When cousins Michael Rubenstein, president and CEO, and Chad Wallis, chairman, formed Wally’s in 2019, they immediately agreed on one thing—their new convenience store concept needed to have lots of space. “We wanted to create a destination and an experience for people to stop, and that meant we needed to expand beyond the usual 3,000 to 5,000 square feet of a typical interstate gas station,” Rubenstein said. “Our ideas put guests at the forefront, and we designed an inviting, open space with a glass storefront to create the right guest experience.”
“My personal background in real estate development and Chad’s in operations meant we understood both the retail landscape and the need for travelers to have a family-oriented destination stop between Chicago and St. Louis,” Rubenstein said. Wally’s currently has two locations: one in Pontiac, Illinois, and the other in Fenton, Missouri.
FILLING THE SPACE
When drawing up the plans for Wally’s, the duo focused on the main areas most important to a road trip store—bathrooms, foodservice and merchandise. “We made sure to install large, clean bathrooms,” Rubenstein said. “The women’s has 20 private stalls and the men’s has 10, along with open floor space.”
In the 10,000 feet of retail space, they put in a full-size Winnebago with merchandise in and around it to highlight being a road trip stop. “That goes quite well with our retro-vintage branding and private label,” Rubenstein said. Naturally, Wally’s has branded apparel, including t-shirts and hats.
The retail space also has grocery items, such as milk, beer and wine, and typical c-store snacks and packaged beverages, plus camping items. “We tried to have what you would want on your road trip as well as what you might need from a grocery store,” Rubenstein said.
The foodservice section has branded fresh-prepared options, including a popcorn station, sandwich and barbecue station, a beef jerky bar and a bakery. “You watch the food being prepared right in front of you,” Rubenstein said. The store prepares all grab-and-go items fresh as well as made-to-order items.
CONNECTING WITH CUSTOMERS
The cousins feel an obligation to the communities in which their two stores are located. “We advertise Wally’s on billboards along the highway, but also sponsor golf tournaments, high school basketball teams, etc., to develop a good presence in the communities,” Wallis said.
Social media, including Instagram and Facebook, are a large part of the store’s marketing, which has drawn in a younger crowd. For example, during prom season, many high schoolers come to Wally’s before and after the dance. “We didn’t plan on this becoming a meeting spot for high school kids, but it has definitely become that,” Rubenstein said.
“It’s also become a meeting spot for politicians on their way to the Illinois State Capitol building, and we’ve been asked many times about putting in a conference room,” Wallis added, saying they’ve discussed it but haven’t decided whether to accommodate the legislators.
The management team put a lot of time and effort into standard operating procedures and training team members how Wally’s works. “We hire people who believe in the things Chad and I believe in,” Rubenstein said. “It’s a family-oriented business, and we give our whole team ownership of making sure we uphold our vision.”
The cousins extend that hospitality to every customer. “It’s important for us that people are greeted right off the bat and welcomed to our store,” Rubenstein said. For example, when customers ask where the bathroom is, a team member walks them to the location, rather than pointing in the correct direction. “We go out of our way to ensure every customer has the best experience we can give them,” Rubenstein said.
Continuing reading “Bigger Is Better” in the July issue of NACS Magazine, available now.