From Failed Coffee Shop to ‘Foodvenience’ Acclaim

Innovation and peer learning are the keys to success, says incoming NACS Chairman Frank Gleeson.

October 11, 2018

LAS VEGAS – The desire to exceed customers’ needs and continue innovating is the main reason convenience professionals come to the NACS Show, said the NACS 2018-2019 Chairman Frank Gleeson during the final general session at the Show in Las Vegas.

It’s a long way to the general session stage from Gleeson’s home in Dublin, Ireland, where he leads Aramark Northern Europe as president. And it’s been an even longer journey from where he started in his career to his current successes.

Like many NACS Show attendees, Gleeson grew up in his family’s retail business. The Gleesons owned a general store, selling everything from clothing to food. The company eventually progressed to operating coffee shops and restaurants, and in his early 20s, Gleeson decided to open his own coffee shop.

“Surprise, surprise—it failed!” admitted Gleeson, who said he was too young and inexperienced to make the business a success. But Gleeson would learn from that failure a lifelong lesson: You don’t have to do it all on your own. It’s imperative to learn from others, who can inspire you with new ideas and ways of thinking, he said.

Gleeson moved on to work at the video rental chain Blockbuster, where he managed 16 stores before he turned 30.

“We all know what happened there,” Gleeson said. “As fast as that industry grew, it collapsed.”

Netflix infamously disrupted the video rental industry, growing from a mailable DVD rental service to a global entertainment company with more than 130 million subscribers globally.

“The convenience store industry in the United States alone sees 165 million customers per day,” said Gleeson. “As innovative as Netflix is, our industry is right there. We’ve caused enough disruption of our own. But in doing so, we’ve never lost sight of our customers.”

Gleeson’s convenience store career began with Statoil Ireland, then Topaz Energy Group. His boss at Statoil encouraged him to attend NACS’ 2003 Executive Leadership Program at Cornell University.

“Quite honestly, that one week changed me from a manager into a leader,” Gleeson recalled. “That connection with NACS and other retail leaders gave me the knowledge to build a team at Statoil and develop the first American-style convenience store in Ireland.”

Flash forward a decade, and Gleeson joined Aramark. The company is much more than concessions at sporting events, Gleeson noted. Aramark operates convenience stores wherever needed, including at hospitals, universities, hotels and even on oil rigs.

“At all of these locations, our focus is on providing high-quality food and refreshment to customers,” said Gleeson.

Aramark delivers “foodvenience,” a term Gleeson says is a combination of food and convenience and is a focal point for the company’s stores in Europe, which resemble a food court found in U.S. shopping malls. This focus allows Aramark to reach multiple demographics while giving consumers an array of food choices and varieties at the same time. Food types are even rotated every 90 days at certain locations, which gives the customer “excitement and something new,” Gleeson said.

Additionally, Aramark launched a 10-year partnership with British chef Jamie Oliver earlier this year. The collaboration will bring Oliver’s approachable cuisine and restaurant concepts to Aramark stores.

“I also see this partnership as a fantastic opportunity to set the agenda for health and nutrition, and to have a real and lasting impact on people’s lives,” said Gleeson.

Drawing back on his time at the NACS Executive Leadership Program, Gleeson said he learned the value of connecting with other retailers that are on top of their game when it comes to convenience. During Gleeson’s first convenience store visit trip to the States, he met with “operational leaders,” including QuickTrip in Atlanta and Sheetz and Wawa in Pennsylvania.

“What these companies were doing then, and continue to do now, blows my mind,” says Gleeson, who said convenience stores in Europe are returning the favor by welcoming U.S. companies to visit their stores to learn new concepts, as many are “further along in the life cycle” as Gleeson put it.

Expanding NACS’ presence and impact on an international level is one of Gleeson’s main objectives, which he believes can be done by developing strong and meaningful relationships around the world. “No one can possibly stay on top of them all without some help,” said Gleeson. “My engagement with NACS makes the world of convenience feel more connected.”