Are gas station restaurants the future of cuisine? Or is cuisine the future of gas stations?

by on September 29, 2013 at 1:42 am in Food and Drink, Travel | Permalink

Gas stations have not historically inspired confidence as palate pleasers. Day-old (or longer) doughnuts or hot dogs rolling (and rolling) on a spinner grill come to mind. But across the Washington region, there are at least a dozen eateries serving delectable, sometimes organic, fare near the pump. There’s Korean bibimbap in Wheaton, authentic Mexican in Jessup, Thai in Leesburg and Latin American in the District. Corned Beef King cooks its meat for 11 hours.

And here are the economics:

The chefs and dreamers have found willing partners in gas station owners. Some have volunteered to cover the cost of building kitchens to tap new sources of revenue — from rent and increased foot traffic — as the margins on gas sales shrink even furtherand retailers such as Best Buy encroach on their quick-bite turf by stocking soda and snacks at the register.

Here is much more, from Michael Rosenwald.

AppleDave September 29, 2013 at 4:02 am

Oklahoma Joe’s in Kansas City (first store is co-located with a gas station) has the best BBQ in Kansas City, which is known for great bbq.

mkt September 29, 2013 at 5:22 am

Indeed the article does cite Oklahoma Joe’s, and other places, are long-standing forerunners of this idea.

I have not encountered good quality food at a gas station, but after reading the article the idea makes a lot of sense, a logical variation of the low-cost free-entry food truck. Portland, OR has had it’s own variation since before the food truck craze: food carts, which are semi-permanent (much less mobile than a food truck, but more so than an eatery in a gas station), and located in “pods” in parking lots rather than in gas stations.

The last line that Tyler quotes also points the way to the next market development: “retailers such as Best Buy encroach on their quick-bite turf by stocking soda and snacks at the register”. If one can sell good pastrami from a gas station, then why not from a Best Buy? IKEA does this already with their in-store Swedish restaurants, and old-fashioned department stores (mid-20th century) had decent quality restaurants where shoppers could pause to get lunch.

Despite my lack of encounters with good food at any gas station, one of the best and most memorable eating experiences that I’ve had was at a gas station. I’d been driving all day, it was hot and even with air conditioning and a bottle of water (ambient temperature) in the car, I was hot and thirsty, somewhat hungry and tired too. At a gas stop I thought I’d just buy a bottle of something cold, but the gas station had a Dairy Queen so I realized I could go fancy and get an ice cream float. (I lived in So Calif at the time and ice cream floats for some reason are not sold at very many places; there are few or no Dairy Queens.) The first sip from that float hit me bam!, probably the way that cocaine hits the brain’s pleasure sensors. Cold, sweet, fizzy, creamy. One of the best drinking experiences that I’ve ever had. So if you’re in the right physical and mental state, even a non-gourmet gas station can satisfy.

Rahul September 29, 2013 at 9:02 am

One major selling point for gas station food is that it’s open at hours when conventional options are scarce.

Careless September 29, 2013 at 2:40 pm

If one can sell good pastrami from a gas station, then why not from a Best Buy?

I’d assume because gas stations are franchises and Best Buys are not, and these are things that are going to be deals between small restaurant owners and small gas station owners.

Ronald Brak September 29, 2013 at 4:29 am

I wonder if restaurant/service stations will end up offering charging for electric cars that isn’t too fast so people will take the time to buy a meal? But then I guess the competition could always offer a faster charge. Perhaps cheap and slow charging for people who dine in.

Rahul September 29, 2013 at 8:21 am

How big is the market for car charging?

Ronald Brak September 29, 2013 at 9:21 am

Very small at the moment. However, and this is the point, it is much larger than it was.

Rahul September 29, 2013 at 9:51 am

From a Tesla web-forum: “There is a Charge Point station in Albany that I used last week. It charged at the rate of 19 miles per hour of charge …….”

That’s a lot of donut time….

Ronald Brak September 29, 2013 at 12:18 pm

That’s unusual. A basic 240 volt 10kW connection in the US should be good for about 29 miles of range an hour and a 90kW fast charger good for 200 miles in half an hour for a Tesla. Anyway, those are the two basic flavours. Bump the range per hour up a bit for smaller electric cars.

W.E. Heasley September 29, 2013 at 6:04 am

Re: “gas station” vs. convenience store.

Recall reading a study, in the late1970’s, akin to the subject you mention. Up until the 1970’s the traditional “gas station” did mechanics as well as sell fuel and oil (six pumps out front, two mechanic work bays, a small lobby, an office and two bathrooms).

Due to market forces of many varieties e.g. self-serve pumps, many traditional gas stations began to morph into convenience stores with the two mechanic work bays slightly retrofitted as the convenience store section [garage doors of the mechanic work bays could still be seen as they were not removed].

The slightly retrofitted gas stations did not do as well as the competing all convenience store regarding sales of food stuffs and scattered merchandising items available at both locations.

