Thorntons Bullish on E15 in Chicago

Chain's largest market could host up to 100 alt-fuel sites

CHICAGO -- Thorntons is feeling bullish on E15 in the Windy City.

The chain currently has 29 sites in the Chicago area that offer the 15% ethanol blend, with plans for 44 by the end of 2017, said Matt Nichols, biofuels project manager of Thorntons Inc., at the recent Indiana Ethanol Forum in Indianapolis, according to Agri News

“We’ll continue to add new stores to grow that market,” Nichols said. “It’s a big strategic focus for us in the Chicago area. I wouldn’t be surprised if one day we have 100 stores up there offering E15.”

While Thorntons operates in six states, Chicago proved the best market to sell E15, said Nichols. Not only is it the retailer’s largest but it also has been designated as a reformulated gasoline market by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), meaning it is not subject to the same Reid vapor pressure restrictions as other markets that would prevent its sale in the summer.

One of the biggest lessons Thorntons has learned in selling E15 is that each site has its own particular equipment challenges, especially since the chain aims to offer the ethanol blend at every pump. “We have ancient fuel systems in some of these stores which are up to code, but difficult to make ethanol-compatible and to get it every single pump,” said Nichols.

He described customer response to E15, which Thorntons has branded as Unleaded 15, as positive. “The familiarity organically draws some level of audience,” said Nichols, adding that employees are trained to speak to customers about the product, and literature is available to help educate.

“Having that educational component is key … making it a smooth transition is important,” said Nichols. “It’s a little bit cheaper, it’s higher-octane and it’s cleaner. It drives trial and hopefully adoption of the product.”

The EPA has approved E15 for use in vehicle models 2001 and newer, or about 80% of vehicles on the road today. Thorntons has had more than 750,000 transactions of E15 since it first began selling it in March 2016, and has not had “a single phone call” of complaint from customers, said Nichols. “Everyone is having a good experience with the product. We’re seeing repeat purchases and adoption of the product.”

Based in Louisville, Ky., Thorntons operates 186 convenience stores that provide food, beverages and fuel in Kentucky, Illinois, Indiana, Ohio, Tennessee and Florida.

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