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Parker's Kitchen CEO and Founder on 50 Years in the Convenience-Store Business

Greg Parker reflects on changes in the industry, the future of foodservice and what his new role will be in 2025
Greg Parker
Photograph courtesy of Parker's Kitchen/Christine Hall Photography

Greg Parker, founder and CEO of Parker’s Kitchen, has 50 years of experience under his belt in the convenience-store industry. As he transitions from CEO to executive chairman in 2025, CSP Daily News caught up with Parker to learn what significant changes he has seen in convenience stores during the last five decades, the future of foodservice and what lies ahead for convenience-store retailers.

Parker’s Kitchen is based in Savannah, Georgia has more than 80 c-stores.

  • Parker Co.’s is No. 94 on CSP’s 2023 Top 202 list of U.S. convenience stores by store count.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

CSP: In 1976, you opened your very first convenience store in Midway, Georgia. Reflecting on that five decades in the convenience-store industry, what changes have been the most significant?

Parker: I think the single most important change in our industry that occurred during in my lifetime was when we moved from full-service gasoline to self-service gasoline in the mid-1980s. Before then, all gas was dispensed by an attendant. When I started working in the c-store industry in 1975, we pumped the gas, cleaned the windshield, checked the air in the tires and checked the oil on every single vehicle, which was incredibly labor-intensive.

Also in the mid-1980s, technology at the pump took a quantum leap forward when multi-product fuel dispensers came out with credit card readers installed in the pump. I remember when this development happened, I spoke to my good friend John Kleine, who was then the vice president of Amoco in Atlanta, and asked if I should incorporate this new pay-at-the-pump technology at Parker’s. He said I should and gave me some excellent advice: “Always stay ahead of consumer demands. Be ahead of the curve.” So, I became one of the first c-store owners in my region to install multi-product dispensers with card readers. Gas sales immediately increased at the pump, as did store sales, because we focused on the overall quality of the store experience for our customers.

Parker's Kitchen

Photograph courtesy of Parker's Kitchen

Over the years, I’ve also seen some incredible changes with dispensed beverage. When I first started in the c-store industry, there was no such thing as dispensed beverage. I went to my Coke distributor and asked if I could get a dispensed beverage fountain machine. I was told, “No, we don’t do that for convenience stores.” I knew dispensed beverage was available at restaurants and movie theaters and persisted until our distributor finally allowed me to have a fountain machine in my store. We were only allowed to sell Coke products from the Coke fountain machine, so I went to Pepsi and convinced them to give us a Pepsi fountain machine. Only when we started buying our own fountain machines could we have Coke and Pepsi products on the same machine. Now, of course, we have Coke, Pepsi and proprietary Parker’s Kitchen products that we dispense on our fountain machines at every store.

It’s important to note that the profits we make per fluid ounce on Parker’s Kitchen proprietary dispensed beverage products are far greater than when buying from an outside vendor. Today, Parker’s Kitchen proprietary beverages comprise nearly 55% of all of our dispensed beverage sales, including our popular fresh-brewed iced tea (32%), Fancy Lemonade (14.5%) and proprietary dispensed fountain drink flavors (8%). Coke and Pepsi remain very important to us, but our margins are far better with our own proprietary products.

In addition, package beverage remains the No. 1 gross profit dollar generator inside the four walls of our stores. Over the past five years, we’ve doubled our profits for packaged beverage, despite the fact that wholesale prices have gone up astronomically.

Another major change we’ve observed in our industry is that cigarette sales have declined, but the gross profit for nicotine productswhich includes cigarettes and other tobacco productshas continued to grow. We’ve seen more than a 20% increase from profits of the sale of nicotine products over the past five years. We can’t walk away from our historic profit categories, like cigarettes, as they are still huge profit centers for our industry. 

While we are past peak demand for gasoline sales, the fuel category has become the most important gross profit contributor to our industry since the 1970s – and it has to increase because direct store operating expenses have increased dramatically, driven mostly by wages and benefits. Everything in our industry costs more today, including land, construction, property taxes and maintenance costs.

I believe that, as an industry, we’re more dependent on gas margins now than any time since the 1970s or early 1980s. Let’s not be too quick to move away from traditional profit drivers like “gas, cokes and smokes.” At Parker’s Kitchen, we’re intensely focused on gas procurement, gas margins and fuel pricing. My good friend Don Drazin told me many years ago: “It doesn’t matter what you pay for gas as long as you pay less for it than your competitors.” Today, that advice is more important than ever. 

CSP: Fast forward to 2024. This year you are celebrating a personal milestone: 50 years at the helm as CEO of Parker’s. Talk about what all this means.