Also a new animal appeared which was an all convenience store that also happened to offered gasoline. That is, new convenience stores were built, which never were gas stations, would also offer self serve gas pumps [usually one small fuel island at the time of the study]. These new breed convenience stores had greater sales than the retrofit gas station and the all convenience store.

The authors of the study questioned why new breed convenience stores, that also happened to sell gasoline, did much, much better than the retrofitted gas station. More specifically, the gas sales of the new breed helped propel convenience store sales while the gas sales of the retrofit did not propel convenience store sales.

Why? The authors of the study had several reasons but the single largest reason was that consumers viewed the retro fit as a “gas station” and the traditional gas station fuel smell, oily work bays, etc. turned off the consumer from buying convenience store items from the same location. Conversely, consumers saw the new breed as a food store first and a place to purchase gasoline second.

Returning to the questions of: Are gas station restaurants the future of cuisine? Or is cuisine the future of gas stations? Is the question really: Are convenience store restaurants the future of cuisine? Or is cuisine the future of convenience store? That is, “gas station” has long left the scene in the consumers mind and “convenience store” is the mind set.

Yes, one might refer to a convenience store as a “gas station” but it doesn’t conjure up the fuel smells and oily mechanic bays of days gone by. The consumer thinks more of a food store. Which would lead one to think that a “food store” could lend itself to future cuisine.

Rahul September 29, 2013 at 8:59 am

The “gas station” part is still relevant in the following sense: What percent of the non-gas sales come from people who didn’t buy any gas at all?

Is the gas being kept as a inducer to get people in and then tempt them to purchase, now that they have stopped anyways.

babar September 29, 2013 at 9:25 am

tyler should probably know that the best pakistani food is often found in gas station restaurants. ask cab drivers. dunno if this is true in DC.

kb September 29, 2013 at 11:41 am

To us out west Washington is a state. “Gas station grub has never tasted so fine. Hay J’s Bistro is the restaurant in Liberty Lake … next to the gas station. Just don’t let that description keep you from stopping.” Here’s the link: http://www.spokesman.com/stories/2009/apr/22/at-hay-js-bistro-premium-dishes-are-the-standard/.

sailordave September 29, 2013 at 2:54 pm

here in the south it is quite common to find top quality BBQ sold in gas stations a couple days a week only.

Dan Weber September 29, 2013 at 3:06 pm

When I’m standing at the pump, many times they will pop ads on the LCD screen for things I can buy inside the store.

However, what I really want is for them to bring the food out to me while I’m pumping. At the very least, let me type in my order while the gas is pumping, and have it ready and waiting for as soon as I walk inside so I can turn right around and leave immediately.

Rob September 29, 2013 at 3:38 pm

How does Fast Gourmet in Columbia Heights not make it into this article? Arguably the best food for your money in DC.

James September 30, 2013 at 8:08 am

Came on here to say the exact same thing. Best Cuban sandwiches in the area.

Brenton September 29, 2013 at 4:26 pm

I now live in a rural Midwest town and have been surprised at the amount of hot food that they serve now. Granted, it’s all factory farmed, carcinogenic preservative laden, overly salted, nutrient void fried crap. But in some cases it’s actually better than the hot food at the local supermarkets. Everyone travels by car so a gas station is an obvious place.

Jeff September 29, 2013 at 5:38 pm

The Tioga Gas Mart, near the east entrance to Yosemite NP, is a fine example of good food served at a gas station. Awesome location overlooking Mono Lake and lots of outdoor seating doesn’t hurt either. http://www.yelp.com/biz/tioga-gas-mart-and-whoa-nellie-deli-lee-vining

mkt September 29, 2013 at 8:02 pm

Shoot, I was up there a couple of years ago but had not heard of the Tioga Gas Mart, would’ve tried it if I’d known. I was in the area for over half a day, probably drove by the place a half dozen times without knowing. Oh well next time.

Roy September 30, 2013 at 12:17 am

Cutler Exxon Steak Shop and Bakery in, or I guess south of, Miami is an awesome Cuban place I highly recommend, I believe it has been around for years.

RPLong September 30, 2013 at 9:23 am

This news comes about 10 years too late.

Ben Lima September 30, 2013 at 2:08 pm

Here in Dallas, gas station tacos are among the very best tacos. Fuel City is the marquee name – just outside downtown. The best $1.40 snack around — compare with the entrees at yuppie/hipster food trucks that averate $8-10.

Andy September 30, 2013 at 11:13 pm

I’ll second that. I delivered DP in Northwest Dallas 15 years ago and the experienced drivers would typically stop at Fuel City or whichever other station was convenient. Tacos and tamales were cheap, good, and plentiful.

Truck stops are great elsewhere as well. Many of the places we stopped on road trips through the Panhandle involved truck stop diners, as good food at reasonable prices was a means to attract customers for gas, snacks, and all the other stuff you find at truckstops.

Comments on this entry are closed.

Previous post:

Next post: