Open Pantry Poised for Growth

PLEASANT PRAIRIE, Wis. -- The latest Open Pantry to open in August epitomizes the 27-unit chain's brand of upscale convenience store and gas stations that Robert Buhler, president and chief executive officer of Open Pantry Food Marts of Wisconsin Inc., has worked to create since buying Open Pantry from his father, Robert W. Buhler, 14 years ago, the Milwaukee Business Journal reported.

At the grand opening, human-size coffee cups danced to promote the company's high-end coffee line, Willow Creek, while a lounge area invited guests to sink into overstuffed chairs and take advantage of the free Wi-Fi, according to the report. Meanwhile, free deli sandwiches and 25-cent smoothies in eight flavors were offered to visitors.

The younger Buhler revolutionized the 44-year-old company's image, turning it from a franchised network of cookie-cutter c-stores into an innovative retailer targeting middle- and high-income customers, industry experts told the paper.

The Pleasant Prairie chain, now corporate-owned, has fewer stores than it did under the first generation's leadership, but today is a stronger company poised for growth and "bold strokes," Buhler told the newspaper.

Buhler left a 17-year career in investment banking more than a decade ago to run Open Pantry, so he could spend more time with his family, he said in the report, noting at the time, the company had a jumbled identity.

After trying to implement image programs to enhance the chain and finding little interest among its 38 franchisees, Buhler began buying back locations, while letting others exit the program. He also studied best practices in the industry and competitive channels, and hired Jim Fiene, an experienced convenience store executive, as senior vice president, and later made him chief operating officer, the report stated.

"We started to try things, including the colors, the paintings, the coffee bar, the fireplace," Buhler told the newspaper.

Willow Creek, Open Pantry's coffee brand, was a key part of those tests, along with creating a relaxing environment that would encourage customers to stay and sip, according to the report.

The company opened its first prototype of the new model seven years ago in Brookfield. It also caters to its communities. For example, its 7,200-square-foot store near Marquette University in Milwaukee offers special products for students, such as a burrito bar, enlarged grocery section and "beer cave," according to the report. A lounge area provides public computers, a fireplace and flat-screen TVs. The floor is modeled as a basketball court, and Golden Eagles gear lines the walls.

Recently, Open Pantry brought more customers inside through a giveaway program, which this summer offered free water with a gas fill-up. Currently, customers receive Keebler crackers with purchase of a fountain drink, Buhler told the Milwaukee Business Journal.

The efforts to reinvent the chain have proven successful, as same-store inside sales increased just under 10 percent in each of the last five years, while gas gallons sold have increased by more than 10 percent this year, the report stated, citing Buhler.

The company posted more than $150 million in revenue in 2008, he said. Revenue was down in 2009 because of a sharp decline in gas prices, but gas sales in gallons were up, according to the executive.

And for the future, Buhler sees growth for the company, though he hesitated to make detailed predictions in the report. After opening one store this year, he plans to open two to five next year.

The company is also working with potential equity partners that could help Open Pantry grow, possibly by acquiring other chains. At the same time, the company recently incorporated the name "Open Pantry Chicago," and is interested in expanding into northern Illinois, he told the newspaper.

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