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One-on-One With 'Lifestyle' C-Store CEO Jennifer Pomerantz

How a 'Change Maker' parlayed frustration into innovation at American Natural
Jennifer Pomerantz
Illustration by Olivier Balez

CHICAGO Jennifer Pomerantz, founder, CEO and chairman of American Natural, which has three lifestyle convenience stores in the Pittsburgh area, sat down recently with Meg Major, vice president of content for CSP sister publication Winsight Grocery Business, for a one-on-one interview.

WGB: Jennifer, your company’s sleek, lifestyle American Natural stores—which include conventional and alternative fueling options and a branded fast-casual Eatery—stand out in the industry for their premium quality, fresh and local offerings and a cozy, cutting-edge interior design. Where did your inspiration come from?

Jennifer Pomerantz: A need to find a place to eat and fuel quickly. An increasing amount of people have food allergies, dietary restrictions and category preferences—for example, ethical, fair trade, organic, natural, non-GMO, etc.—which are limited in today’s convenience and quick-service environment. Many people frequently find themselves very frustrated and hungry when they are on the go.

WGB: American Natural’s food offerings are impressive and turn traditional “gas station food” on its head: small-batch food and specialty beverages; coffee, baked goods and treats sourced from local purveyors; salads, soup, pizza and handcrafted sandwiches made with specialty breads and rolls; and traditional and better-for-you snacks and beverages. What is most important to note about your sourcing and menu development?

JP: We work with small businesses within the local region. The foods we prepare and the coffee we serve must be made from high-quality ingredients. We provide both healthy and fun options with an eye on the growing categories our customers most desire, from dietary to personal preferences as described above. For us, variety isn’t simply carrying many different flavors of a snack—it is approaching a broader cross-section of our customer’s needs and preferences.

WGB: While describing your vision that’s rooted in simplifying people’s increasingly complicated lives by adding value with balanced eating and snacking options, I was this close to high-fiving you when you declared: “Eating shouldn’t be a hassle.” What hassles specifically are you referring to?

JP: Eating quickly is a big hassle if you have allergies, dietary restrictions and/or certain food and beverage preferences. I know many people who stop multiple times for fuel, coffee, snacks and meals on the go. We’ve heard we save people time by enabling them to avoid making different stops for each.

The hassle is also the environment. Eating and fueling on the go is increasing, coupled with the need to log in and do some work between meetings or making sure the kids can eat something quickly before or after taking them to an activity (and avoid food falling all over the car). We strive to provide a holistic approach to convenience.

WGB: You mentioned something that piqued my interest when we were chatting, which is how frustration can be a powerful catalyst for innovation. Can you please elaborate on how frustration motivated you?

JP: It was the most frustrating to walk into a convenience store or quick-service location while on the road, only to find there were little to no options that met the categories described above. From my own experiences, I carried boxes of certain health bars, knowing that otherwise I wouldn’t be able to eat all day. The people I was with joined me in this approach. Many people share frustration and fatigue about eating on the go. As a society, we’ve modernized and changed in so many ways, we took that philosophy to convenience.

WGB:What is the most important thing you’ve learned from a former influential authority figure, and how has it benefited you?

JP: Innovation is the present and the future. If we’re not challenging ourselves and re-evaluating, we aren’t adapting to the many changes out there.

WGB: What is your team’s motto?

JP: We strive to continue our innovation to add value to our customers’ experience.

WGB: Coffee or tea?

JP: I prefer espresso.

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