Parker: In his thought-provoking book The Psychology of Money, Morgan Housel writes: “Luck and risk are both the reality that every outcome in life is guided by forces other than individual effort.... The accidental impact of actions outside of your control can be more consequential than the ones you consciously take.”

I feel incredibly lucky that I got into the c-store industry at the age of 21 and that I happened to be in one of the fastest-growing areas of the country. I’m so grateful to have had the opportunity to join such a resilient industry that has been able to navigate a rapidly evolving landscape over the years. At the same time, I feel lucky that Parker’s Kitchen has successfully weathered economic downturns, hurricanes and the COVID pandemic. Each of these challenges ultimately made us stronger, more focused and more united as a company.

My experience at the helm of Parker’s Kitchen has been an incredible journey over the past five decades. When I opened my first store in 1976, I had no idea how successful Parker’s would become. In my wildest imagination, I never would have dreamed that Parker’s Kitchen would become one of America’s most successful c-store brands. I could never have imagined that our company would be included on the Inc. 5000 list of fastest-growing companies in America for six years or named the Top Convenience Store Chain in America.

Parker's Kitchen

Photograph courtesy of Parker's Kitchen

I owe it all to the talented, hard-working team at Parker’s Kitchen, who go “above and beyond” to help our customers each and every day. They are, quite literally, the key to our success. Because of their remarkable commitment, we do more than $1 billion in annual sales. We currently operate stores across Georgia and South Carolina and are planning to expand south down to Jacksonville, Florida, north up to Myrtle Beach, South Carolina, and west to Augusta, Georgia, and Aiken, South Carolina.

I’m deeply grateful to lead one of the most philanthropic convenience-store companies in America. I’ve spent the majority of my career planting my crops, and now I am in the harvest phase of life. I’m focused on giving back and making a transformational impact in the communities where we operate stores. We’ve donated more than $30 million to important charitable causes over the past eight years. Our Parker’s Community Fund is focused on four main pillars: supporting education, reducing childhood hunger, expanding access to healthcare and celebrating heroes.

We recently announced a new partnership with Wounded Warrior Project to support their Warriors to Work program, providing veterans in Georgia and South Carolina with the resources and assistance they need to be successful in the civilian workforce. I’m incredibly proud to lead a company that has helped to raise the standard for what customers can expect from a convenience store and to give back to the communities that support us in meaningful ways.

CSP: The convenience store serves many different functions to many different people. How many daily transactions do you average, and what are the most important takeaways to succeed in this industry?

Parker: At Parker’s Kitchen, we complete an average of 134,000 transactions daily, which is an incredible honor as well as a tremendous responsibility. We want every customer to have an amazing experience in our stores, at the pump, in our sparkling clean restrooms, using our Parker’s Rewards app and being part of our growing Parker’s Kitchen community.

We take our commitment to excellence very seriously and think one of the keys to success in today’s c-store industry is focusing on the working mother. The working mother has been our brand filter at Parker’s Kitchen for many years because she’s the most time-starved, most discriminating customer. She wants great customer service, a safe environment, clean bathrooms, good lighting and high-quality products. We realized early on that if we please the working mother, we attract everyone else in the process.

Parker's Kitchen

Photograph courtesy of Parker's Kitchen/ Christine Hall Photography

I’ve always been extremely focused on the quality of the c-store experience for our customers, which has paid tremendous dividends over the years. When we opened our first store in 1976, we had red, white and blue carpet, wood-paneled walls, the best landscaping, great architecture and sparkling-clean bathrooms. Even today, we are known for delivering the ultimate experience for our customers, from the best architecture to the cleanest restrooms. In today’s competitive industry, it’s critical to focus on metrics. In order to make success achievable, you have to make it quantifiable. The most important thing is to understand the trends in the data and what they’re showing you. Identify your key metrics and follow them closely over time to measure your success and to identify areas of improvement.

At the same time, it’s vital for retailers to remain nimble. At Parker’s Kitchen, we are willing to change as consumer demands evolve. We take cues from our customers and listen to what they want and what they need.

With approximately 150,000 c-stores in the United States, every company wants to have as much market share as possible; however, that’s tricky because you also have to extract profit from the sale of gas to pay for rising store expenses. I’m extremely proud that Parker’s Kitchen is one of the only c-store companies in the United States that is profitable without gas sales, which puts us in an unbelievably competitive position. If there is a gas pricing war, we can afford to lose money on gas sales and still remain profitable.

CSP: At the University of Georgia, you studied political science and government. What prompted you to jump into the convenience-store industry?

Parker: After graduating from the University of Georgia, I managed the final months of construction of a c-store that my father, who was a longtime Amoco jobber, started building. His territory included one exit along I-95, which was a new route for people traveling up and down the Eastern Seaboard in the 1970s. 

