EL DORADO, Ark., and WHITEHOUSE STATION, N.J. — “It’s all about the coffee,” Dean Durling told me more than 21 years ago.
I was new to the c-store channel. My boss assigned me a feature about coffee and suggested calling Dean, the president and CEO, and the brains behind the successful QuickChek chain.
I expected a simple, straightforward Q&A. But anyone who knows Durling, knows otherwise.
“Mitch, all you know is you like coffee. But do you know why QuickChek customers come back again and again for coffee?”
From the soil and the climate to the harvest of the beans, the journey of coffee is a long and complex one, he said. And then there’s the roasting, the balance of acidity, bitterness and sweetness, and so on. Before I knew it, I had taken nearly five pages of notes.
“So, Mitch,” Durling continued wryly, “you asked me about what makes a good cup of coffee. The pot to the cup is what you see, but there’s a whole journey before we even get there.”
Perhaps it was this passion for detail that has made Durling one of the best in the industry, and how he was able to build this venerable company across New Jersey and parts of New York. In recent years, Durling embraced larger formats, an expanded made-to-order sub and soup program that competed aggressively against Dunkin' Donuts and Wawa, an impressive fuel island and improving loyalty program.
In addition to my professional sentiments, QuickChek (QC) is personal to me. I live in its backyard of northern New Jersey. When our first child, Ari, was just a tot, I would take him to the local QC, where store associates would always welcome him with a smile and sometimes with a free nickel candy (for old-timers, these used to be penny candy).
- Whitehouse Station, N.J.-based QuickChek ranked No. 44 on CSP’s 2020 Top 202 list of the largest c-store chains in the United States.
As Ari entered adolescence, he and friends would descend on the store for a large fountain drink or smoothie; and just two years ago, he worked at one of the newer locations over the summer.
“What’s pretty cool is it’s not just a job where you make $15 an hour,” my son shared. “They gave a whole orientation about how you can grow and become a store manager or district manager. If you wanted to, you could stay here and in a few years make a decent living.”
For some of us, it was no secret that Durling over the past year or so was positioning the company for a potential sale. He has one son, Jonathan, who’s worked at the company for more than 16 years, the past six-and-a-half years as district manager. But there was no clear succession plan within the executive circle.
As well, Durling was looking to scale back from the day-to-day to his other job title of chairman.
I had heard rumors that EG Group, the U.K.-based company, could be a player. But EG has absorbed a lot over the past two years, most recently the 18-store Schrader Oil chain of Loaf ’N Jug. This on the heels of its acquisition of Cumberland Farms in 2019. So naturally, the company, which entered the United States just a year earlier, needs time to digest and absorb its assets and build a coherent strategy.
The other natural partner would have been 7-Eleven Inc., which plays in QuickChek’s two primary markets of New Jersey and Long Island, N.Y. But its acquisition earlier this year of Speedway leaves little financial leeway or the necessary focus to have seriously entertained a QC pickup at a premium price.
What is more interesting than QC selling is who is the buyer. In recent years, Murphy USA, the sixth-largest c-store chain in the United States, has invested in ground-ups that are attractive and a vast improvement over its kiosk and shoebox appendages on the lots of Sam’s Club and Walmart. But as Murphy USA CEO Andrew Clyde said Monday in announcing the QC acquisition, Murphy’s retail strength has been about fuel, tobacco and, most recently, its Murphy Drive Rewards loyalty program. QC is all about that coffee and foodservice, more than a suggestion that Murphy USA would like to change its spots.
Equally interesting are the demographics and geography. Murphy USA, El Dorado, Ark., operates roughly 1,400 stores across 24 states, predominantly in the South and Southwest.
Its acquisition of QuickChek marks its foray into the hotly contested Northeast, where it will butt up against Wawa, 7-Eleven and the many Speedway locations soon to be integrated into the 7-Eleven network.
Operationally, the deal represents a sea change for Murphy, pivoting it from its portfolio of nuts-and-bolts stores into what is largely a QSR-style model anchored by QuickChek’s best-in-class made-to-order soup and sandwich offerings, along with its lines of smoothies, fountain and a broad selection of hot and ice coffees.
Does Murphy USA, a highly successful fuel-first refiner-retailer, have the patience and long-term interest to guide a food-first convenience operation? For 645 million reasons, it better have.
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