What Does the Travel Center of the Future Look Like?

Consultant Polly Flinn takes a look into her crystal ball at NATSO Connect 2024.
Danielle Romano
crystal ball_business strategies

ORLANDO, Fla. — The truck stop and travel center industry of today is at the crossroads of a revolution. And as with any revolution, there is hope and there is fear. 

"I certainly spent many sleepless nights as an executive thinking about what changes were going to be made in the energy business, in the fuel business, in convenience retailing, in food and how it was going to evolve. What I'd like to focus on is the hope part because there is so much runway for growth in this business," Polly Flinn, founder and principal of Flinnstone Consulting, said during the "Building the Travel Center of the Future … Today!" session at NATSO Connect 2024.

Flinn, a 30-year industry veteran, most recently served as executive vice president and president for the GetGo Café+Market banner. Throughout her career, she has also brought innovation and success to companies including bp, Walmart, Castrol, ARCO/ampm and Giant Eagle/GetGo.

"One of my favorite quotations is, 'The future is here. It's just not evenly distributed.' My success comes from being able to cherry-pick and make a few bets," she said. "Fail fast, but also scale quickly when something worked well."

The Makings of a Restaurant Operator

Looking into her crystal ball, Flinn predicts that future travel centers and truck stops will be restaurants. While many operators have created partnerships with quick-service restaurants (QSRs) to drive traffic and profitability to their businesses, they'll have to go further over the next five to 10 years, she advised.

"One of the things I want you to think about is that today you actually manage and operate most of your fuel business. My hypothesis, or my suggestion, to you going forward is that you should be thinking about the same thing with food — that you should be controlling that supply chain. You should be controlling that offer. Maybe not all of it, but some of it, and you should be moving your business in that direction," Flinn explained, pointing to Los Angeles-based Egg Tuck as an example of a business that is using a simple idea centered on all-day breakfast and making it ownable and distinctive.

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As part of the foodservice equation, Flinn touched upon the "explosion" of made-to-order (MTO) beverages. "Why is it exploding? Eighty percent margin. It's pretty easy to create a menu and operate it. Everybody's getting into it," she said, calling out Sheetz Inc., GetGo Café+Market and Wawa Inc. as standouts in made-to-order beverages.

[Read more: It's Time to Modernize C-store Foodservice]

With MTO beverages an emerging trend in making a convenience store a foodservice destination, Flinn noted that it is not only about creating delicious, nonalcoholic made-to-order drinks, but also alcoholic beverages. When GetGo Café+Market introduced alcoholic MTO beverages, sales topped $2 million in two months, she highlighted.

So, how will travel center operators know if they're on a journey to becoming a restaurant? Flinn offered the following benchmarks:

  • Your culinary team is your No. 1 asset. You spend as much time on that as you do building the capability within your fuel team, your operations team and your merchandising team.
  • Sixty-five percent of your nonfuel sales are fresh food and beverage, not packaged, and you're on your way to close to 70% and 80%. 
  • Twenty-five percent of your own personal time is spent in test kitchens and talking to your customers about food.

"You are a restaurant. A majority of your customers think of you as a destination for food and beverages," she added. "You're getting your hands into, and being taught, and actually understanding the culinary opportunities and beverage opportunities in your business."

Setting Your Business Apart

As for additional areas that will impact truck stop and travel center operators that want to be distinctive now and into the future, Flinn predicts:

Local: Identifying local as "a huge opportunity for the travel center industry," she pointed out that partnerships with local farmers markets can help operators become destinations for food, beverages, crafts and other merchandise.

Mouthwatering: The industry veteran called out Dom's Kitchen & Market, a hybrid convenience store and grocery retailer that uses refrigerated bunker cases to bring together easy navigation to products and appealing aesthetics to create a shopper experience where food is the main focus. 

"One of my suggestions to you in terms of thinking about how to future-proof your stores is actually to add more refrigerated cases on the floor. You already are a destination for single-serve beverages and food, so provide more floor space and you'll entice customers by bringing food and beverages together," she told NATSO Connect attendees.

Aldi Finds
Aldi features an Aldi Finds section in its stores and online.

Discovery: The consultant suggested operators think about discovery and the role it can play in being a future-centric format. Using Aldi as an example, Flinn showcased how the discount grocer is focused on creating a brand that is as much about giving customers what they want in terms of price as it is about providing unique finds. For example, the retailer features an Aldi Finds section in its stores and online where customers can discover unique and specialty merchandise.

"When I visit your stores across the country, I miss discovery. I see walls and walls of electronics. I see walls of crystal figurines and I say to myself, 'What is really special about this travel center and where I am?'" Flinn told the audience.

"Retail-tainment": Buc-ee's is a prime example of "retail-tainment," a combination of retail and entertainment. Whether it's a portable campfire stationed in the front of the store or a Buc-ee's Beaver phone holder, the travel center operator does food, local, discovery and retail-tainment well, Flinn said. 

[Read more: Buc-ee's Sets Opening Date for First Colorado Location]

"Can all of us become Buc-ee's? No, we can't. But there is an element that makes you super special in terms of your local areas. There's a way that even a chain like Costco that operates across the country has figured out how to put pecans in Georgia stores vs. other products potentially in a Kentucky or Tennessee store," she said. "There are ways to switch up your merchandising that makes it local, that makes it shoppable from trip to trip and destination to destination."

Future-Proofing Today for Tomorrow's Business

As truck stops and travel centers begin to function as restaurants, and with the future fuel mix in flux, operators need to be intentional and think about what their image will be down the line. Many industry leaders today are setting themselves up to function like a restaurant on the inside while continuing to welcome customers as a travel stop on the outside by incorporating cantilever canopies into their design.

"You're building facilities now that are going to last for the next 30 or 40 years. Shouldn't your canopy and potentially your building structure be something you're thinking about?" Flinn posed. 

She pointed to Pennsylvania-based Wawa, whose footprint spans the length of the East Coast. The convenience retailer is intentional with its design, using a New England-inspired facade and cantilever canopy to position itself as a restaurant. 

"[Wawa] is not your typical c-store. Because when you see that flat canopy, what do you think? Even though you might not be able to see the brand on it, you think it's a gas station or a truck stop," Flinn explained.

When it comes to future-proofing their businesses through design and function, she encouraged operators to consider other multi-occasional formats that could compete with grocers, QSRs and other retailers that may be moving into their sector and trying to capture their share.

"My suggestion to you is think about real estate and share in your marketing area, and potentially open your eyes to different formats that might capture that customer with your brand and your offer, and help keep some of these other people away from stealing your share," Flinn concluded.

NATSO Connect 2024 took place Feb. 18-22 in Orlando at Disney's Yacht and Beach Club Resort.

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About the Author

Danielle Romano

Danielle Romano

Danielle Romano is Managing Editor of Convenience Store News. She joined the brand in 2015. Danielle manages the overall editorial production of Convenience Store News magazineShe is also the point person for the candy & snacks and small operator beats.

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