25 Years & Counting
When a customer walks into a Bolla Market store, they may not realize that behind the usual offerings of coffee, snacks and newspapers is an entirely homegrown operation ? not only is the majority of its foodservice offerings prepared on-site, but even the aisle endcaps and store signage are built inside a warehouse at the company?s headquarters in Garden City, N.Y.
To anyone familiar with Bolla Oil Corp. President and CEO Harry Singh, though, it comes as no surprise. He launched the company in 1989 as an automotive repair technician with a single Mobil location in New York City. Since then, he?s expanded Bolla into a powerhouse operation that includes more than 90 retail sites ? 28 of which operate under the Bolla Market banner ? and operates multiple divisions covering nearly every aspect of the industry, including real estate, fuel supply, construction, car washes and more.
Its most recent expansion is fuel trucking fleet Bolla Transport, which launched in the summer of 2013. But to celebrate its silver anniversary, Bolla is on the verge of a brand-new project: its first franchise Bolla Market store, tentatively scheduled to open during the first half of 2015.
This continuous increase in scope took hard work, determination and a refusal to play it safe.
?I?m a risk taker,? Singh told Convenience Store News.
That doesn?t mean he visualized from the start what he would make of his company. In the early years, convenience stores weren?t the main focus. ?The way you started a gas station is that you were doing automotive service or you were selling gas only,? he recalled. The company did very well for around 10 years, but then the auto repair side of things began to slow.
?When the business started declining, we realized we had to do something to move into the future and keep gasoline as a main business for us,? Singh said. He found opportunity in convenience stores, and from then on, ?anything we bought, built, either of our own properties or other properties that we leased, we focused strictly on convenience store growth.?
Now, the next step in Bolla?s growth is franchising. The company is in the final stages of filing its franchise disclosure to get approval from the Federal Trade Commission. As a franchisor, Bolla can offer the support and consistency of an established name and branded fuel solution, and the breadth of its divisions will allow the company to put its expertise to use.
?To a point, we can almost hold their hands from building to running the sites and making money at the end,? Singh explained.
Plans are already in place for when Bolla gets the green light, but the company doesn?t intend to sell franchises to just anyone.
?We have two committed Bolla Market franchisees on hand,? the CEO said. ?Once we?re official, we?ll hold meetings with our existing franchisee-and-supply locations and give them the pros and cons of Bolla Market. Since we own the property, we?ll be investing millions of dollars building [stores]. We want to make sure they buy into it so we?re not forcing anybody to do something.?
FRESH & FLEXIBLE
A key part of what makes Bolla Market unique and has helped it to succeed is its foodservice program, which includes a fresh, prepared-to-order gourmet deli, 100-percent organic coffee and a cold open-air case containing sandwiches, wraps and other grab-and-go items.
While the program has grown over the years, it?s stayed true to Singh?s vision from the early days. ?What ? makes the customer think, ?Wow?? You wouldn?t think of buying a gourmet meal at a gas station,? he said.
In 2007, the company opened a 2,100-square-foot store designed to make customers think of doing just that. Two Italian chefs staffed a complete on-site kitchen that offered restaurant-quality food in a to-go format. Food was prepared fresh daily instead of relying on reheating frozen items such as hamburger patties.
The chain continues this practice today, shopping at butchers every other day and sourcing new product two to three times a week.
?The message for us is fresh,? Singh said.
Communicating the fresh message to consumers is one of the company?s biggest challenges. One way Bolla gets the message out is by offering food and coffee samples. Once customers have experienced the quality of its offerings, they?ll automatically think of Bolla Market when they?re on the road, Singh believes. And to keep them coming back, the retailer offers variety in its standard menu and between stores.
?You can?t eat the same thing every day,? he said. While most of the hot food Bolla Market offers is the same from store to store, the company allows individual stores the flexibility to tailor 30 percent to 40 percent of its foodservice offering to the taste of the local market ? a practice that?s especially critical in the diverse, densely populated New York City region.
The company is also willing to take menu requests, if they are feasible. ?We are very customer-focused. We listen to customers, see what they want. ? If we don?t offer it, if we have enough demand for it, we will make that item available,? Singh said.
The effort Bolla puts into the foodservice program can make it difficult to sustain since finding qualified chefs with the right skills is more difficult than training an entry-level employee to work a cash register, he acknowledged. Additionally, varying municipal building codes mean a store can?t always include an on-site kitchen, or one big enough to suit its preferences, making consistency a particular challenge for this relatively small company for which consistency is key.
Ultimately, though, Singh and other company officials consider the extra effort worth it.
Also worth it for Bolla is the balancing act of offering high-quality products at low prices. The retailer?s coffee line is completely organic, which means a higher cost for the company, yet Bolla prices competitively for the marketplace.
?We absorb some of the cost,? Singh said, noting that higher prices have the potential to deter customers despite offering a superior product. On the plus side, the thinner profit margin lets Bolla distinguish itself in another way. ?That?s a niche that we?re looking for. We?re looking to give customers something that other competitors don?t offer.?
THE NEXT 25 YEARS
Although Bolla reached a major milestone in 2014, Singh is already looking ahead to the company?s golden anniversary ? and beyond.
?We don?t have a short-term plan,? he said. ?I?d like to see Bolla survive the next two to three generations. For me, it?s a legacy.?
That legacy includes a willingness to make mistakes. Years ago, the company tested a two-store coffee venture called King?s Café that featured high-end pastry on display, restaurant-style cappuccino and even exStarbucks baristas behind the counter. Sales weren?t great, and after the program failed to take off, Singh ended the experiment. But rather than look at it as a failure, he sees King?s Café as a lesson in what his hurried, on-the-go consumers wanted in a convenience coffee program. The lesson set him on the path toward the successful coffee program Bolla Market offers today.
Looking ahead, Singh plans to put his hard-earned knowledge to use at the 10 to 15 new stores Bolla intends to open annually. As a strong believer in relying on the experience gained by being a hands-on operator instead of turning to outside consultants, he prefers to add a smaller number of high-quality stores that will go the distance.
?We believe in organic growth, not hyper growth,? he said. ?My growth goals are not necessarily counted by the number of stations, [but] by the quality of the sites that we own, the sites that could last for many, many years to come.?
While its potential numbers are conservative, Singh?s vision of what Bolla can become isn?t.
?We don?t even want to call ourselves a convenience store because we?re more than a convenience store,? he said. ?We don?t want to talk about just being convenience.?
This December, Bolla?s executive team, store employees, business partners, customers and friends will mark its 25th anniversary with a large celebration in honor of what?s been achieved so far. However, if Singh has his way, the first 25 years are only the beginning.
?When people ask me what [my] goals are, I say anything possible that I can do is my goal,? he said.