New Sheetz Store Gets Thumbs Up

Harrisburg site features outdoor seating, kiosk ordering

HARRISBURG, Pa. -- Rosemary Tavenner ate lunch Thursday at a table outside a new Sheetz store. That's outside dining at a gas station/convenience store. This new store, including the red brick on the outside and the high ceiling, bright colors and digital menu boards inside, is "a notch above" and "a little more classy" than your usual Sheetz, Tavenner told the Patriot-News.

The store is a "restaurant that happens to sell gas, not the other way around," said company spokeswoman Monica Jones.

The store features an expanded [image-nocss] menu of made-to-order sandwiches and salads, pizza, nachos and fried foods. It can seat more than 40 people at nine inside tables and six outside tables. Customers order food from electronic kiosks at the gas-pump islands and inside the store.

"All [Sheetz] stores from here forward look like this," although some may be a little smaller, Jones said. It represents a "new generation" of Sheetz stores, she added. The regional chain of convenience stores based in Altoona, Pa., has always been something of a pioneer.

"Certainly, Sheetz is kind of a high-end convenience store. They're certainly trying to do more than is traditionally done in a convenience store," Randy St. John, senior vice president of the Pennsylvania Food Merchants Association, told the newspaper. "They've been very innovative and aggressive in their gas-sales program. They've expanded their foodservice offerings." St. John praised the "innovative, upscale look" of the new store.

Scott Hartman, president of the York-based Rutter's Farm Stores chain and incoming chairman of the National Association of Convenience Stores, said, "Everybody keeps trying to change their models to see what works."

Providing seating is a trade-off for convenience stores because it can tie up their prime parking spaces, which are what make the stores convenient, Hartman said.

With profit margins on gasoline and cigarette sales declining, convenience stores are turning to fresh foods to boost sales, he said.

That's where Pennsylvania-based chains such as Sheetz, Rutter's and Wawa already have an advantage. They have focused on food for years, unlike convenience stores in other states that can rely on sales of beer, Hartman explained.

"Pennsylvania is really kind of a leading model for the rest of the country," he added.

The new Sheetz store emphasizes choice. In addition to the standard racks of chips, candy bars, soda and motor oil, it has 20 self-service soda fountains, 37 tubes of bulk candy, 20 burners to keep glass coffee pots warm and self-service frozen slush and milkshake machines.

"I think it's overwhelming," said customer Joan McBride, who works nearby. "There's more variety. You can get about anything."

Several Sheetz customers said they prefer the new "convenience restaurant" to traditional fast-food outlets. "The food is better food, healthier, and for the same amount of money you're getting something so much nicer," customer Robin Thomas said as she ordered a tuna melt for lunch.

But John Murphy of Palmyra, who was eating fries with chili and cheese on his first visit to the store, wasn't entirely convinced. "I find it weird you can sit down and eat in a convenience store, but I'll get used to it," he said. "There's a lot of distractions I don't need when I'm eating."

Altoona-based Sheetz is pursuing a rapid expansion program, with a new store opening every week for the next 12 weeks, Chairman Steve Sheetz said. Most of the new stores that are planned over the next three months will be 5,850 square feet. "We feel confident we can run a 5,850-square-foot store, but the 7,000 and the 10,000 were a huge stretch for us," Sheetz said. "We're trying to tweak that 10,400 model down."