PHOTO GALLERY: Foodservice Shines in SunStop Refresh Program

The c-store arm of Southwest Georgia Oil Co. gives three of its locations a high-end remodel.
Outside the SunStop in Tallahassee, Fla.

NATIONAL REPORT — The Tallahassee, Fla.-based Monroe Street location of SunStop, the convenience store subsidiary of Southwest Georgia Oil Co. (SWGA Oil), has gotten a facelift. However, it's not the first time the retailer has updated its look.

"[It was] originally a full-service gas station back in the 1960s. We did a raze and rebuild in 1987 to convert it to a small, center-island marketer convenience store, around 1,200 square feet," recalled Glennie Bench, president of Bainbridge, Ga.-based SWGA Oil.

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Since its inception, SGWA Oil itself has operated at the intersection of c-store and fuel supplier. It started out purely in diesel, with its founder Jimmy Harrell using an old tanker to sell fuel to local farmers. As the company expanded, it began to set up brick-and-mortar gas pumps throughout the 1960s. By the 1970s, the company began to incorporate convenience stores into its gas stations, with a few even including a deli concept and some basic foodservice. By the early 2000s, SGWA Oil launched its current incarnation, creating the SunStop brand to unify its c-store locations.

The Monroe Street store has, to a certain extent, returned to its roots, once more offering both diesel and three grades of nonethanol gasoline, though Bench said it's really changes in the overall convenience store industry that prompted this latest round of updates.

"With the trends in convenience toward prepared food and broader merchandise offerings, we decided to raze and rebuild again," she said, noting that this latest update required the purchase of additional lots, expanding the site to about three acres.

The 5,300-square-foot store showcases SunStop's new-generation prototype design that is heavily food-focused and features in-store seating. This is the third ground-up location to sport this design.

"One of our strategic goals is to compete toe to toe with national standard bearers in our industry," said Bench. "Our store is designed to stand up against those big national chains, but we do it with our proprietary elements — proprietary food offering and proprietary fuel offering."

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A Destination for Food

As part of its all-in-one strategy — where customers can get fuel, packaged goods and fresh meals in one go — SunStop has worked to develop a greater focus on food.

As with chains like Pennsylvania-based Wawa Inc., which has developed a reputation for both made-to-order meals and branded ready-to-go offerings, SunStop is looking to establish its brand as a destination for food; a place customers specifically seek out for its offerings.

The Monroe Street remodel reflects this both in layout and available items. "We placed our cold and hot grab-and-go front and center, adjacent to our dispensed hot and cold beverages," Bench explained.

The store also includes the proprietary Eats Southern Cookin' deli, which lives up to its name with a menu of fried chicken, biscuit sandwiches and traditional southern-style sides, alongside lighter fare such as three types of flatbread. For customers looking for some refreshment to go along with their meal, there are 17 coolers full of packaged beverages and a beer cave.

Additionally, SunStop is seeking to upgrade its customer experience by utilizing a range of high-end materials in its store environment. The sales area is framed by a variety of textures provided by shiplap, tile and paneled finishes, while the space is lightened by a combination of pendant and track lights. Even the bathrooms have gotten a bit of a glam makeover, refinished with tiled walls and quartz countertops.

"All the design elements are meant to convey our mission: 'Brighten Every Moment,'" said Bench. "The store has a very high, open ceiling with a clerestory roof. The graphics are bright and sunny, connecting our customer to our name everywhere they look."

More Remodels to Come

The overall customer reaction to the remodel has been "remarkable," making such a large undertaking worth it, according to Bench.

"With any raze and rebuild, you hope customers will come back to you when you reopen — plus new customers — and has been true here," she said. "We are fortunate to have [such a] response from our customers."

With the success of the Monroe Street site joining the two previous prototype locations, one on the west side of Tallahassee and the other in Thomasville, Ga., the company plans to move forward with remodeling more existing stores and building new ones.

While not all of the rebuilt stores will include a full made-to-order deli, SunStop's foodservice focus will still be evident. Space for a greater selection of grab-and-go meals will be included, with stores preparing some of the food onsite.

In 2024, the company will have four stores under construction, as well as three major remodel projects. It's also focused on some smaller projects, such as finishing its fountain replacement program and completing its rollout of new gondola and checkout counter replacement.

"We are on track to open three to four new-to-market or raze-and-rebuild stores per year for the next four years. We are also remodeling two to four stores a year," Bench shared. "We have lots of opportunities within our existing footprint of Georgia, Florida and Alabama."

About the Author

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Amanda Koprowski

Amanda Koprowski is the associate editor at Convenience Store News. She is a new member of the team, having joined the company in December of 2022.

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