Gas Station Gourmet
Stay for Dessert
Above: A sampling of the made-from-scratch desserts in a cup include pumpkin spice, double chocolate, chocolate salted caramel and vanilla bean with berries.
Gretchen’s Goodies is a different kind of c-store. John and Gretchen Montgomery met 15 years ago while working on Wall Street. A convenience store in Riverview, Florida, is a long way culturally and geographically from the world of high finance. They moved from complex financial transac- tions to decadent desserts in a cup.
“We moved to Tampa and bought a gas station in Riverview after growing weary of the corporate world and wanting something different,” John said, adding, “It’s a beautiful gas station with high ceilings.”
Gretchen’s Goodies opened in September 2021. The c-store had an existing restaurant, but the couple wanted to have a food program in which Gretchen could use her passion for her lifelong hobby of baking. “Since I was a teenager, I’ve loved to bake,” said Gretchen.
“We initially planned on serving three different cakes in a cup—chocolate, vanilla and red velvet. We liked the idea of dessert in a cup—it’s easier to eat, doesn’t make a mess and is something that can be had on the go, which is per- fect for a gas station,” Gretchen said.
“Since John has a good key lime recipe, we experimented with serving slices in clamshell containers; however, it wasn’t nearly as convenient as the cake in the cup. So, on a whim, I put the key lime pie in a cup with layers of filling and crust. It worked, and people loved it,” Gretchen said.
If they could do this in a cup, then anything could go into a cup. The couple had other pie and cheesecake recipes and converted them into the cup format.
“For the pies and cheesecakes, we do two layers of crust and then two layers of filling. Most of them have our homemade whip cream on top. We make everything from scratch. For example, when we make apple pie, we peel our own apples,” she said.
It’s the attention to detail and painstaking effort that makes the difference. A good example is caramel sauce.
“We make our own caramel sauce with granulated sugar. It takes six hours to make a huge batch. It would be much easier and faster if we used a simpler method with a different type of sugar. But it wouldn’t taste nearly as good. With our method, you can taste the homemade flavor, and the effort is worth it,” Gretchen said.
“Gretchen comes up with an idea and makes an initial version. Friends and customers give feedback, and we try several variations at home until it’s perfect. Then we mass produce it at the bakery,” said John.
THE FREEZE TEST
“We want to offer a huge variety of desserts and in order to do this, we have to mass-produce them and then freeze them. However, before we launch a new item, we freeze it and then defrost it over 24 hours. Then we do a blind taste test where we compare it to a non-frozen version. If we can tell a difference, we don’t release it and try again,” explained John.
“The freezer is a big part of our model. We tell everyone it’s fresh because it’s frozen as soon as it’s made. It tastes fresh,” he continued.
It can take time to get things right.
“If any mass-produced batch isn’t perfect, then we pull it, analyze what went wrong and update the process. We recently produced 500 goodies for a new keto dessert. Gretchen tasted it, hated it and said to get it out of her bakery. We tossed them and changed the recipe. The new version is amazing and a direct result of our commitment to quality,” John said.
“Customers walk in and the first impression is you’re in a gas station. There is no way this can be good. We recognize that our goodies can’t just be good. They have to be great,” he said.
As business increased, so did the inventory of bakery items.
“We ran out of freezer space. We had extra space in the back, and we bought a giant freezer container like you see on cargo ships. We put shelving in it and can now store 15,000 goodies,” he said.
John and Gretchen work hard to make sure everything works together. They have 10 different crusts. There’s some experimentation when trying to find the right crust for the right dessert.
“We tinker. We found that an Oreo crust makes caramel taste better. We always want to make it better. We want you to walk away saying, ‘This is the best version of that dessert I’ve ever had,’” John said.
The Montgomerys have no formal training, no culinary school experience, just passion. Passion works. How do customers respond to a bakery in a gas station? Sales are over $100,000 a month and growing.
GAS STATION FOOT TRAFFIC
Gretchen reflected on the success. “I’m not sure this first location would have been as successful if we had opened in a random strip mall with no previous track record. We’re in a high-volume gas station right off the highway with a wide variety of customers. While many people would view a gas station as a negative. We view it as a positive.”
When they launched, customers were already coming to the store.
“They liked it. They told their friends, and the next thing we’re all over Facebook. The initial growth was helped by location and the foot traffic in the gas station.”
Adds John, “The fact that the gas station is open 24/7 allows the bakery to be open 24/7. The c-store employees are trained to sell in the bakery. So, if someone comes in at 2 a.m. they can get a goody. We get a ton of DoorDash and Uber orders in the middle of the night.”
John is looking at growth.
“While making 70 desserts (and counting) is complex, we believe we can grow sales significantly. We’re exploring mail order and additional locations, including other gas stations with our commitment to quality,” he said.
“We believe that if executed properly, a franchise model could be successful. For franchisees, we would make core desserts available year-round and then have a rotating menu of new offerings changing every month. We would make the desserts in a cen- tral location and then ship them frozen, similar to ice cream.”
In the meantime, John and Gretchen will continue to create goodies that put smiles on customers’ faces when they take that first bite. John sees it simply: “We’re in the business of making people happy.”