KNOXVILLE, Tenn. -- Following a year in which Pilot Flying J opened eight new full-sized travel centers, the growing company is thinking big by targeting small. It has begun the rollout of Pilot Express, a new format that is smaller than its traditional locations, according to Brian Ferguson, vice president and chief merchant for Pilot Flying J.
- Pilot Flying J, Knoxville, Tenn., ranked No. 9 in a year-end update of CSP’s 2017 Top 202 list of the largest c-store chains in the United States.
Expanding this new concept is only a part of the Pilot Flying J’s plans for 2018, which build on the company’s accomplishments in 2017, Ferguson told CSP Daily News. These also include new full-scale travel centers, an ongoing remodeling program, new partnerships and more.
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The Pilot Express stores are “still travel centers, with diesel lanes, just a much smaller format and total site layout,” Ferguson said. “They’re focused on food, speed and fantastic customer service.”
The company has opened Pilot Express stores in Steubenville, Ohio; Grand Prairie, Texas; Newark, N.J.; and Houston. A fifth is in the works in Jacksonville, Fla. Additional locations will open throughout 2018, beginning this summer, said Ferguson.
As to where, “the sky’s the limit,” he said. “Because they are a smaller format, we have the flexibility to build them wherever we’d like, wherever the drivers need these services, wherever there are opportunities in the market, whether it’s interstate highways, U.S. highways or urban or suburban environments.”
Shannon Johnson, the chain’s new vice president of food innovation, has “put together a tremendous new food offering and experience,” Ferguson said. “We’re layering that into our new stores, and into our larger formats as well.”
The new Pilot Express concept “puts food front and center, with homestyle meals, fresh salads, made-to-order sandwiches, grab and go, premium beverages and coffees—those are really the hallmarks of the new concept. The whole store and the entire environment is built around food innovation and our PJ Fresh Marketplace concept,” he said.
New travel centers
In 2017, Pilot Flying J opened eight new Pilot and Flying J travel centers in the United States, which Ferguson said was in line with expectations. The travel centers are in Bensenville, Ill.; Clovis, N.M.; Coco, Fla.; Kansas City, Mo.; Lathrop, Calif.; Rhome, Texas; Rochester, Ind.; and Tehachapi, Calif.
So far in 2018, the company has opened one new travel center, in Lamar, Colo., for a total of 602 locations (including 39 convenience stores in Tennessee) in 44 states and six Canadian provinces.
“The opportunities are still out there in 2018,” Ferguson said, “We’re looking to open approximately 20 more locations, ground up across the network, also including our new Pilot Express concept.”
Facility enhancement project
Pilot Flying J’s facility enhancement project is the major renovation of its travel centers, inside and out, “to make the guest experience everything you would experience at a brand-new store if we had just built it from the ground up,” said Ferguson.
The company completed more than 50 renovations in 2017. It hopes to do a similar number in 2018 “and continue that program until we’ve touched the entire fleet” of stores, he said.
And Pilot Flying J is investing in “better pumps, better parking, better lighting, better Wi-Fi and new and upgraded showers, coolers and food offerings to bring the stores up to best-in-class, new-store standards. We’re really proud of those stores. We were proud of them before they underwent the renovation, but we’re even more proud of them when they open back up.”
Earlier this month, Pilot Flying J re-opened its Pilot Travel Center in Remington, Ind., following the completion of a ground-up rebuild as part of the facility enhancement project.
The newly renovated building features many enhanced amenities, including new Taco Bell and Subway restaurants; PJ Fresh, fast-casual food offerings including PJ Fresh Pizza, Pilot’s Best Gourmet Coffees, soups, salads, sandwiches and bakery items; new restrooms and seven new showers; a new driver’s lounge; upgraded amenities and layout; and modern interior finishes and exterior lighting.
The company also plans to add a Truck Care Service Center to the site in 2018.
Through a partnership with outdoor retailer Bass Pro Shops, Pilot Flying J has opened two “store-in-store” Bass Pro Shops at travel centers in Lebanon, Tenn., and Gallup, N.M.
The Lebanon store serves as the chain’s “laboratory for trying out new things out,” said Ferguson. “It has a very interesting customer base. Over-the-road drivers, gas customers as well, tourists in and out of Nashville—it’s a heavily driven route. It’s a great location for getting a lot of different perspectives on the concepts and reading the sales.”
Pilot Flying J plans add two or three more Bass Pro Shop units this year across the network, Ferguson said, one in Texas, and it is looking at West Coast and Midwest locations.
The company also plans partnerships with other retailers.
“Travel centers are a nontraditional retail environment,” he said. “The success of the miniature environment really shows that our customers are seeking that experience, and they really appreciate the options and the assortment. My goal is to bring more, similar national brands into the fold and give our customers a really great variety of high-quality brands of merchandise to select from at great value.
“We definitely feel that given the success of our first two Bass Pro Shops, and some other things we’re working on right now, the sky’s the limit on how far we can take that. Some stores don’t have the square footage to support some large shop-in-shops, but most of these brands are scalable and strong—so strong and focused that they are naturally a magnet for customers coming in and wanting to at least browse and are curious as to what the offering is.”
Pilot Flying J is also expanding the Bean-to-Cup coffee offering that it has been testing for the last few months, said Ferguson (pictured). The concept allows customers to grind and brew their own coffee on demand and add condiments.
“It has been really successful in the test stores in 2017, so we’re expanding the offering nationwide throughout 2018,” he said. “New stores, facility enhancement program stores, Pilot Express stores and the balance of our fleet of stores will hopefully have those machines by the end of 2018. We’re layering them in on a month-to-month basis. The feedback has been tremendous.”
Most of the stores will have two machines. It is complementary to Pilot Flying J’s existing Best Coffee on the Interstate drip coffee. “It’s an expansion of our coffee offering. We won’t be shrinking our current coffee offering.”
In 2018, Pilot Flying J will continue to invest in its myPilot app and loyalty program. It recently launched the My Offer section, where on a weekly basis, there are special deals such as buy-one-get-one-free or other limited-time offerings.
“We continue to invest Tyler Tanaka, [director of digital, loyalty and innovation], and his team with the capabilities and the functionality that the My Offers platform,” said Ferguson. “From a merchandising standpoint, we are focused on really bringing great offerings, promotions and deals to our customers and to our drivers on a weekly basis through the app.”
“We see great adoption from both professional drivers and from four-wheel gas customers,” he said.
A priority for Pilot Flying J is providing parking for professional drivers.
“There’s approximately three million professional truck drivers on U.S. roads, and the latest estimates are that there are only around 300,000 parking spots available,” Ferguson said. “So the shortage of available and safe parking is at the top of our priority list in everything we do. Our network provides more than 72,000 parking spots for trucks out of the 300,000. It’s a big, stressful issue for all professional drivers. We are really focused by adding new locations and through our MyPilot app of showing where parking is available in real time.”
The company has rolled out parking sensors on the West Coast that show drivers through the MyPilot app how many spaces are available in real time. “We’re deploying that across the county over the next few years,” he said. “It is really giving drivers the information on how much parking is available at every travel center in real time and how to lock that in.”