Pilot Express Stores Prove Valuable Learning Ground for Pilot Flying J
KNOXVILLE, Tenn. — While Pilot Flying J plans to focus most of its network growth on its traditional travel centers over the next few years, Pilot Express — the retailer's new smaller-format store model — is proving to be beneficial across the entire organization.
Pilot Flying J developed this third brand as a way to enter areas where a typical major travel center won't fit from a land and acreage standpoint. The first Pilot Express store debuted in Steubenville, Ohio, in November 2017. Currently, there are seven locations.
"Food first" is the way Pilot Flying J Chief Merchant Brian Ferguson describes the Pilot Express concept. The stores spotlight the retailer's commitment to food and beverage innovation, offering homestyle meals, grab-and-go and made-to-order sandwiches and salads, premium beverages, a bean-to-cup coffee experience and weekly limited-time offers.
"We want you to walk in to an experience that you've never [had] at a Pilot before. We created a store environment that's about getting you fueled quickly, giving you tremendous options in food and beverage, and getting you out quickly," Ferguson told Convenience Store News.
Pilot Flying J's Vice President of Food Innovation Shannon Johnson said Pilot Express stores have found a sweet spot by offering a variety of food offers that meet different needs.
The winning equation includes:
- Anticipating guest need — both immediate transaction and relaxing destination;
- Being varied and flexible — in the same store, you can see a hot homestyle offering that allows a guest to eat and relax next to a grab-and-go item for the person of the go;
- Splitting grab-and-go into two categories: hot and chilled; and
- Tying in authenticity and quality.
"We went out to market with a variety of food offers all at the same time and what we found was somewhat unexpected: that the blend of all those things was how we’re going to win," Johnson shared. "It really differentiates us in the marketplace because a lot of our competitive set doesn’t have the mix of offers that we do. We learned so much from Pilot Express."
In fact, those learnings are now being transferred to the retailer’s traditional travel centers (more than 750 locations in the United States and Canada). As Ferguson explained, some of the best aspects of Pilot Express are being "scaled up."
"This really showed us what good looks like," he said.