Six of the Best

Frank Beard shares some of his favorite convenience stores he visited this year.

December 18, 2018

By Frank Beard
 
It’s hard to believe that 2018 is almost over. From the opening of Amazon Go in Seattle to the 2,500-mile NACS Show Road Trip, I’ve had the chance to experience some of the best innovation in convenience retailing. So, in the spirit of reflection, here are six of my favorites. Each of these are unique and innovative for different reasons. If you’re ever nearby, I hope you take the time to stop and visit. I think you’ll enjoy them just as much as I did.
 
College Junction Mudbugs
Eunice, LA
As someone who advocates for healthful food in convenience stores, it may seem odd that the first entry on this list is the very definition of indulgence. But I also respect quality food made with passion. That’s exactly what you’ll find at College Junction Mudbugs.
 
A few years back, owner Steve Bollich was faced with a dilemma: differentiate or disappear. His fuel sales had declined due to increased competition, and he decided that the only way to survive was to offer something totally unique.
 
The result is some the most decadent, delicious barbecue and Cajun fare that I’ve ever tasted. Every minor detail of every item is considered. Take the Big Cheddar burger, for example. The patties receive a wash of Cajun spices to ensure even distribution throughout the meat, and the buns are baked fresh daily from a local bakery. Many of the meats on the menu are prepared in an old fuel tank that has been converted into a smoker.
 
To learn more about Steve Bollich’s story and how he built a successful business, you can watch this interview that I filmed at College Junction Mudbugs with Al Hebert, NACS Magazine’s Gas Station Gourmet.
 
Farm 2 Counter Express
Springfield, MO
I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention something healthier, and my top find this year is Farm 2 Counter Express. I wrote about it back in January. Farm 2 Counter Express offers a wide selection of local products—all of which are free of high-fructose corn syrup—and even has a garden behind the store. The owner is also a former private yacht chef whose passion for quality extends to their freshly prepared sandwiches and other goods.
 
When I read an article from the Springfield Business Journal, I immediately put together a weekend road trip. After moving their delivery business into an old convenience store, Paul and Ashley Allen decided to open it to the public. Not only will you find wagyu beef, local produce, Missouri craft beer, and the only organic soda fountain in the state, but the store itself is something to behold. Every detail has been refurbished and renovated. The shelving was sanded down to the bare metal and repurposed, and the bathroom is nicer than what many of us have in our homes.
 
El Carajo
Miami, FL
Have you ever made dinner reservations at a convenience store? You can at El Carajo.
 
The taxi driver was understandably confused when four well-dressed passengers confirmed that yes, our destination actually was a convenience store. But looks can be deceiving. Step inside El Carajo and you’ll encounter an upscale tapas restaurant as good as any. The menu includes sauteed octopus, filet mignon, lamb chops, and more.
 
Care for a bottle of Penfolds Grange or a Grand Cru? Step into the climate-controlled wine room—or grab a bottle from the one of the walls if you want something a bit more affordable. When I made my selection, our waitress replaced the glassware with something more suited to that varietal. Did I mention that El Carajo has a monthly wine newsletter?
 
Matt Meltzer at Thrillist also says it’s one of his favorite places to take out-of-town guests for dinner.
 
Panna New Latino Food
Weston, FL
The Miami area has many choices for innovative convenience store foodservice, and Panna New Latino Food in nearby Weston is a true standout. After meeting owner Mauricio Meneses through a mutual friend, I decided to stop by for a visit.
 
It’s always a good sign when the parking lot is full. From millennials in athletic clothing to elderly locals enjoying coffee and pastries, every type of customer was at Panna. This is a store clearly unaffected by a fuel stigma.
 
The menu offers a wide variety of Venezuelan and Colombian fare. I sampled much of it, with my favorite being the Reina Pepiada—an arepa featuring shredded chicken, mayo, and avocado.
 
Sapp Bros. Travel Centers
Harrisonville, MO
I’ve spoken a lot this year about the connection between customer experience and consumer foot traffic, but sometimes you encounter a retailer who truly gets it.
 
During a road trip earlier this year, I encountered a billboard for “Mom Approved Restrooms.” It featured a woman giving two very enthusiastic thumbs up and indicated that I should stop at an upcoming exit. I, of course, made the detour.
 
Inside the relatively-new Sapp Bros. Travel Center at Harrisonville, MO, were some of the nicest restrooms I’ve ever encountered. Heated toilet seats, bidets, recessed lighting, separate rooms for each stall, and a standard of cleanliness that few have surpassed.
 
As travel centers and truck stops seek to attract non-traditional customers, this strategy stands out as particularly notable. A quick examination of online reviews showed that many families—and women, in particular—had left enthusiastic comments about the new restrooms.
 
High Country Market Bistro & Gastropub
Round Rock, TX
One of the most unique convenience stores in the United States is located about 30 minutes north of Austin, TX. High Country Market Bistro & Gastropub is a true neighborhood hangout. It’s the kind of place you can take a date or visit with friends after work. Not only will you find freshly prepared pizza, burgers, chips and dip, and more, but visitors can pair their food with craft beer or a glass of wine.
 
In fact, HCM is arguably one of the top locations in Central Texas for fine wine. Owner Zahir Walji is a Level 2 Certified Sommelier whose selection includes rare finds like Vega-Sicilia Unico from 2005, 2006 and 2007. For those who want to learn more about various varieties and appellations, just sign up for the Tuesday evening wine sessions.
 
Ceviche 365
Dallas, TX
Ceviche 365 came on my radar after it started getting attention from the Dallas Observer. When Caesar Flores became frustrated with the quality of ceviche in the Dallas area, he quit his job to start his own restaurant.
 
Although Caesar doesn’t own a convenience store, he’s located Ceviche 365 inside the massive Fox Fuels location on Harry Hines Blvd. It’s a two-story convenience store with chandeliers in the place of regular lighting. Ceviche 365 has a small corner space with an both indoor and outdoor order windows.
 
For those who are unfamiliar, ceviche is a traditional Peruvian dish where raw fish is cured in lime juice. Caesar prepares each dish with the utmost care and attention to detail. When you speak to him about ceviche, you know that it’s something he’s truly passionate about.
 
If you’re in Dallas, you don’t want to miss this restaurant. It’s some of the best food I’ve eaten all year.
 
Frank Beard is a speaker, writer and industry advocate who serves as an analyst/evangelist for convenience store trends at GasBuddy. Beard regularly contributes to NACS Daily and NACS Magazine. Follow him on Twitter or LinkedIn.
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