Kempner: Cobb-based convenience chain gets fancy with own wine, chefs

For $8.99, a metro Atlanta-based chain of convenience stores will sell you it’s own private-label bottle of wine, Sequins & Sawdust.

What is happening in the land of beef jerky and air fresheners?

Big changes: pushing to get healthier foods, experimenting with delivery to customer homes, stressing self-service, creating ways to look special, and, if that's not enough, now facing the lurking threat of direct competition from Amazon to eliminate cashiers and checkout counters.

I’m thinking lots of convenience store operators are going to get their hot dogs rolled.

RaceTrac, based in Cobb County, is pushing to not be one of them.

The Chardonnay wine is just one small step. The family-owned chain already has two corporate chefs on staff, in part to help perfect its line of prepared sandwiches, pizzas and breakfast foods for guests. It has added seating inside and outside its stores and, in some cases, Wi-Fi, so customers can linger over a meal instead of munching it in the car.

“We don’t just want to sell them something and get them out the door,” company president Billy Milam told me.

Unless, he said, that's what a customer wants. Which is exactly what is being bet on by Amazon, a company that should give the willies to any potential rival.

The tech Goliath got lots of attention in recent days when it allowed the public into its lone Amazon Go. The Seattle convenience store has no cashiers and no checkout counter, just an app and hundreds of cameras and sensors to charge you for whatever items you walk out the door with.

Saving 63 seconds

That’s a big deal for an industry focused on providing fast pit stops.

The National Association of Convenience Stores found that the industry’s average customer visit (car-to-store-and-back-to-car) lasts three minutes and 33 seconds. Just over a minute of that is spent standing on line and paying.

But that’s just for people who shop convenience stores by actually traveling to them.

In recent weeks, RaceTrac started testing deliveries direct to customers through Uber Eats, out of a store off South Cobb Drive near I-285.

Delivery efforts also are underway with other convenience store operators, including 7-Eleven, the biggest player in a fragmented industry.

Plenty of gas station convenience stores are still your basic candy bar, beer, tobacco, chips and semi-gross-bathroom kind of places.

And then there are the growing number of jumbo convenience stores — often outlets for chains like QuikTrip and RaceTrac (what is it with missing letters?) — that have already been busy reshaping the definition of what c stores are supposed to be.

They offer clean, well-let and increasingly refreshing businesses going toe-to-toe with rivals from grocery stores to dollar retailers, froyo shops, pharmacies and quick-service restaurants.

Instant gratification

Convenience stores are supposed to be suppliers of immediate gratification. More than 80 percent of items bought within convenience stores are expected to be consumed within an hour.

Actually, more than 60 percent are devoured on site, said Milam, RaceTrac’s president. “People can’t even wait until they are out on the street.”

It’s an interesting challenge for the 84-year-old chain with about 725 RaceTrac and RaceWay stores, nearly 90 of them in metro Atlanta (and it plans to add 10 more locally this year).

Better-for-you foods and fresh-made meals are a growing, profitable part of the business and industry. Self-service is also a key strategy.

I scarfed down a tasty, prepared-to-order croissant with egg, ham and smoked Gouda cheese, on a recent visit to a RaceTrac. I ordered it on a tablet in the store and had my choice of condiments, cheeses and fixings, including tomato and avocado.

Doctors, look away

Of course, much of what is in convenience stores will make you feel guilty on your next visit to the doctor. Health, as always, is left up to personal interpretation.

The store’s Swirl World ice cream, sorbet and frozen yogurt center had about 30 different toppings.

Tobacco products — gross and deadly as they are — remain the industry’s top in-store seller, though with significantly thinner profit margins. The roller grill still silently turns, with an expanding variety of hot-dog-shaped offerings.

And RaceTrac still has its Sodapalooza: $11.99 cups that include free refills on fountain and frozen drinks for three warm months of the year.

And then the chain has its Sequins & Sawdust wine chilling in store coolers. It’s just one of the private label products in its line up.

“We want some things that will separate RaceTrac” from competitors, Milam told me.

Other retailers, from 7-Eleven to grocery stores, are working the same strategy.

A president's cubicle

But lots of small operators I’ve seen don’t look like they’re doing much to change. About two-thirds of the nearly 155,000 convenience stores in the nation are run by people with just a single store. I’m wondering if they have the financial fortitude to make the pivots that customers will increasingly come to expect.

More consolidation in the industry is surely ahead.

Milam told me there are no plans to sell RaceTrac, which is owned by the family of the late founder Carl Bolch Sr.

Other twists are looming for convenience stores, such as the impact from more vehicles relying on batteries instead of gasoline.

Milam predicts that, with the longevity of existing vehicles, that kind of change won’t take hold for a long time.

Then again, he told me it wasn’t so long ago that he thought it was crazy to think RaceTrac would get big into the business of made-to-order sandwiches.

“We will let the marketplace be our teacher,” he said.

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AJC Unofficial Business columnist Matt Kempner offers you a unique look at the business scene in metro Atlanta and beyond. You'll find more on, including these columns:

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