There may be gas pumps outside of Rocket Market, but at this c-store in Spokane, Washington, the inside offer—coupled with great customer service—is the real draw for customers.
At this “Small Market of Epic Proportions,” as the store’s tagline touts, owner Alan Shepherd knows how to create an atmosphere that elicits positive feelings from customers. Some loyalists, in fact, are so passionate that they’ve chosen the store to host their wedding or gotten a tattoo of the logo.
Shepherd opened Rocket Market in 1999 and has spent most of his life working in convenience retail. “I’ve been in the industry since I was 15 years old,” he said, adding, “I’m big into food. I saw the rise of Whole Foods and PCC in Seattle.” He worked for other companies but had a vision for a store of his own. The vision didn’t include a convenience store.
“The spot that came open was an incredible location. I had no intention of having a gas station. Someone had purchased the gas station and turned the mechanic bays into a little coffee shop. My partner and I decided it was a great spot, but it was just too big for a coffee shop.” The result was a restaurant and market that also happens to sell gas and puts its own spin on convenience items.
Shepherd’s idea for the space was to offer what he calls “cool or interesting food.” And that includes products sourced from producers who prioritize knowing how the food was raised. Part of his strategy centers on using local products created by his friends. He trusts the integrity of their products and their attention to detail.
One friend makes sourdough bread for the store using heirloom grain sourced within a 100-mile radius of his bakery. “They’re old native varieties that might have gone away,” Shepherd said of thegrains. “This is the best bread I’ve had. It’s all made by hand. No one scoffs at the [$10 a loaf] price.” The bread is baked in a wood-fired oven. “We are wildly fortunate to have this guy,” Shepherd said. “It’s a true art form to use this oven.”
The coffee is from a local roaster. “We use Doma coffee, and we also sell whole beans. I don’t carry much of anything you can get at Albertsons. We also use Anvil coffee, a little roaster in downtown Spokane. These are my friends. I know them,” he explained.
A NEW PIZZA IN TOWN
Shepherd found his customers one of the most unique pizzas available in the Pacific Northwest. It comes from Anthony Mangieri’s New York pizzeria, Una Pizza Napoletana. It’s a thin crust, wood-fired Neapolitan-style pizza.
The toppings on the Margherita pizza are placed on a hand-stretched sourdough crust, blast frozen and shipped from New York, he explained. “They’re only in 15 stores on the East Coast. I’m the only store on the west side of the Mississippi that carries this pizza. They were excited to work with me. I’m a little store in Spokane, Washington, and I have an exclusive on it in my area.”
Rocket Market has a bistro with a chef on staff. “We make our soups fresh each day. We make quite a few different soups, everything from tomato basil to chicken noodle.” The bistro is a good way to control food waste in the produce department.
“The store is a pantry for the bistro. We do a panini grill, breakfast burritos and pastries from our sister bakery, Rocket Bakery,” Shepherd said. “The Carlito burrito is our most popular burrito. We have a vegan and a non-vegan. The weird thing is the vegan outsells the non-vegan. They just like this burrito better,” he said.
In addition to the food, Shepherd offers customers a lot of reasons to visit the store.
“We have our own private-label wines; we’ve been doing that 10 or 12 years. We have a wine club and have wine tastings every Friday. We limit it to 25 to 27 people and normally sell out. You taste eight different wines, and we make snacks and it’s $30. It’s a cheap night out. You get to try wines that you never would have tried,” he said.
“I’m value-oriented. If you see a $4 bottle of wine, it won’t be garbage. When someone changes a vintage, they call me. I’ll buy a pallet if it’s good. I won’t bring it in for any price if we don’t like it.”
A WEDDING AND A TATTOO
Couples planning a wedding look for that perfect spot to begin their lives together. Tim and Lindsey McDermott decided to get married at Rocket Market on February 3, 2023, in the room where wine tastings are held. Lindsey was a customer and originally asked about having the rehearsal dinner in the room, which is available to rent. That turned into a whole wedding ceremony.
“It was a small wedding. Shanda, my wife, is a florist by trade. We have wine. We have a bistro. My wife did the flowers. My chef did the food,” said Shepherd, adding, “We’ve gotten a lot of national attention but not much local.”
For some customers, Rocket Market has made a lasting impression. That’s evident by the customer who decided to get a tattoo. “One day, I was walking through the store and a girl had our logo tattooed on her arm. I didn’t ask her to do it,” he said.
Like most savvy business owners, Shepherd makes use of social media, mostly Instagram.
“I have a lot of young people on staff. I will prompt them, and I let them go,” he said of the posts his staff create. “My wine specialist is good at Instagram.
I tell her this is the stuff I want. I like varying voices. I have a different perspective than someone who’s 20 years old,” he said.
He also keeps customers updated on produce, wine and everything else with a weekly newsletter. “The newsletter feeds everything. I do all the editing and take the photos. I, weirdly, have people subscribe from all over the world to the newsletter,” he said.
Shepherd is a tough competitor. “I have to be extremely agile. There’s a Trader Joe’s a half mile from me. I can be fast. Someone can walk in the door with a cool new product, and I can have it on the shelves in a half hour. We hope enough people recognize the work we put into the place and patronize us and don’t go to Costco or Trader Joe’s,” he explained.
Rocket Market is part of the fabric of the area. “The customers have more fun than I do. We’ve had so many people meet here. They get married and have kids. Now, their kids come in,” Shepherd reflected, adding, “We’re the heart of the neighborhood.”