C-Store Stories from ATLanta

The NACS Show heads to Atlanta, the nation’s eighth-largest metro area, this October. Here are some snapshots of the past, present and future of convenience retailing in Georgia’s fast-growing capital region, including both big players and independents.

C-Store Stories from ATLanta

September 2023   minute read

Golden Pantry: Biscuits, Blue Laws and Bowties

Golden Pantry was founded in 1965 by Tom Griffith in Athens, the home of the University of Georgia. The chain immediately made a name for itself by introducing its fresh, made-from-scratch biscuits. It’s since spread throughout the Athens area, including the eastern suburbs of Atlanta.

“We have used the same recipe since 1965 and still source the flour from the same mill,” said Katie Morris, marketing director for Golden Pantry Food Stores. “They’re delicious—crunchy outside but soft in the middle.”

In addition to earning fame for its comfort food, Golden Pantry was instrumental in helping to quash Georgia’s draconian blue laws, which restricted what products could be sold on Sunday, the traditional “day of rest.” For example, shoppers could buy a can of beans on Sunday but were prohibited from purchasing a can opener.

“The Georgia Association of Convenience Stores (GACS) was founded in 1973 when a bunch of store owners got together with Tom Griffith in the offices of Golden Pantry to come up with a plan to help overturn the blue laws,” said Jim Tudor, who retired after 30 years as president of the GACS. Within 18 months of that gathering, GACS members had worked closely with state legislators to eliminate blue laws restrictions.

Later, the association tackled Georgia’s statewide prohibition on Sunday alcohol sales. “Georgia was one of a few states in the country where citizens couldn’t vote on Sunday sales, and we worked hard to get that changed so local communities could make that decision for themselves,” Tudor said.

That restriction was overturned in 2011, allowing individual communities to vote yea or nay on Sunday alcohol sales. That move paved the way for bigger changes, such as lawmakers okaying home delivery of beer, wine and liquor from restaurants, bars and c-stores during the pandemic.

Association members also teamed with lawmakers to create a law aimed at preventing the sale of age-restricted products to youth. Today, anyone in Georgia under age 21 who tries to purchase alcohol or misrepresents his or her identity to buy alcohol may lose their driver’s license for six months or more.

Golden Pantry’s marketing team works with the nearby University of Georgia. “Sports are everything around here,” said Morris. “We support the NIL, which allows student athletes to receive pay for product endorsements. We engage with student-athletes, and support some of the activities that don’t receive as much recognition, such as women’s golf and men’s tennis.”

The retailer uses its gas pump TVs on the forecourt to recognize community partners and recently cheered the university’s men’s lacrosse team, which reached the national finals for the first time. “Feedback from the community was incredible,” Morris said of the video message. “Things like that let customers know we’re paying attention to what they’re doing and what they care about.”

The 32-store chain also has a community fund that promotes the United Way, as well as scores of smaller organizations. “We sell paper bowties for $1, which are posted inside our stores, and the company matches the amount raised,” Morris said. “Then, the individual store gets to pick which charity will receive the funds. We may give $600 to a small-town organization, and that can change the trajectory of a kid’s life. Maybe they can attend a convention that their parents couldn’t pay for.

“We’ve always been involved in our communities, and now we give our customers a voice in how we support our community,” she added. “It doesn’t take a big check. When everybody does a little bit once or twice, the collective impact is incredible.”

—Pat Pape

A Destination C-Store

Pete Chevallier, aka “Mr. Pete,” has lived in Atlanta 45 years. He first became a partner in Mt. Paran Country Store in 2000 when a friend purchased it and asked him to leave another local store to come and be the manager.

The log-cabin-esque store, with its front-and-center signage reminding you that it’s been around since 1906, feels magical, simultaneously existing in a long-gone time and offering a uniquely modern experience. The latter is done through expertly curated goods, including old-school classic candies like Gurley’s jelly beans and a range of Pop Rocks flavors, but also more-recently launched Atlanta-based snacks like Bogeys Beef jerky, displayed simply but lovingly in a box on top of a plastic crate with a handwritten sign. It doesn’t get much more country.

“My business is food, for sure,” said Mr. Pete, despite the fuel dispensers in front of the store. He doesn’t mean the food on the racks, nor the grab-and-go items in the cooler near the entrance, such as the 79-cent deviled eggs on a plastic-wrap-covered plate. He means what Lavern Moses makes behind the window of the store’s small scratch kitchen.

Moses, a native of Memphis, has been an employee of Mt. Paran for 24 years, which puts her there longer than Mr. Pete. And it’s her simple and humble food, fresh-cooked in batches that fly off the shelf in front of the Coca-Cola-branded menu board that lists the options, that keeps customers coming back day after day, decade after decade.

