Look for the Heroes
From single-store operators to 200+ location chains, ask convenience retailers how they’ve fared this year and there will be talk of COVID-19 and protests, wildfires and hurricanes, chaos and uncertainty. Peppered throughout their stories and rising above the fray, though, is a single cord that unites the entire industry, from the executive suite to the frontline clerk: community.
This is a story about helpers and heroes and hope.
The COVID-19 pandemic has tested the convenience and fuel retailing industry in ways not imagined at the start of 2020. In March, NACS successfully advocated for a federal “essential business” designation for the industry as 24/7 sellers of gasoline, food and other vital goods. While this meant c-stores and gas stations could remain open as other businesses were forced to close, the designation wasn’t merely about profits, it was about purpose.
“We’re essential businesses because of who we are,” said Don Rhoads, CEO of the Convenience Group LLC, based in Vancouver, Washington. “We can always modify what we sell, and we’ll continue to evolve and introduce new channels, and other channels will likely go away because of who we are. We are an industry, one large community, and we serve communities. So, that’s really, I think, the story line for all of us.”
Getting the governmental greenlight to remain open was just the first step. Staying open has been a much bigger challenge amid a patchwork of federal, state and local COVID-19–related health regulations, personal protective equipment, occupancy limits and safety measures.
“Early on there wasn’t a playbook for this, and there still isn’t for the most part,” said Rhoads, whose businesses are located in the Pacific Northwest, in what was the West Coast epicenter of the initial COVID-19 outbreak in the U.S. “We’re all about health and safety for our employees and customers,” he said, “but it’s been a challenge, and we work hard to remain open.”
Although the pandemic derailed what “started off to be a really good year for us,” Rhoads said, “there’s value in stepping back and looking at the situation for what it is and understanding that you have little control over where this is going to end up, but you do want to make a difference.”
Across the country in New York City, the East Coast epicenter of the pandemic, Rachel Krupa, CEO, The Goods Mart, also found herself in unchartered waters. “There’s no rulebook created for this because we have never been through a pandemic. How do we do this? Do we wear gloves? Do we wear masks? Do we put up the small piece of plexiglass? Do we serve hot coffee? Do we not serve hot coffee? Do we clean everything?”
The Goods Mart’s mission, though, was clear: “to serve our community, no matter what,” Krupa said. “It’s been emotional,” she said, “because there’s so much unknown, but at the same time it’s been so rewarding because we’ve been able to connect with our community more than ever.”
In the early spring as the city’s hospitals filled with patients battling COVID-19, Krupa wanted to support weary health-care workers with healthy snacks. The Goods Mart started what Krupa calls the Goods Surprise Snack Box available for shipping nationwide. Customers also could donate a box to local food banks and hospitals. Krupa estimates that more than $20,000 worth of snacks were donated to eight different hospitals out of her tiny 300-square-foot SoHo store.
“The thank yous that we received were really emotional and touching,” she said. “We just want to do good, and they were saying thank you to us, but we also wanted to say thank you to them because they’re keeping our city—all the health-care workers—keeping us alive and doing their best.”
In Washington, Rhoads and his c-stores worked with local agencies and volunteers to help feed needy families. “We did a drive-thru pop-up where the clients did not have to get out of their cars,” Rhoads said. “We gave it one hour, and we were done in 55 minutes. We served 250 families, 600 individuals, close to 100 pounds of food for each car. And we personally provided lunchboxes for everyone who came by that day.”
Down But Not Out
When an SUV crashed through his Kenosha, Wisconsin, c-store in early October, Anthony Perrine was determined to focus on the positive. Perrine and his family operate Lou Perrine’s, a gas station founded by his grandfather. “We’re a staple here in the city,” Perrine said. “There are still people who come here that my Grandpa wiped their windshield off.”
The Jeep’s driver mistakenly shifted into drive instead of reverse and hurled into the left corner of the Lou Perrine’s building, taking out the ATM, the shutoff switch for the gas pumps, the wine cooler, the health and beauty section and the checkout counter. Miraculously, neither the driver nor anyone in the store was hurt. And the Mama P’s Ho Ho Cake cooler was unscathed.
