EXCLUSIVE: United Oil's Unconventional Store Designs

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EXCLUSIVE: United Oil's Unconventional Store Designs

By Renee M. Covino

Ron Appel, president of United Oil, could be called a dreamer. He is constantly imagining an array of highly creative and individually unique store designs, and working through city ordinances and obtaining permits to put in place.

"This is my passion," he told CSNews Online.
He got the design bug around 15 years ago, when he started working with his father in the business, currently based in Gardena, Calif.

"We had five stations at the time, and they all had sheet metal canopies -- the facades were rather unexciting," he said. "So being artistic, I started working on ideas with the landscaping at one in Redondo Beach. We did topiaries and painted them cool colors and shaped them like animals. For an ugly station, it looked a lot better. The city appreciated that, and gave us a ‘beautification award.’"

After that, Appel said he started working on building and rebuilding stations that are "anything but typical" from the ground-up. "For the last 15 years, it’s been a disease that I’ve never gotten over," he stated. To see a slideshow of United Oil's remarkable designs, click here.

This is evident in many of United Oil’s store designs and themes. One store’s façade in central Los Angeles features a "faux freeway ramp" that semi-circles over the top of the store and then goes down into its car wash. The floor is made of resin and stainless steel is used throughout the building. Also, cracked-design glass is featured in the windows, a canopy juts out from the building, and "there’s an elaborate arch design like in Barcelona," according to Appel.

"This one cost us $6.5 million to build," he said, quoting just the property and store construction. "We had problems with the City Council. It ended up taking five years to complete, but it was worth it. It was recently written up in Los Angeles magazine as one of the top coolest things to do in the city."

Another United Oil store was designed to resemble a rainforest, complete with "a floor to look like dirt, but it’s made of concrete," according to Appel. There are also clouds painted on the ceiling, and two banyan trees, costing $50,000 for the pair, inhabited by robotic monkeys and birds that "move and tell a story" about what’s happening in rain forests, Appel described.

In West Hollywood, where graffiti is quite popular, according to Appel, United Oil rebuilt a store with "very aggressive graffiti art" inside and outside of the store, utilizing very popular/local graffiti artists. Thousands of spiritual statements are also part of the design, as is an image of Buddha.

There is also a store where the exterior of the building was already a western design, and United Oil created an "old western theme" for the interior.

"When you walk in, there’s a railroad track in concrete with a mine cart on top of the tracks; heading into the wall it looks like you’re going into a mine shaft," Appel stated. "There’s also a western mural on the outside, we do a lot of murals."

And yet another store that just opened is made of mostly glass. "It’s like an all-glass tower, with an amazing canopy," said Appel. This was one that was "ridiculously expensive."

The company also has a site featuring antique roof tiles from France. "It was more than a half-million dollars just for the roof and arch," stated Appel.

Opening more "green" stores is part of Appel’s creative passion. One project in Los Angeles, which is not yet approved by the city’s health department, was designed with a "Farmer’s Market" feel, meaning there are no doors, but rather gates closing the station and the store. Even if that part of the design is not approved, United Oil intends to move forward with its solar panels atop the canopy and building, which are said to potentially cut its energy costs by 50 percent. "We want future locations to be environmentally friendly, we’re looking to get them LEED-certified," Appel stated.

He admitted that as much as he loves designing and implementing stores such as these, "there’s no intelligent, economic reason for what we’ve done -- it’s financially ridiculous."

So how can United Oil afford to do it? "Well, we don’t do it each time and for every station we open," Appel maintained. "And mostly, we’re really good operators -- we run a tight ship."

He admitted tough financial times have dictated some of the wild designs will slow down a bit. "A year ago, when the economy was good, this made a little more sense. Now, we’re not building as many from the ground up with all this amazing architecture. But no matter what, we will always try to go above and beyond."

For more on how United Oil thinks outside the box on petroleum marketing and customer service, see the upcoming Feb. 16, 2009, issue of Convenience Store News.