Hamburgers that go for $3.69—Mr. Pete’s favorite—are wrapped in plastic and offered up under a heat lamp. Customers can top those, along with $2.99 chili dogs, $3.49 fish sandwiches and more, with sliced jalapenos, onions and condiments located just under the table’s surface in metal foodservice bins. A breakfast menu on the right offers ham, sausage, bacon and chicken biscuits, optionally topped with egg and cheese, all below $4. But the star of the show is Lavern’s chili, a robust, beefy red stew she accurately describes as “sweet and spicy.” Customers use the plastic scoop to serve themselves small or large portions in disposable bowls from the slow cooker underneath Lavern’s window.

“I kinda leave the menu as it is,” she said. “There’s not a lot we can do—this is a really old building.” She said new customers come in all the time, including people who live in the neighborhood who are somehow just discovering this hidden jewel in the Buckhead area of Atlanta. “I didn’t know y’all sell food” is what she hears from people when they find the counter. She’s even served some of the famous folks who have nearby mansions. “Cardi B lives down the street. She doesn’t come in here, but her husband [rapper Offset] does sometimes. And her security guards are here every day.”

It’s the chili she said people can’t get enough of, but what’s made her stay so long, and what keeps her coming back? “I like the people I work with,” she admitted. “Everybody’s nice. They’ve always been very kind to me and my family. And people out here are friendly. They come and go. And Pete’s wife kinda taught me how to drive. We’ve become close. They’re just good people. When you find good, honest people, you tend to want to stay. I feel so comfortable, and they pay me right.”

—Mike Jordan

RaceTrac: Atlanta’s Homegrown Retailer

The second-largest privately held company in Georgia and the 22nd largest in the country, RaceTrac was launched in Missouri under the name Carl Bolch Trackside Stations. Carl’s son, Carl Bolch Jr., became CEO in 1967. Nine years later, the company adopted the RaceTrac brand and moved its headquarters to bustling Atlanta, which had an international airport.

“The appeal of easier and more accessible air travel was a major factor in moving to Atlanta,” said Melanie Isbill, chief marketing officer at RaceTrac.

Today, the chain has more than 570 outlets across Alabama, Florida, Georgia, Louisiana, Mississippi, Tennessee and Texas. “The stores are bigger, with a wider variety of fuel choices to suit the needs of fleet vehicles and trucks at many locations,” she said. “And in recent years, fresh food and snacks have become synonymous with our stores.”

Despite growth across seven states, RaceTrac remains “Atlanta’s hometown convenience store,” said Isbill, who with her sister, Natalie Morhous, RaceTrac president, are daughters of Carl Bolch Jr. and the third generation to help lead the company.

“RaceTrac is a proud hometown partner of the Atlanta Braves,” said Isbill. “And Braves fans are familiar with RaceTrac’s ‘Beat the Freeze’ promotion in between innings at the Atlanta Braves baseball games.”

During each game, a lucky fan is selected from the audience to race the Freeze, a masked runner with the RaceTrac logo on his sleek uniform. Even though the Freeze gives his competitors a generous head start, he rarely loses, and the crowds love him.

The company also supports a diverse group of nonprofits. Since 2011, RaceTrac has raised more than $7 million for the Michael J. Fox Foundation to help fund Parkinson’s research, and for the past 13 years, it has supported Georgia’s Camp Sunshine, which provides recreational, educational and support programs to children living with cancer.

During RaceTrac’s Teacher Appreciation Week in May, educators, administrators and school staff may stop by any store for a free small Crazy Good Coffee. The chain has even given free gasoline to teachers during the promotion. In addition, the Employee Volunteer Program encourages team members to donate personal time to a charity of their choice. Many lend a hand at the Atlanta Community Food Bank each year.

“RaceTrac has been an integral part of Georgia’s business community for more than 45 years,” said Isbell. “Our mission is to make people’s lives simpler and more enjoyable, and we think it’s important to do so through giving back.”

—Pat Pape

Life Next Door to a Hot Food Spot

Tucked into a tree-enclosed lot on Atlanta’s northwest side, between views of Interstate 285’s elevated ramps and the Chattahoochee River to the rear, is one of Atlanta’s most highly rated barbecue restaurants, Heirloom Market BBQ. With a blend of barbecue that’s part-Texan, part-Korean—thanks to the heritage of married chef/owners Cody Taylor and Jiyeon Lee, respectively—the small restaurant has built a big fanbase. Customers rave about the brisket, spicy Korean pork and spareribs, and critics based in and far outside Atlanta think enough of Heirloom Market that Lee and Taylor were semifinalists for the James Beard Foundation’s 2023 Best Chef: Southeast award.

Not long after opening in 2010, Heirloom Market received heavy media and word-of-mouth buzz. The owners switched back and forth on allowing guests to eat on-site or through takeout-only service, eventually creating a fence-enclosed patio restaurant. The restaurant also figured out how to efficiently serve lots of barbecue to nearby corporate carryout-lunchers. But it wasn’t always pleasant in the beginning for Faisal Rokarya, owner of Akers Mill Food Mart, a convenience store in the same building.

Rokarya said that the two businesses share landlords, but sharing a small parking lot with a locally famous restaurant hasn’t always been sweet and savory. Sometimes, particularly when he’s asked visitors not to block parking spaces, there’s been proverbial smoke.

