By Sarah Hamaker
ALEXANDRIA, Va.— With a mission to serve its communities, customers and team members, Ewing Oil LLC has worked hard to become a unique shopping destination. “Our vision is to become the region’s leading customer service-oriented gas stations and convenience stores,” said Tyler Meyer, operations manager for the four-store chain headquartered in Grand Forks, North Dakota. Three of the stores are in North Dakota—Grand Forks, Drayton and Hillsboro—and one is in Warren, Minnesota.
In 2017, the owners heard about a co-op looking to sell its four convenience stores with fuel and decided to purchase the stores and make a go at being owners of a small chain. Ewing Oil—named for the 1980s “Dallas” TV show oil tycoon, J.R. Ewing—was born.
The long-neglected stores had an unappealing appearance when the new owners took over in September 2017. Meyer joined them in January 2018 and immediately set out to upgrade the stores. “We’ve handled most of the small upgrades ourselves, like replacing lighting with LED light fixtures to make the stores brighter,” he said.
They decided to leave the outside alone and focus on the interior. “We wanted people to feel welcome when they entered,” Meyer said. They started with the Grand Forks location, which had an early 1990s appearance with an orange coffee bar and front desk area. “We rebuilt the checkout and coffee bar, as well as refaced everything to transform it into a more modern convenience store,” he said.
One of the main things was to remerchandise the store to make it more shoppable. For example, the Grand Forks store had three, 20-foot selling units creating long aisles. With no tile underneath the units, a crew had to work overnight ripping out the old flooring and laying new tile. Then they replaced the longer shelving units with six four-foot and one eight-foot units on a diagonal to the front entrance. “Now customers can easily see 70% of the merchandise right when they walk in the door,” he said.
After revamping the store layout, Meyer focused his attention on the products. “Our Grand Forks location has more price-conscious shoppers, so we stock lower priced items there, and offer as many twofer deals as we can,” he said.
He trains the store managers to keep a close eye on the products and pull slow sellers every three to six months. “I also encourage the managers to discuss new items with our vendors and to not be afraid to try new products,” he said. “That way, we’re giving customers a reason to keep coming back to see what’s new.”
Like many convenience stores today, three locations offer fresh foodservice through Cooper’s Chicken, Wingman Pizza and Hot Stuff Pizza. Grand Forks is the only store without foodservice. “It’s a small store, and we tried offering cooked food, but it didn’t sell, so we stopped,” Meyer said.
Foodservice sales at the other locations have been good, averaging $50,000 to $60,000 a month. “We know foodservice can be a great way to boost our bottom line, so I’m always checking in with our managers to make sure they have what they need to make the foodservice grow,” he said. In addition to fresh-prepared food, those stores offer grab-and-go items, too.
Because offering customers a warm and inviting experience depends more on staffing than a store’s appearance, Ewing Oil takes the time to get the right mix of workers. “We are always trying to find ways to engage potential employees,” Meyer said.
The training process builds on skills, so as employees grow in the position, the manager will give them more and more responsibility. “In this industry, we know that not all employees (especially younger staff) will stick with us for the long term, so our goal is to train them to be the best they can be for any job in the future. However, we do have quite a few longer-term employees, including several who were at the stores before Ewing Oil bought them,” he said. “This helps with overall staff retention as the newer workers can see it’s a company worth sticking around in.”
While Ewing Oil does have plans to eventually expand with more stores, for now, Meyer is satisfied when “customers leave in a better mood than when they walked in the door.”
This article originally appeared in the Ideas 2 Go column of the January 2023 issue of NACS Magazine. Read the digital pdf version of the January issue.
Sarah Hamaker is a freelance writer, NACS Magazine contributor and romantic suspense author based in Fairfax, Virginia. Visit her online at sarahhamakerfiction.com.