Forced to temporarily close its doors and its fuel pumps, Lou Perrine’s donated nearly 1,000 pounds of food to a local food bank and homeless shelter and moved ahead with a planned backpack giveaway for kids in need. “This is an opportunity for us to give back to the community any way we can,” Perrine said, and the community has rallied around the business and its employees. “From a local standpoint, everybody’s been great, showing us love.”
It wasn’t the c-store’s first crisis of 2020. COVID-19 battered businesses in Kenosha, and the restaurants, bars and shops were just getting back on their feet when the small city found itself in the national spotlight. On August 23, police officers shot and killed Jacob Blake, sparking days of protests for justice, followed by looting and arson.
“We were in the heart of the riots,” Perrine said. “We knew right away the city was going to burn. Thanks to our connections with NACSPAC, I reached out to our congressmen and city and state leaders and said, ‘We need backup now.’” Perrine hired “some pretty heavy-duty security guys who kept the place safe,” he said. His staff handed out water bottles to protestors and milk to soothe eyes irritated by tear gas. Perrine credits Lonnie McQuirter, director of operations, 36 Lyn Refuel Station, Minneapolis, Minnesota, for the idea. Perrine and McQuirter connected through NACS, and Perrine was grateful for the friendship when he found himself standing post at night atop his gas station—like McQuirter had done in Minneapolis—during the Kenosha unrest. “Lonnie gets it,” Perrine said.
“We made it through COVID, and none of our employees got sick. We made it through our riots. It just so happens that an older lady with a lead foot took us out.” As Perrine said, “It’s 2020. I’m going to make the most of it.” He paid his employees while the store was closed. “These are good people. They’ve been here forever. We’re going to make sure our employees aren’t on unemployment. I’m going to use this disaster and spin it into something good.”
Perrine and his family’s message to people who want to help out is simple: “Support local right now. Support downtown. Go to the restaurants. Enjoy our lakefront.” Kenosha needs extra love.
There are about 152,000 convenience stores in the United States, and about half of America walks through their doors each day—pre–COVID-19. Foot traffic may be down, but the connections that c-stores have with their regular customers and the surrounding communities are stronger than ever.
“It’s surprising with having over 1,500 customers a day how many regular customers we have, and how many we remember on a first name basis, and they know us as well,” said Lonnie McQuirter, director of operations, 36 Lyn Refuel Station, Minneapolis, Minnesota. McQuirter’s lone store is located in the heart of south Minneapolis and carries locally sourced and organic products, plus traditional c-store fare.
For McQuirter, investing in relationships with 36 Lyn’s neighbors in an authentic way is nonnegotiable. 36 Lyn was one of the first corporate sponsors of Open Streets Minneapolis, a free, family-friendly street festival in which major thoroughfares are closed to car traffic on a weekend afternoon.
“It was important for me that our customers get to know the staff in a light beyond just the typical cashier/customer transaction and that they get to know the people that live in the area,” McQuirter said of his support for Open Streets. “It’s humbling, and it’s something that always helps me and my staff appreciate the importance that we have in the area and the reason why we need to be in our community.”
The first Open Streets event was held in 2011 on two miles of Lyndale Avenue South, where 36 Lyn operates. The c-store’s rooftop becomes a stage for musical performances, and classic cars, local vendors and food trucks take over the forecourt. (This year’s festival was cancelled due to the pandemic.)
“It’s my firm belief that the more that we know our neighbors, the more that we can attract people from different walks of life to understand that we all want the same things for the most part. It helps to make our world smaller, but it also helps to build that kind of sense of belonging and community that is much needed,” McQuirter said.
During the height of the COVID-19 crisis, it was especially important for 36 Lyn to provide clean restrooms for customers when other businesses were closed, and serve as a refuge for people in crisis. “There have been people that have had domestic situations where they are fleeing to us, and they wait until the police get here,” McQuirter shared. “There’s not any other place for them to go to. We are critical infrastructure in our communities.”
For these small business owners, supporting their communities also means lifting up nearby enterprises. At Rhoads’ c-stores, foodservice in particular has been limited due to COVID-19–related restrictions. The majority of his stores “are tucked back in neighborhoods, and we’re part of that fabric in the communities where we reside,” he said.
