It takes risk and vision to grow from one convenience store in 1952 to nearly 600 forecourts across six US states. Chris Dillon speaks to Dan Coffin and Ryan Sheetz to find out how they are making sure their fuel business has a secure future

Sheetz gas stations are a familiar sight for truckers driving across the rust belt of America. Its bold, red logo beams from the side of roads from Pennsylvania to Ohio, attracting more than 1.5 million customers every day.

But despite its scale, Sheetz remains a family business with Ryan Sheetz (pictured right) as assistant vice president of brand strategies and his cousin Joseph Sheetz as CEO. The company’s roots date back more than 100 years to Ryan’s great, great grandfather, JD Harshbarger, who set up Harshbarger Dairy. The business opened a number of grocery stores in dense neighbourhoods, called dairyettes, until Ryan’s uncle, Bob Sheetz, convinced the family to let him experiment at one. In 1952, he bought the store for $900 and turned it into the Sheetz Kwik Shopper. In the 1970s, the business began selling fuel and Sheetz became famous as a gas station.

“Our profits relied on gasoline and tobacco, but we saw the writing was on the wall. Demand was only going to decrease, and regulation was only going to intensify. If we wanted to be around for another 50 years, we had to invest in something else, and foodservice is that bright, shiny object,” Ryan explains.

Sheetz-stat.pngAt the start of the 21st century, Sheetz rolled out a store model it called ‘the convenience restaurant’. These stores came with a seating area, made-to-order food, specialist coffee and bigger bathrooms. The most striking change was the decision to site the fuel pumps around the back of the building.

“The biggest hurdle we have to selling food is our gas pumps. People assume that there’s no way a gas station could sell fresh, quality, prepared food. We’re always looking to overcompensate for that,” Ryan says.

Sheetz’ mission statement is simple and brilliant. It is to ‘be the business that will put Sheetz as we know it today out of business’.

This mantra keeps the company grounded in innovation and always looking at what the future of fuel retailing looks like.

It is this thinking that got them into foodservice and, more recently, established an early partnership with Tesla, becoming the largest operator of Tesla chargers in the country to better understand the growth of electric vehicles.

AVP of culinary development at Sheetz Dan Coffin says: “When I started at Sheetz, we did not really have a food culture. Then we started by targeting to get $50,000 (£39,000) a week in food and beverage and that made a huge difference to the culture.

“We began staffing differently. Before that, we were hiring convenience store managers, after we began hiring from quick service restaurants and casual dining.”

Sheetz’ foodservice offer comes under three sub-brands: Made to Order, Made to Go and Sheetz Brothers Coffee. Made to Go contains its pre-prepared chilled food, such as sandwiches, wraps and cheese snack bars with Made to Order offering customers a wider choice.

Made to Order was introduced in 1986 and can be bought by customers with touchscreens in stores. The screens offer dozens of food options such as appetisers, burgers, salads, wraps, subs, burritos, tortillas, pizzas, nachos and hot dogs, which can be completely customised with a number of toppings and fillings. Food is then assembled in an in-store kitchen and is ready to go within 15 minutes. Sheetz Brothers Coffee can either be ordered or can be purchased with self-serve machines. These three brands represent 30% of the company’s revenue with a higher profit share.

“We grew into these brands over time. The easiest solution is to partner up with a franchise, like a Dunkin’ Donuts. We tried that and it didn’t work for us. We are control freaks. We subscribe to the thought that no one can do it better than us,” says Ryan.

This is why the company built a warehouse that distributes 90% of its products, as well as a central commissary for its food operations. “We wanted to build more stores, but we instead invested in this unit to get more control. We were with third party distributors and that level of availability was unacceptable. We had to take more control of our destiny,” explains Ryan.

“When we took over doing our own distribution, it actually took us up into a new buying bracket with suppliers and gave us a better pricing structure we didn’t even know existed. The building paid for itself overnight.”

Sheetz also has a mobile app with an in-built loyalty programme that allows customers to order on the go and collect food in store. The app has had a million downloads and more than 30,000 Sheetz shoppers use the app daily. The business also has the ability to suggestively sell shoppers different items depending on the weather and on past behaviour. The value of these suggested sales is more than $1m per month. “I believe there’s a world where we don’t have the screens in store and the app is the future,” Ryan says.

The business is doubling down on its commitment to food in its latest store design – sites without fuel. It now has four café stores in areas near colleges. “We love selling gasoline, so to we didn’t take the decision to walk away from that profit lightly, but we did this to test the power of our foodservice.,” says Ryan. “We thought let’s remove the crutch of gasoline and see if we can survive.”

Sheetz as a business knows what it is, therefore it knows what it is not. It understands who its shoppers are and what they find important. It focuses on a handful of products it wants to be famous for, such as coffee, fries and big burgers, and so is willing to sacrifice other areas and let competitors do them. “In our new sites near colleges, we knew produce could do well, but we’re at a size where we struggle to do one-offs meaningfully. We’ll let someone else do that and instead focus on what we’re good at, made-to-order food,” says Dan.

It is this vision that is one of the reasons that Sheetz’ staff turnover at 50% in an industry that is closer to 100%. In the 1990s, the team created what they call the Sheetz DNA, a list of qualities that it looks for in its staff and terms of what it means to work for the business. Sheetz employees are real, approachable, helpful, genuine, pioneering, high energy, connected with their communities, driven to win and respectful. This focus on respect has earnt its place at #66 on Fortune’s top 100 places to work in the country. Employees are targeted on being engaged and accountable, which empowers them to feel like they are part of the bigger strategy, not just doing a job.

RN-in-america.png“I’m proud to work in a business where being a great place to work is as important as our financial goals. It’s not acceptable to have one without the other,” Ryan says.