ORLANDO, Fla. — Florida has been a bustling market on the East Coast. Given its warm weather, population of "snowbirds," and number of tourist attractions, it's no surprise convenience stores have also been drawn to the Sunshine State.
As Dennis Ruben, executive managing director of Chicago-based NRC Realty & Capital Advisors LLC, recently told Convenience Store News, the Florida landscape has become so competitive that some retailers are selling gas below cost in order to drive traffic into their stores.
With that in mind, CSNews checked in on a few c-stores during a recent visit to the Orlando area. On the roughly 75-mile drive from Orlando to Tampa, travelers can find several big-name players in the channel: 7-Eleven, Circle K, Love's Travel Stops & Country Stores, RaceTrac, Thorntons and, relative newcomer to the state, Wawa.
Polk County: Take exit 55 off Interstate 4 and you will find U.S. Highway 27, a busy roadway dotted by strip malls, chain restaurants and convenience stores. One in particular is RaceTrac. The location features table-top and counter seating inside; roller grill food items; a grab-and-go selection of salads, wraps and sandwiches; a beer cave; the Atlanta-based retailer's Numb Skull frozen dispensed beverage program; and its Swirl World frozen yogurt offering. Step outside and you find additional seating, and 24 fuel pumps on the forecourt. With 7-Eleven, Marathon and Love's nearby, RaceTrac will soon have a new neighbor: Wawa is coming to a corner about a half-mile away.
Lakeland: Continuing west along I-4 will bring you to exit 31 and Circle K. Global rebranding efforts have yet to reach this location, though employee uniforms and cooler door clings feature the new Circle K logo. The store boasts a Polar Pop fountain program and limited foodservice offerings, mainly a grab-and-go case. The site also includes a car wash. The company-owned location shares an intersection with a franchised Circle K location.
Tampa: If Florida is a hot market, then Tampa is the sun. The metro area on the west coast of the state has been on the radar screens of Wawa, Thorntons and RaceTrac in recent years. Driving along Hillsborough Avenue brings you to Wawa and Thorntons c-stores roughly a half-mile apart. Thorntons rivals its nearby competitor on the forecourt — beating Wawa's price per gallon for regular gasoline by 2 cents — and in store footprint. But that's where the similarities end.
Thorntons boasts a roller grill offering; FizzFreez dispensed beverage program, alongside traditional hot and cold dispensed offerings; and sandwiches, fruit and breakfast items in its grab-and-go case.
Wawa, which brought its ramped-up foodservice program with it when it headed south, wants to be known more as a food retailer than a convenience store retailer, and it shows at the Hillsborough Avenue location. Customers find 16 gas pumps on the forecourt and outside seating when they pull into the parking lot. Once inside, the retailer's foodservice offering takes center stage, with hot dispensed drinks to the right and all other categories to the left. The hot food menu, ordered through touchscreen kiosks, includes soups (chicken noodle, tomato basil bisque and New England clam chowder), sides (think macaroni and cheese, mashed potatoes and rice) and hot hoagies (meatballs, beef steak and pulled pork).
The Pennsylvania-based Wawa chain first set up shop in Florida in July 2012 and has been on a course to conquer the market. With RaceTrac's recent announcement that it will open roughly 50 new convenience stores in Florida over the next two years and Wawa's goal to open 25 to 30 stores every year throughout the state for the next several years, Florida's title of "hot market" will likely be intact for some time to come.