Ayda Swartz had no intention of working long-term at the Fill’Er-Up when she came to help out her father after college graduation in 1992. “I came here to temporarily run the business and have been here ever since,” she said. Swartz now owns and manages the station, which has been a family business since 1975 when her father’s brothers and uncle bought the gas station and garage.
That family history gave Swartz the freedom to put her own stamp on the Parkton, Maryland, business. When she took over in 2008 she re-launched it with a new name and a new business model—a gas station, convenience store and restaurant under one roof. “Since we combined these into one business, it’s grown by leaps and bounds,” she said.
Today, Swartz continues to work on improving all three aspects of the business to meet growing demand from customers.
The Personal Touch
One of the first things Swartz changed was the way the store handled foodservice. For many years, Fill’Er-Up brought in outside vendors to run various foodservice operations, such as a sub shop and a deli. “From around 1990 to 2007, we leased space to other people,” she explained.
When her dad handed her the reins, she soon realized that to ensure all aspects of the business were up to her standards, she would need to bring foodservice in-house. “I knew nothing about running a restaurant, but my dad’s a real go-getter, and he said we could do this,” Swartz said. Within three months, she found an experienced chef—Glen Fisher—who saw the potential of Fill’Er-Up and helped design the menu and kitchen. Fisher still works at the store, adding his personal touch to the menu.
While Fisher crafted the initial offering, Swartz has expanded the all-day breakfast, salads and subs menu through ideas from employees and customers. “We take suggestions from customers for new menu items, as well as do custom orders if we have the ingredients on hand,” she said. “In the beginning, we only had basic items, and our customers helped add to our menu by their requests.” For example, the store serves cream of crab soup, and an employee wanted to try the soup on potato skins. Now the store offers crab skins, which are quite popular. Another suggestion created their popular cheeseburger pizza: ground beef, pickles, ketchup, mustard and cheese.
To encourage customers to stay a while, the store has seven tables for dining and will soon turn the former lower garage level into a patio area with indoor and outdoor seating. “That space is currently unused, so we want to add more seating options for our customers,” Swartz said.
A few years ago, Swartz completely overhauled the store layout to increase the kitchen space, among other improvements. “We tore out the ceiling and flooring, put in new counters and rearranged the store to provide better flow and to keep up with our increasing customer base,” she said.
Our staff embodies our philosophy of staying positive and treating the customer right.
Beyond the Walls
But Fill’Er-Up is more than its building and products. “Our staff embodies our philosophy of staying positive and treating the customer right,” she said. Of the 23 employees, most have been at the store for at least a year. “Twelve have been with me at least three years, and three of my key people have been with me 15 years,” Swartz said. “Those numbers show that our employees value their work with us.”
The customer base leans heavily toward locals. “We’re happy to serve both residents and visitors,” Swartz said. “We have a wonderful customer base, and we treat everyone with kindness. Our customers know that we want to make things right for them as much as we can, and they can feel the positive atmosphere of that in our stores with our smiling employees.”
To keep that connection going outside of the store, Swartz started a Facebook page. She recently outsourced all of the store’s social media to Daddy Social, which manages Fill’Er-Up’s Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, Yelp, Google and Foursquare accounts. “I could never keep up with all of those, so it’s been money well spent to have a team helping respond to the posts,” she said. Fill’Er Up also updated its website, which provides another avenue of connection to customers.
In addition to making online connections, Fill’Er-Up regularly picks a different charity, organization or individual to donate a penny per gallon of gasoline sold during a particular month. “We usually end up with free promotions or advertising through the recipient’s group, which helps our business too,” Swartz said.
Overall, she hopes customers leave “knowing we care about them. If we can bring a smile to their face and help them have a better day, that’s very satisfying to us.”