By Sarah Hamaker
ALEXANDRIA, Va.—When in the planning stages to build a convenience store in Lee Vining, California, Dennis Domaille knew food had to be part of the service, given its location at the intersection of two highways near Yosemite National Park and the Eastern Sierra Mountains. “My father had the property for years before he decided to build the gas station,” said his daughter, Denise Molnar, who now manages the location. “Originally, it was going to be a mom-and-pop gas station, but then they decided to add a restaurant because of the remoteness of the location.”
From that humble beginning, Tioga Gas Mart and Whoa Nellie Deli has become a destination for tourists and locals alike, who come as much for the beautiful vistas of Mono Lake and the Dana Plateau as for the popular menu items like wild buffalo meatloaf and fish tacos.
An Accidental Menu
Domaille’s initial idea for foodservice was more along the lines of what many convenience stores back in the mid-1990s had on offer: hot dogs and sandwiches. “Because of the remoteness of the location, Dad wanted to provide something fresh for people to eat and started with what everyone else in the industry was doing,” Molnar said. “But that quickly got boring, so he added a pizza oven to bake fresh pies.”
Soon, the Whoa Nellie Deli’s menu expanded even more when the chef asked a simple question. “It’s really evolved into something special,” she said. “The chef asked, ‘Why not make the food good?’ and that’s what he did.”
Fish tacos and lobster taquitos were early additions to the menu, which now also includes wild buffalo meatloaf, pork chops, pizza, sandwiches and half-pound burgers. The restaurant also has a full bar where customers can order draft beers, such as local ales Mountain Rambler Venusian Blonde and June Lake Brewing Deer Beer Brown, and mixed cocktails like a mango margarita, plus wines by the glass.
“We try to have something for everyone and have become known as a restaurant with really good food,” Molnar said. “Since we’re pretty far from other retailers, our clientele comes by usually low on gas and hungry. We want to provide good food on a beautiful property so they can sit and enjoy a meal instead of filling up at the pump and leaving.”
To encourage lingering, the location has indoor seating in the restaurant section as well as a large, outdoor grassy area with picnic tables. “It’s very family friendly with lots of space for the kids to run around and play, too,” she said.
The store has grown by word of mouth. “We don’t do much advertising but let our products and food speak for themselves,” Molnar said. While the c-store does run a radio ad, the prime location near an entrance to Yosemite and gorgeous natural setting capture visitor interest.
“Locals come, too, especially when we had free live music, which we had to discontinue during COVID,” she said, adding that they have no plans to restart the live music. “But we cater mostly to tourists by providing quality souvenirs and food in a pleasant outdoor area and super-clean bathrooms.”
Employees contribute to the warm atmosphere. “We’ve also hired most of our employees by word of mouth, such as a trusted staff member recommending a friend to work for us,” Molnar said. Staff also serve as de facto tour guides, talking to visitors about other things to do besides visiting Yosemite, such as hiking in the Dana Plateau or swimming in Mono Lake’s salty water.
In an interesting twist, the majority of the employees live on-site in cabins on the extensive property. “We allow our staff to live rent-free in our cabins. Because we’re in such a rural area, there’s not a lot of housing options close by,” she said. The property also has four duplexes, which the business rents to community residents.
“Having a friendly and welcoming staff is huge to making people want to linger,” Molnar said. “We want them to hang out for a little while and make stopping at the Tioga Gas Mart and Whoa Nellie Deli part of their trip, not just a quick stop.”
The c-store was featured in the 2009 edition of the NACS Ideas 2 Go video series. More recent episodes are here.
This article originally appeared in the Ideas 2 Go column of the November 2022 issue of NACS Magazine. Read the digital pdf version of the November issue.
Sarah Hamaker is a freelance writer, NACS Magazine contributor and romantic suspense author based in Fairfax, Virginia. Visit her online at sarahamakerfiction.com.