I've been flabbergasted in a convenience store many times, but never because of something good. Typical is what my wife and I encountered on a road trip this past spring at a Turkey Hill Minit Market in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania at 11 o'clock at night. I asked the clerk where we could get something to eat in the area given the hour. He replied, "I eat at home." I do, too, jerk, but I'm clearly not at home. We're at a gas station right off the highway. Was it really so ridiculous to ask?
Admittedly, QuikTrip, which I visited on a recent trip to Atlanta, looks like it could be just like every other maddening convenience store. The brownish cast to the exterior building and the internal décor won't provoke any wows. But slowly, its genius reveals itself. The prevailing theme is abundance, punctuated with an array of smart, telling details. There are 59 hot and cold fresh beverage options that stretch across parts of three walls of the store. (And cheap, too as I note the many offers to buy a 32-oz. fountain drink for 59 cents.) Two of the 24 soda fountains offer vanilla and cherry syrup to let you make a fresh flavored coke. There are machines that make both cubed and crushed ice. Drink lids are made of heavier plastic to better prevent spillage in the car. You control the mixer that makes your milkshake, choosing how thick you want it. (Try the double thick vanilla. You'll thank me.)
The abundance even extends to the staff. Each store I visited had more than one person working there, so there are always people in addition to the clerk behind the register to make sure the rest of the store isn't going to hell. One had five staffers on duty on a busy Sunday afternoon. No wonder the bathrooms earned a solid A- from me, with nice touches like a can of Glade air freshener and comment cards that let you rate everything from the restroom to the product selection.
Given the perks offered to a QuikTrip employee, it's no wonder that the vibe inside a store is unlike that of any convenience store you've ever encountered. Tuition reimbursement, bonuses, and plenty of vacation time and personal days are standard benefits. It also offers advancement opportunities. The company philosophy is that, by empowering the staff and giving them more of a stake in the company, they will work towards creating a stellar customer experience. (QuikTrip executives declined to comment for this article, saying that the privately-held company doesn't seek out awards or publicity.)
And that philosophy works, even in the usually soul-crushing convenience store. As I loaded up a counter with drinks, a hot dog and Sunday papers, I asked if what I was doing was okay. The relaxed "Sure, no problem" in response stood in stark contrast to my recent surly encounter. When I checked out, I noticed that the nametag of the clerk behind the counter, Julian, indicated that he'd been a QuikTrip employee for 10 years. And he still had a smile on his face, greeting regular customers and anticipating my need for a drink carrier as I had loaded up with four drinks to try.
Yes, let's go back to the drinks. I stood in awe of the unfurling beverage odyssey. Do I want a Frappuccino-style drink? A smoothie or a slushie? Hot coffee? Or a soda? I had them all. Even more impressive is that QuikTrip seems to understand that its customers might want to try more than one thing at once and not necessarily order four drinks at a time. The wall suggests a few clever drink mashups and there's a booklet with even more QuikTrip drink recipes. I tried a Heavy Dew one time, which is Mountain Dew mixed with steamed milk and ice for a surprisingly yummy, foamy concoction. The recipe book would seem contrived or phony if not for QuikTrip's customers, happily bopping from station to station making layered, multi-color drinks, having the kind of fun that I didn't think was possible at a convenience store.