Gas Station Gourmet
Above: Taco Urbano is one of the The PRIDE Stores’ three restaurant concepts.
A great food program will drive customers to a c-store. Fresh food is at the foundation of successful food concepts.
The PRIDE Stores offer customers a variety of fare in a welcoming environment that brings them back again and again. The Warrenville, Illinois-based company’s three food concepts—Urban Counter, Taco Urbano and The PRIDE Cafe—offer something for just about everyone.
The company that Peter Spina started 40 years ago has now grown to include 15 stores in Illinois and one in Indiana under the Parent Petroleum umbrella. Today, his son Mario Spina is the owner and CEO.
The Urban Counter concept was developed in 2011. It’s American fare done fresh.
“We wanted to come up with a concept where people can come in and get food that they typically wouldn’t expect from a convenience store/gas station and also have it be as good as any other place out there and for less money,” said Spina.
The focus is on fresh, locally sourced food.
“We do half-pound, hand-pressed hamburgers made to order,” Spina said, adding, “People order the burger and when asked how they want it cooked, medium, rare or well done, they look at us like ‘really?’ They don’t expect it to be made to order.”
Anytime is a good time for breakfast, so it’s served all day long. A favorite is the breakfast burrito. This is a generous combination of fried eggs, thick-cut bacon, jalapeño spread, cheddar cheese, French fries and black beans.
“People would ask for burritos throughout the day,” Spina said. “We would make it special when customers asked for it. Our kitchens are small. We streamlined things and were able to carry breakfast all day long.”
“We have stations close to each other, with the same traffic pattern. We wanted to do something different so our customers can have a unique experience at different locations. We came up with another concept called Taco Urbano,” Spina said.
“That’s our Mexican fare. Everything is made to order. When someone orders guacamole, we cut up the avocados to order. We fry our own chips to order as well, plus we make our pico de gallo and salsas in-house.”
One can’t help but feel Spina’s energy and enthusiasm when he talks about the food. “Our chips, salsa and guacamole are great. Our pork is awesome. It’s traditional pork cooked in pineapple the way pork is prepared in Mexican restaurants. The Al Pastor torta is what it’s called.”
Customers also like elotes, traditional Mexican street corn.
“It’s very popular. It’s corn, Mexican cheese, Mexican seasoning, queso and chili powder,” he explained, adding, “The food is great. We’re going to put a Taco Urbano in our Dyer, Indiana, PRIDE Store, and we’ll have four by the middle of next year.”
It seems like most of the bases were covered, but what about the smaller stores?
“We had some locations that we wanted to do a foodservice offering, but they didn’t have the space for a stove hood or walk-in cooler. There wasn’t enough parking. We didn’t think it would justify a whole kitchen.
The PRIDE Cafe was the solution built for speed.
“It’s paninis, crepes and espresso drinks. It’s quick, and we do a heavy selection of our PRIDE Grab & Go items. The paninis and crepes are made in our kitchen in Warrenville, then cooked to order on site with a panini press. In three minutes they’re done. It allows us to have fresh, warm food. It’s a nice offering.
They look good, and they’re affordable.” Like all convenience retailers, Spina relies on his team members to provide PRIDE customers with great food and an excellent experience. Like c-store operators from Chicagoland to Cajun Country, staffing is a common challenge.
“It’s hard to get employees to come in and stay. It’s getting better, but it’s still difficult. We have a 401(k) plus health benefits. We hope this will get people to stay,” Spina said.
To help maximize labor, the company has installed self-checkouts on both the c-store side and the restaurant sales counter. “Instead of having two people running the register, we can have one stocking. In the restaurant, we can concentrate on making food to help turn orders more timely,” he explained.
“We take PRIDE in every location that we own and operate. We try to do things uniquely and differently,” said Spina, adding, “It’s not just a gas station, it’s an experience.”
The PRIDE of St. Charles was featured in the 2021 NACS Ideas 2 Go series. Watch the video at www.convenience.org/ideas2go.