own road, and with our own background and history in the convenience-store business, the 50 years of Wallis Cos. being in the business, and with Michael’s side of the family with the apparel and hat business, so we really just kind of leveraged all that to build this amazing guest experience,” Wallis said.
The COVID-19 pandemic delayed the hoped-for Fourth of July opening.
“Illinois had a shutdown for nonessential workers, and construction was a gray area but it slowed everything down from the supply chains to the construction to really every aspect of the project, so it was a real challenge,” said Rubenstein. “I think we did a really good job as being able to communicate as much as possible while we were all working from home, but at the end of the day this is retail, and you’ve got to be in front of the guest, and you’ve got to be in front of the team, and there's no doubt it has been a real challenge. Illinois law requires face mask coverings inside. Obviously, making sure that everyone has a safe experience is paramount. Would we love to show our guests that we're smiling. Of course, we can’t.”
Coincidentally, the sheer size, open layout and large aisles of Wally’s are conducive for safe social distancing, they said. There's also a lot of space at all of the checkouts and experience stations to allow people to move around in a safe manner, they said.
“Obviously, we designed the store well before COVID happened,” said Rubenstein. “We wanted to make sure that we could process as many guests in a safe and efficient way that provides the experience that we want them to be excited about and tell people about once they arrive at their destination. Obviously, it wasn't intentional from COVID, but it I think it has worked out well for us.”
Also, the cleanliness of the restrooms is “a big thing when families are thinking about where to stop,” Wallis said. All of the bathroom fixtures have contactless motion sensors.
“It was a cool space,” Lydia Lindenberg, a customer driving home from St. Louis, told CSP Daily News. “We appreciated the openness of the store and the contactless bathrooms. And these days, it was nice to have a new place to stop that made social distancing easier.”
Customers can use either traditional checkouts or eight self-checkout units, four up front and four at a secondary entrance. All of the credit-card readers have the ability to use the Wally’s app or Apple Pay. And all the doors to the facility are also motion activated.
What’s next for Wally’s?
“Chad and I and [additional business partner Garrett Thompson] are laser focused on making sure that all the small touches are here at the Pontiac store, but as part of the business plan, Chad and I have been looking all throughout the Midwest corridor for similar locations like the experience we have in Pontiac,” said Rubenstein. “We’ve been very active and have a couple that we’ve targeted.”
And Missouri? Given their background, “we’re confident that’s where it is going to lead us,” Wallis said.
But with large-format stores, it takes more time to select the right site, expansion doesn’t come as fast as with a more traditional c-chain, they said.