To be perfectly honest, I was driven by a profound fear of failure and insecurity. I really wanted to prove myself to my father, so I went to work.In fact, I worked for three and a half years without taking a single day off and literally did everything at the store. I pumped gas, cleaned windshields, cooked hamburgers, cleaned toilets, made bank deposits and swept the parking lot. I kept my head down and learned by doing. There’s no question that my years of working in a c-store gave me an important skill set that made me a better competitor. CEOs who start their career working on the ground level in a c-store—opening and closing stores and working 24-hour shifts—bring a different perspective and gain insider understanding of what it takes to succeed in our industry, which ultimately offers a competitive advantage.

CSP: Traditional profit silos in the convenience-store industry are lessening, such as fuel and cigarettes, and are being replaced with foodservice. Parker's Kitchen stores feature freshly made items like southern fried chicken tenders and made-from-scratch macaroni and cheese. What factors are driving foodservice growth?

Parker's Kitchen

Photograph courtesy of Parker's Kitchen/ Christine Hall Photography

Parker: While the number of cigarettes and gallons of gas we sell are down, those profit generators remain critical to our industry. We decided to change our focus, so we would be less dependent upon traditional trip drivers, and re-invented our brand as Parker’s Kitchen, placing a renewed emphasis on high-quality, Southern-inspired food service.

We made a decision years ago to move away from being a convenience store company that sells food to becoming a foodservice company that sells convenienceand even changed our name from Parker’s to Parker’s Kitchen. Over the years, we’ve learned that factors driving foodservice growth include the quality of your food program as well as key metrics, like sales per labor dollar and gross profit per labor dollar. I’m very metrics-centric and am always surprised when really smart people talk about the gross margin on foodservice. The reality is that we make a higher net margin on a bag of warehouse-delivered chips than we do selling Parker’s Kitchen French fries. We’re very good at food service, but our net margin after expenses is around 28%. When comparing gross profit metrics in the store, you have to look at net profit in food service to understand the full picture. Net profit is what really matters when it comes to food service sales. 

At Parker’s Kitchen, we’re laser-focused on preparing fresh, Southern-inspired food from scratch and are honored to serve more than four million chicken tenders every year. We know that fried chicken tastes better when it’s fresh, which is why we use AI to reduce the time between cooking and consumption. Our Smart Kitchen technology tells our kitchen managers how much food to cook and at what time, so we deliver the best experience for our customers. Plus, we crack real eggs to make our egg casserole every morning and only use fresh, never-frozen, antibiotic, hormone-free chicken in our world-famous chicken tenders. We believe that using quality ingredients matters. The results have been incredible, with Parker’s Kitchen’s food, dispensed beverage, bean-to-cup coffee and Chewy Ice attracting loyal customers across Georgia and South Carolina in record numbers.

CSP: Speaking of growth, Parker’s Kitchen is readying for expansion across coastal Georgia, South Carolina and Florida. What lies ahead for 2024 and beyond?

Parker: At Parker’s Kitchen, we’re focused on our “Core 4” values: being the best place to work, increasing store numbers, growing store profits and philanthropy. We want to deliver best-in-class experiences for our customers and to be the best company to work for in America. We’re planning to open over 100 new stores over the next five years and to expand into exciting new markets. We think our growth at Parker’s Kitchen is the fastest organic growth in the history of the c-store industry and are always looking for talented team members who want to join a dynamic company that’s on the rise and planning to double in size within five years.

Our team has a powerful commitment to delivering exceptional customer service, optimizing operations, preparing fresh food on-site and exceeding customer expectations. We’re focused on strategic growth and making a transformative impact in the communities where we do business through strategic, ongoing charitable giving.

Over the years, we’ve been incredibly fortunate to have great employees, but what really makes our company special is our exceptional work culture. We’ve had so many team members who have worked with us for 30 or even 40 years. One of our district managers recently passed away and the outpouring of love for her and her family from the entire Parker’s Kitchen team was truly incredible. It’s those kinds of relationships that make a company great. 

We know that the c-store industry is the largest retail industry in America and that 50% of our country shops at a convenience store every day. By any measure, convenience stores are the backbone of America and, as we saw during COVID, are an essential business. During a crisislike a hurricane or other natural disasterswe’re the last to close and the first to open. We’re here to serve the community in good times and challenging times. I’m truly honored to be part of such an important industry.

As I transition from CEO to executive chairman in 2025, it’s going to be an exciting time. I’m extremely confident that our new CEO Brandon Hofmann and our new President John Rudolfs will do an even better job leading Parker’s Kitchen and can’t wait to see what the future holds.

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