The First to Open

What was left of a c-store became a lifeline for a storm-ravaged community.

The First to Open

May 2023   minute read

By: Al Hebert

When hurricanes threaten the Louisiana Gulf Coast, convenience stores are the last to close before the storm. They are the first to open to help the community get back to normal. 

The new construction offered an opportunity to expand.

Now, imagine a storm with 150-mile-per-hour winds and an 18-foot storm surge. 

This was Hurricane Laura. The storm made landfall on August 27, 2020, just south of Lake Charles, Louisiana. 

The hurricane left 33 people dead and caused an estimated $17.5 billion in damages. ShopRite/Tobacco Plus store number 20 in Lake Charles was destroyed. Two days later, a small group from the management team was implementing a plan to help the community get back on its feet.

“We were down here working on August 29. It took us two days to get everything coordinated. We did great. We were rolling. Our wholesale distributor has a food truck that was brought in. It was a matter of coordinating everything. We were getting the lighting in place, getting propane and generators. It took us 24 hours to think and 24 hours to act,” said Angelle Cloud, director of foodservice compliance and corporate dietitian. 

To appreciate the challenge they were faced with, one must understand the devastation. There was no power, only intermittent cell service, no running water and streets were impassible because of fallen trees and power lines. The scene was post-apocalyptic.

“Everything was out. I didn’t see any power coming or going. There was a lot of debris in the road. You were trying to drive around phone poles and roofs. We were down here before the road crews,” described Cloud.

The new store opened in January. Angelle Cloud is on the far right.

The community was in shock, but so were the employees. Taking care of the staff members directly impacted was a priority. “The company tried to find places for employees to stay or get generators to power their homes if they could stay in them. We got air mattresses and generators for them. We did whatever we could do. We had to place staff in other towns, up to about 40 or 50 minutes away,” she said, adding, “People don’t think of things like Walmart selling out of everything. We were looking for basic things our employees needed. We were scouring places to shop for their needs.”

There was chaos. One mostly undamaged ShopRite/Tobacco Plus location was running on generators. It was used as a headquarters as the team tried to serve the people in other areas.

“The products we could get our hands on first, like hamburgers, we started doing first. We were able to order some frozen products. We had a hard time getting bread,” she said. “It felt like we were the only people selling food. We could hardly walk out of the truck because so many people were there for food. For us to offer a hot meal was huge. They would say, ‘My kids just want a hamburger.’ People were so kind even though things were so broken. They would pull up and ask us if we needed anything.”

Cloud says that many of the retailer’s employees lived in apartments that were destroyed. “They just moved away to places with water and power. We had to come here and carry the flag until we could hire new employees. You can’t blame people who had no reason to stay for leaving. Everyone did what they had to do.” 

Members of the management team became frontline foodservice workers. Cloud recalls, “Our team included the director of foodservice operations, Bobby McGee; the marketing director, Carter Prejean; the district store manager, Melissa Stelly and me. The food trailer stayed because there was nothing else. Carter is a marketing director, she’s not foodservice. She was there with us through it all. I don’t know how she ended up getting stuck with us, but I’m so thankful that she did.”

Cloud remembers, “People would leave a case of water outside and say ‘Give it to people who need it.’ It was great. It got to a point where we had more capability. We could hold the hot food and keep the cold food.” 

Cloud and the team worked in the storm-ravaged area from August to November, sometimes seven days a week. 

The hard work and sacrifice of the team paid off in goodwill. “We built such good rapport out of the food truck. People knew we cared. I remember the day we got cheese slices. When I told a lady she could have a cheeseburger, she almost cried. It was so simple, but it meant everything. We offered everything we could. We wanted to live up to the love we built with them in the food truck,” she said.

Patrons were welcomed back to the company’s flagship store.

A temporary building was eventually pulled in after what was left of the store was hauled away. “Things began to return to normal. There was less of an urgent need. Some of us went back to our normal lives,” Cloud recalled. 

The company looked at the next phase, rebuilding. The new construction would offer an opportunity to expand. This included considering a food program that the original store didn’t have. The new ShopRite/Tobacco Plus would be bigger. It would be the company’s flagship store. 

Construction began in January 2022. On Wednesday, January 11, 2023, a grand opening was held. 

“We’re talking a building with four times the capability of what we had in the space previously. … It was such a big opportunity. We didn’t have a real food program down here. We needed to do it right. We wanted to expand into this area. We wanted to improve what we’re offering. It’s like putting on a new face,” Cloud said.

Al Hebert

Al Hebert

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

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