“I used to get cursed out; a couple of them tried to jump on me and hit me. That’s all part of the game.”

He said he listens to what longtime neighborhood customers tell him they want and keeps those items in the store. In terms of food products, the shop stocks Hispanic snack favorites like Bimbo cakes, Takis rolled tortilla chips and Helados Mexico ice cream bars in flavors like mango and strawberry. It’s good business fueled by a large Hispanic and Latino population in the surrounding area. Rokarya recently added a new freezer near the counter, filled with packaged ice cream and gelato, frozen pizzas and TV dinners. He said hungry customers often visit Akers Mill after Heirloom Market closes at 8 p.m., and are happy to take what they can get, as the nearest grocery, a Publix, is several miles away.

Sometimes Heirloom’s business decisions have impacted Akers Mill’s sales, particularly when the restaurant briefly sold alcohol during the Covid lockdowns. Since the restaurant switched back to only offering Coke products, Rokarya has seen sales of beer and wine come back.

Today, according to Heirloom Market manager Lindsey Whitman, the two businesses coordinate to coexist. She said setting up stanchions with yellow caution tape highlighting the entrance to Heirloom Market helps avoid confusion among customers. “We all have to work together,” she said.

Tough but easygoing, Rokarya agrees. “Being in this so long, and knowing so many people, and treating them right, they keep coming,” Rokarya said. “Sometimes they pass right by [Heirloom Market] and come here.”

But does he ever sneak over and have Heirloom’s heralded food? No, he admitted.

“I eat home food. I’m married 28 years and I want to stay that way. Plus, too much barbecue is not good for you,” he said with a laugh.

—Mike Jordan

Westview Corner Grocery: A C-Store/Grocery Store Cross

“Thriftown” is painted in bold black letters on the facade of a bright orange building on Ralph David Abernathy Boulevard in Atlanta’s Westview community. Originally built in 1949 as a small Kroger location, the site now houses Westview Corner Grocery, a walk-up market for Atlantans who appreciate a friendly shopping option. Manager Delaine Williams, a Los Angeles native partly raised in Macon, Georgia, said that Westview is a cross between a convenience store and a grocery.

It’s an eclectic shop with spotless polished concrete floors and well-organized aisles stocked with everything from household cleaners and packs of toilet paper to a surprisingly impressive selection of wine and a range of snacks like crisp chicken skins. Other items include champagne and chocolate bars that apparently enhance the libido. You’ll also find plenty of fresh produce: tomatoes, avocados, potatoes and more along the brick wall near the entrance, and snappy fruits and veggies in an adjacent cooler.

Near the back, beneath a hanging rectangular sign that reads “The Corner,” you’ll find rotating food and drink prepared by pop-up chefs. Tamales are brought in by a local family and always sell out. A neighbor makes peanut brittle.

Another popular option is Plant Lady Juice Co., which is led by Akilah Roberts and neighborhood resident Jennifer Kanyamibwa. The two ladies sell beverages like Blood Cleansed, a juice blend of beets, dandelion greens, apple, lemon and ginger, and lemongrass-ginger-agave Taste of Delight tea. Roberts, an herbalist, said about her business, “I just help people ignite the wellness power within.”

There’s a feeling of communal optimism inside the store. Williams, the manager, helps bring that energy. He talks about how the couple who own the store, Patrick Berry and Steffi Langer-Berry, welcomed him to work there back when it opened in April 2018, and said that since Westview arrived, it has helped the neighborhood feel more socially connected.

“It really comes down to the people that work here. Everyone basically lives in the neighborhood or close by; most people walk or bike to work. We all have some connection to the people around us. It doesn’t feel like you’re dealing with strangers every day. It’s like, these are our friends. These are our neighbors. We foster an environment of understanding, kindness and support.”

They also foster a place of tasty adventure, be it in the form of freshly baked sourdough bread from Atlanta bakery Alon’s or any of the many coolers lined with local beers. As Williams showed the space in the rear of the long building that is currently used for storage but will soon be converted to additional aisles, he held a continuous resting smile on his face. It’s easy to tell he’s as happy to work at Westview as customers are to find its unique offerings.

—Mike Jordan

Georgia: A Strong C-Store State

People in Georgia love their convenience stores. It rates fifth among U.S. states in the number of c-stores inside its borders.

“It’s a Georgia thing,” said Katie Morris, marketing director for Golden Pantry Food Stores, of the state’s relationship with c-stores. “People here are very proud of being from Georgia, and the c-store is part of your routine. Georgia c-store customers have their stores, and they’re loyal. Go into any of our stores and a lot of customers and employees are on a first-name basis.”

Angela Holland, president of the Georgia Association of Convenience Stores, predicts an even brighter future.

“The Association’s membership is strong. We have a core group that is engaged, reaching out to others in the industry and working for the good of the organization,” Holland said. “We have forward-thinking leaders in our government, and our state regulatory agencies want to work with private businesses to help them thrive.”

She added: “Our state is changing so much. And that will allow the c-store industry to flourish.”