You’re kidding, right? That surely must’ve been the initial reaction four years ago when Anthony Bourdain — the chef-turned-TV host who’s a god among foodies — named Joe’s Kansas City Bar-B-Que one of the “13 Places to Eat Before You Die.”
Joe’s, you see, is housed inside a convenience store that also sells gas.
And, no, far from being a joke, its inclusion on that list, along with the hyper-priced likes of New York’s Per Se restaurant, symbolized the huge changes that have swept the nation’s more than 152,000 convenience stores over the past several years.
“Convenience stores are increasingly becoming food markets for time-pressed consumers seeking fast and healthy choices,” says Jeff Lenard of the National Association of Convenience Stores (nacsonline.com).
In fact, these days while you can still be in and out with your purchases in a flash — and gas up your car while you’re at it at most stores — the shelves are also likely to be stocked with the kinds of fresh food normally associated with supermarkets and even traditional restaurants. Sushi. Gourmet sandwiches. And lots and lots of fruit and yogurt “better-for-you” items.
Some stores have gone way beyond that — winning new fans with convenient ways to get fresh food fast. And if that corner store isn’t convenient enough, there are ways to make it even more convenient.
Casey’s General Stores, for example, with 1,880 locations throughout 14 states in the Midwest, not only makes its own pizza onsite, but in 2011 started delivering them to customers’ homes — ultimately becoming the fifth largest pizza operation in America behind Pizza Hut, Domino’s, Papa John’s and Little Caesars. “Folks in a lot of these small towns don’t have pizza parlors, so it became a natural for us,” says Terry Handley, the firm’s president and chief operating officer.
Still others have totally smashed all preconceptions. Chef Point Cafe in Watauga, Texas, routinely draws lines that wrap past the gas pumps for its gourmet lobster bisque and roast duck specialties. The Tioga Gas Mart in Lee Vining, California, makes a mean mango margarita that’s especially popular at the outdoor concerts it stages. And if you’re really in a rush for good seafood, Han-Dee Hugo’s in Duck, North Carolina, will sell it to you without even leaving your car, at its drive-thru window.
“The world is changing, and people want new experiences,” says John Litton Clark, Han-Dee Hugo’s vice president of operations.
So, has all the industry’s updating paid off? Well, with touches like expanded coffee bars and a better overall ambience, last year saw a record $213.5 billion in food and merchandise sales with the highest growth (9.8 percent) coming from edibles like salads and sandwiches.