He shares how painful it was to see a small restaurant, Farrar’s Bistro, close down next door to his Felida Store. “It’s a great neighborhood restaurant. It’s very popular, and just overnight the light switch went off.” Rhoads wanted to make sure that Farrar’s “had a fighting chance of moving forward,” so he enlisted owner Debbie Belden to provide foodservice to his c-stores: grab-and-go sandwiches and sides. “They make great products. I brought a couple of their people into my commissary to help out.” The restaurant is back open now, with capacity limits.
For Krupa of The Goods Mart, building community also means elevating smaller brands, especially Black-owned ones. The Goods Mart is among the retailers that have pledged to devote at least 15% of shelf space to products from Black-owned businesses. “Because now more than ever, our dollar counts for something,” Krupa explains. “Let’s change society through how we’re shopping, and that is even through the food we buy.”
Krupa took a closer look at the SKUs in her store with fresh eyes after it was looted during Memorial Day weekend protests that followed George Floyd’s May 25 death in police custody in Minneapolis. “The death of George Floyd was just heartbreaking,” Krupa said. She awoke on June 1 to an email from her security company alerting her to “destruction” at the Lafayette Street c-store.
“I rushed out in my pajamas and just ran to the store. And as I walked into SoHo onto Lafayette Street, it was just building after building—there was just glass shattered. And at that moment, I just knew that our store was broken into. And then as I approached it, the front rack was down, and the front door was unlocked. And you know, it was emotional because,” she pauses to compose herself, “this is what it takes for us to open our eyes to the change that is needed.”
During the cleanup, The Goods Mart handed out free coffee, and customers and strangers alike stopped by to help it and other shops clean up glass and board up windows and doors. “Our neighborhood came in to support us during this time. Because it’s how you support each other and how you lift each other up. It was emotional.”
Krupa sees a silver lining. She was able to donate a lot of her stock to a women’s shelter and then started digging anew into the brands she offered, discovering with dismay that only three of 200 brands she carried at the time were from Black-founded businesses. Now there are 20. And she’s enlisted local artists to create murals on the plywood covering her storefront, turning what could be seen as an unwelcoming street façade into a message of hope.
Heartbreak and Hope
Floyd died at 38th Street and Chicago Avenue about a mile away from 36 Lyn. Although McQuirter, who grew up in Minneapolis, didn’t know Floyd personally, some of his employees and customers did, and many attended peaceful rallies and vigils in the initial days after the tragedy. Then agitators took advantage of the gatherings to stir up violence, and 36 Lyn was looted but spared the devastation that befell other businesses, many of which are owned by McQuirter’s friends.
A security expert told McQuirter that “36 Lyn the convenience store was critical to the health and well-being of our community and neighborhood. He didn’t mince his words in describing and explaining why—if 36 Lyn was to burn down, if we were to be taken away from our community, the dire consequences that it would have for the rest of the community there.”
McQuirter, his staff and volunteers stood watch over 36th Street and Lyndale Avenue for several nights during the height of the civil unrest. Matthew Kernan was one of McQuirter’s neighbors who offered help. The two men testified at a Minnesota State Senate hearing this summer about the impact on small businesses in downtown Minneapolis.
“I saw everything that had happened from Day 1 and…I just couldn’t let things go without taking any action,” Kernan testified. “So I believe it was on the 29th, I came to the gas station where Lonnie owns, and offered any kind of protection that I could provide. So for the next five evenings after the 28th we stood post on top of the gas station,” he said, his voice breaking.
The experience was wrenching. “While we were tired, while we were overworked at the time, it really helps to instill why we were there,” McQuirter said. “I think it’s all too easy to say, ‘That business has insurance. They can just board up and walk away.’ When the sun is going down, when you know the police aren’t going to show up, and you know that the fire department may not show up, to have people in the community that are out there for you…it’s something that others don’t necessarily understand the value of—that’s observed by our customers and by those in our community—until it’s not there.”
Special thanks to Jeff Lenard, NACS vice president of strategic industry initiatives; Chris Blasinsky, NACS content communications strategist; and Blake Althen, co-owner and producer, Human Factor LLC, who conducted interviews for this article.