A Big Personality in a Small Town

Rock’s Grill & Pizzeria serves everything from quiche to freeze-dried fruit.

A Big Personality in a Small Town

March 2024   minute read

By: Al Hebert

Above: Co-owner Rock Reese stands in front of Rock’s Grill & Pizzeria. He is a third-generation operator.

If you’re roadtripping around the country, you will often find a convenience store with a large presence in a small town. That presence has nothing to do with square feet. It’s about food and personality.

Rock’s Grill & Pizzeria has a big presence in Fairfax, Oklahoma, population 1,136.

Rock and Mitzi Reese are the co-owners. Mitzi explained, “My husband is third-generation. His grandparents and parents started it all.”

There isn’t a huge pool of potential employees in a town of just over 1,100 people.

In 2022, Mitzi hired Candice Coble, who had a few ideas on how to improve things. Soon, she was managing the store.

Coble said, “I was only really looking for a part-time job, but I met Rock and Mitzi and instantly knew that’s where I was supposed to be and that we would be a great team.”

“The biggest thing for us is that this store is like a hidden gem,” Coble said. “It looks like a gas station, it looks like a c-store, but you have to come inside for the food. We say comfort food is created here.”

Mitzi and Coble approach menu planning the same way. “Mitzi walked in [one day] and said, ‘Quiche sounds really good.’ She had a meme about quiche. I said, ‘I guess I’m going to make quiche.’ A lot of my day goes like this. I feel like making something, and I make it,” Coble said.

Dessert First

Baked goods are the newest addition to the food program, but they’ve quickly become a hit with customers. There was one small hitch in the beginning: There was no oven.

“Rock suggested I start baking banana bread,” Coble said. “I told him we didn’t have an oven. The next day, he started shopping for an oven.”

The oven was a good move. It’s led to a thriving bakery. In fact, when you walk into the store, it’s like a boulangerie.

“We can’t keep the chocolate chip cookies,” Coble said. “We bake those all day. They go like crazy. We have a secret ingredient.”

She continued, “Blueberry muffins are hands down the best sellers. People call in to see if we have muffins. Everything is made from scratch, and that is the difference. I have a business background, but I love baking. You can always tell when someone’s baking because it’s part of their job as opposed to when they’re baking because they enjoy baking.”

The Ding Dong Cake—essentially a giant Ding Dong—is an example of the shoot-from-the-hip strategy Mitzi and Coble employ. The popular cake started with a photo Mitzi showed Cable.

“We’re not hiring a convenience store clerk, we’re hiring a sales representative.”

Then, there’s no-bake cookies.

“I hate no-bake cookies,” she said. “I could spend my life making no-bake cookies and never make enough. I don’t have a good relationship with them. I’ll put a batch on the counter and come out 15 minutes later and they’re gone. We can sell 50 pans a day. When customers see them, they will buy all of the containers.”

The cookies are made from peanut butter, chocolate, oatmeal, sugar, butter and a bit of vanilla. They are simple and a bit addictive.

Made by Hand … and Freeze-Dried

Burgers and pizza are two popular items that always seem to sell. At Rock’s, those two items are combined to form what might be the perfect meal.

“Our cheeseburger pizza is popular,” Mitzi said. “It has mustard on the crust [and] our beef topping with pickles, onions, cheese. I think it’s crazy. It’s not on our menu, but customers know it’s [available].”

It’s always a good idea to have unique inventory in your store. “We have freeze-dried candy and fruit. It’s like concentrate. It takes all the moisture out, and the flavor is enhanced,” Mitzi said.

She added, “Freeze-dried Skittles is the big thing now. They puff up when you freeze-dry them, and they explode into dust when you bite into them. We do fruit, primarily strawberries and bananas. Customers love them—we can’t keep them on the shelf.”

In many eateries, an order is brought straight to the table. But not at Rock’s. Mitzi came up with a strategy that is a sort of food parade.

She said proudly, “We walk through the store with the orders. All of the other customers see it and order it.”

Finding the Right People

There isn’t a huge pool of potential employees in a town of just over 1,100 people. Some people have cycled through Rock’s a few times.

Mitzi said, “There’s a lady [who] worked here in high school. About 20 years later she has come and gone several times. You get burned out, get a new job, get burned out and come back. Everyone in town has worked for us at one point.”

She added, “We pay well above minimum wage.”

Coble said, “If the store is successful, we get recognized with Christmas bonuses. We get pay raises based on how the store is doing. It’s beneficial that it’s a small town, so employees have that small-town charm. Aces in places is about putting people in the right place. Will they work in the front of the store? Will they be friendly? It’s about training them to be personable and kind.”

Mitzi sees her team as more than clerks.

“We’re not hiring a convenience store clerk, we’re hiring a sales representative,” she said. “I want them to think, ‘What pairs well with a bag of Doritos?’ A lot of times, customers don’t know they want something else. [Employees] have to have sales skills.”

Al Hebert

Al Hebert

Al Hebert is the Gas Station Gourmet, showcasing America’s hidden culinary treasures. Find him at www.GasStationGourmet.com.

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