New Rally Location Follows Industry Trend of Bigger Stores

ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. -- A new Rally filling station here stocks 100 beers including obscure microbrews. Its wine selection is worthy of a supermarket. And one staffer works the cappuccino bar while a full-time cook whips up made-to-order sandwiches, salads, soups and flat-bread pizza, according to a report by the St. Petersburg Times.

"We cater to both Bubba and the BMW set," said Mark Perreault, who runs the 12-pump, 1.5-acre site leased from Risser Oil Corp.

The up-market venture is a prime example of how gas station owners are grappling with the changes dogging this "rough-and-tumble industry," the newspaper reported.

The new Rally store, at 2200 Fourth St. N, includes a beer cave, cigar bar, some produce and a business plan to pump as much gas as all nine stations that once were within two miles.

"You make so little off gas and need so much traffic to get enough people inside the store that these mega-stations are becoming the future. The little guy just cannot do the volume," said Bud Risser, a St. Petersburg wholesaler who sells 250 million gallons a year to the 80 gas stations he controls, which sell a variety of brands from Spring Hill to Naples, Fla.

As the newspaper report noted, Hess and Racetrac have been on building sprees of 12- to 20-pump locations, while Wawa is signing deals to branch into Central Florida in 2012 with even bigger fresh food counters that hand-make so many hoagies that shoppers order by touch-screen. Other stations sell branded fast food such as Dunkin' Donuts, Subway, Quiznos and Taco Bell.

Meanwhile, smaller stores have tried to fill space with all manner of merchandise: cut flowers, LP gas, pet toys, umbrellas, fishing tackle and men's underwear.

Risser, a second-generation wholesaler and retailer, said the industry has been a never-ending evolution. The Wharton MBA graduate moved from a Texaco dealer to start his first independent outside brand on the cheap in 1973. He named his first unbranded station, Pace.

Once the oil giants decided to get out of retail, he became a real estate investor buying and leasing their stations. Risser launched the 15-store Rally chain a decade ago after he bought some Amoco Split Second stations and saw a need to customize a brand for individual neighborhoods.

He added services such as check cashing at a working-class Largo store. Three Rallys have cooks and kitchens, down from four a year ago. A mid-county store sells so much fried chicken and gizzards that Risser's people call it the "chicken store."

The $120,000 he paid for one of his first stations in the 1970s ballooned to $2 million plus land costs for the high-traffic corner for the new Northeast Rally store.

"It took me seven years to get the guts to build this," Risser told the newspaper. "We used to be able to turn obsolete filling stations into a barber shop, doctor's office or an insurance agency. But these stores are getting so big, I don't know what you do with them."

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