Customers sometimes don’t know quite what to call Curby’s Express Market.
Is it a quick-service restaurant? A mini-mart? Or a convenience store without gas pumps? “All of the above,” says Tony Sparks, head of customer wow! for the budding chain in Lubbock, Texas. “We call it a next-generation convenience store because we’re focusing on our own made-to-order food on one side and traditional consumer packaged goods on the other side, plus a double-lane drive-thru.”
Sparks led a team of consultants and experts to devise the new concept, which took a few years to come to fruition. “The owners tasked me with crafting this new kind of convenience store along the lines of Green Zebra, Amazon Go, Choice Market and Foxtrot,” he said. “None of those have fuel, and all are food-forward stores.”
For Sparks, the concept started with fresh food, which occupies the left side of the 4,000-square-foot store. “We knew we wanted our own made-to-order food and beverages,” he said. “We figured anything Panera or Dutch Bros. could do, we could do better.”
Research figured heavily into all decisions, especially what to put on the menu. “Our research showed what the area could support in terms of demographics and competition, so we settled on flatbread pizzas and melts,” Sparks said. He also added a local favorite—kolaches, a sausage wrapped in a croissant. Sausages also take prominence on the menu, with Chicago-style, all-American and prosciutto-cheese-and-bacon versions.
“We wanted to do something a little bit different but still provide that quick and fast service with our foodservice program,” he said. He tapped a foodservice consulting group to start with, then also hired a former Starbucks employee to bring the hand-crafted beverages to life and a food-forward designer to create the menu.
On the beverage side, Curby’s “is crushing it” when it comes to its line of made-to-order energy drinks and fresh iced teas. “We have seven different SKUs of our proprietary energy blend, Zoomies, which has the most stimulant per ounce you can buy anywhere in the area, and a separate line of five SKUS of made-to-order Red Bull energy drinks,” he said.
Along with a 20-head fountain, Curby’s serves 40 Crathco bubblers of iced tea with all flavors having sweet and unsweet variations. “We buy tea leaves in bulk, and we’re brewing all day long,” he said. “We have 20 linear feet of stainless steel, self-serve dispensers of fresh-brewed iced teas.” Last summer, Curby’s sold on average 600 cups of iced tea per day.
On the store’s right side are the packaged goods, such as candy, snacks, bottled drinks, beer, wine and other c-store staples. Curby’s utilizes four-sided pod merchandisers instead of linear gondola shelving to keep the area open and inviting. “This allows for the layout to have a different look and lets us configure the floor differently,” he said. “I also plan to bring in more regional and local products and have a pod dedicated to those items as well.”
At the back of the store is the horseshoe-shaped sales counter, with tobacco products facing the convenience side. Curby’s also has two self-checkout stations, in addition to two manned checkouts. “We’re going to add more self-checkout stations in the future because right now, 65% of our checkout is already done through self-checkout stations, and we want to bring more of our Pack Members out from behind the counter and onto the floor,” Sparks said.
BRINGING THEM IN
While Curby’s has embraced technology in the form of self-checkout, the retailer also sees value in the drive-thru. “We based our drive-thru on Chick-fil-A, with a double lane for cars and line busters out taking orders, rather than ordering through an order box,” Sparks said.
For Curby’s, the biggest challenge is getting customers through the door or drive-thru. “Because we don’t have fuel, people aren’t sure what Curby’s is,” he explained. “We do a lot of promotion on social media to help spread the word, but customer awareness, trial and re- peat business is an ongoing challenge.”
While working on increasing awareness, the company has plans to open 10 stores within 36 months. “For us, it starts with the customer experience,” Sparks said. “What we’re trying to do is provide an underserved market with a different and better shopping experience than what is traditionally out there. We hope they see us as a progressive store with great food and service.”
For Tony Sparks, head of customer wow! for Curby’s Express Market in Lubbock, Texas, creating the right customer experience starts with the company culture. “We’re a faith-based company with a God-focused mission statement, and the people development part is so important to the founders of the company,” he said.
To that end, each employee has a one-on-one each month with a supervisor that has nothing to do with store performance and everything to do with the worker as a person. “We want to know what’s going on in their life, what are they doing and how can we help them achieve those plans,” Sparks said. “From the store associates to the shift leaders to the kitchen manager and assistant store director—we want to hear from all of them on a monthly basis so we can support them as both Curby’s employees and as people.”
Ideas 2 Go showcases how retailers today are operating the convenience store of tomorrow. To see videos of the c-stores we profiled in 2022 and earlier, go to www.convenience.org/ideas2go.