This morning, ajc.com featured a prominently placed story detailing the steady rise and eventual Atlanta market domination of Tulsa, Okla.-based gas retailer QuikTrip.
Ordinarily, I tend to prefer competition and the opportunity to choose from a wide selection of options. But when it comes to QuikTrip’s domination of the Atlanta market, I couldn’t be happier.
For instance, do you know why (even as high as they are) that gas prices in metro Atlanta tend to be much lower than national averages? Because QuikTrip’s business model emphasizes high-volume, low-margin (last year, the average gross margin for gasoline was 16.3 cents per gallon; for QuikTrip in Atlanta, it was 9.1 cents per gallon) operations that help them keep the cost of fuel at the pump low. And since QuikTrip sells a third of all the fuel purchased in metro Atlanta, other stations are obligated to lower their prices, too, to keep from being dramatically undersold.
Yet, continually undersold they are. On my commute, it’s not unusual to find a 10- to 15-cent discrepancy per gallon between QuikTrip and its other, smaller competitors.
The first QuikTrip I came to know – my “first time,” if you will – was the one at Timber Ridge Drive-Chapel Hill Road. After growing up with the grimy Stop-N-Go down the street, my opinion of convenience stores was extremely low. Their goods were over-priced and out-of-date. The clerks perched on stools by the register, and if they couldn’t point at what you were looking for, they told you they didn’t have it. It was where you went for a soda or a candy bar; if you were hard-up, maybe a half-gallon of milk.
I stumbled into the QuikTrip dying of thirst and looking for a nice, cold, sealed bottled beverage. But the price between a 20-ounce bottle of cola and a 64-ounce tub of fountain cola still put the cola tub as the cheaper option. I had learned not to eat food from a gas station, but this was the cleanest damned gas station I’d ever seen. The clerks were cleaning when I went in there. I didn’t know they were able to leave that little counter where the lotto tickets and cigarettes were sold. I drew the plastic cup from its horizontal chute next to the fountain and inspected it. It was clean, with no dust and no indications that it’d ever been dropped on the floor or fished from the trash, rinsed off and replaced. I hit the ice dispenser. Working at the paper, I’d become an ice aficionado, since one of the leading things I saw restaurants cited for time and again was mildew growth in the ice makers. Since it’d never made me ill before, I didn’t let the fact dissuade me from visiting restaurants cited for such, but I’d learned that I could actually taste it in the ice. The ice at QuikTrip was clear, beautiful as crystals. I sampled it, sliding a cold chunk around on my palate. Clean, maybe even cold-filtered.
The fountain selections were many and varied. Having found joy in the ice, I told myself, “Go big or go home,” and fully committed myself to QuikTrip’s wares, selecting the somewhat inappropriately titled Rooster Booster. I blended in a little cherry syrup, too, because I’m a sucker for fake cherry flavoring. I made my purchase and headed out to the car. It was delicious. The only problem was, it didn’t fit in the cup holder; a small price to pay for such an ample, affordable and aromatic libation.
Then there’s the gas. For a period, QuikTrip had to wage a campaign to convince Atlantans that there was nothing wrong with their gas. I assume drivers were suspicious of the price. I’d purchased bad gas several times before – usually at Marathon stations – and I was well aware of the trouble bad gasoline can cause. But I could not believe that a gas station so studious and clean could sell ineffective fuel, so this never concerned me.
QuikTrip even holds a prominent place in BOB Squad lore. In our poor days (well, poor-er days), our weekend nights began by piling into a car and making the pilgrimage to QuikTrip for tubs of cola and a couple of snacks and cheap cigars. Then we’d head back to Elliott’s driveway, pop the trunk, switch the key to “auxiliary,” and listening to the stereo through the back speakers of my Bonneville. The car’s trunk was always well-stocked with camping chairs, enough for ourselves and any guests who might be joining us for the evening. (Yes, it was also stocked with farming implements. There were reasons. I had enemies. Still do.) We’d sit, our feet propped on the back bumper, and shoot the shit ‘til dawn. Still, somehow, we technically qualified as a youth gang. Go figure.
(To make sure my chronology isn’t off, this was after Winn-Dixie/Saverite closed and our supply of Check soda and oatmeal cream pies was severed. Just to clarify, you know, for the purists among you.)
I love QuikTrip. I go out of my way for QuikTrip. I die a little inside every time I stop to buy gas, and don’t have time to run inside for a pack of Anthony and Cleopatra’s and a big ol’ keg of cola. Even the terrible gastrointestinal unpleasantness that QuikTrip’s cappuccino gives me is not enough to keep me away from the store – just away from that temptress of a black box across from the soda fountain. I have dreams that all the empty BP stations around town suddenly reopen one day with that glorious, black, white and red “QT” slathered over the faded green. For a long time, the highpoint of my week was stopping by QuikTrip on Friday mornings to gas up and grab a French toast and maple cream or jalapeno sausage-wrap Hottie – a tradition I began when I was editor of the Paulding Neighbor in Dallas. Oh, so good.
QuickTrip is growing – and not just with new locations, but new store concepts, too. Stations constructed in the months to come will be “concept” stores, almost a quarter larger than the 4,600-square-foot stores the chain has been building as of late.
The stores will continue to feature a vast number of pumps – as many as 16 or more, vast compared to the two the Stop-N-Go had when I was a kid – to minimize waits. Since fewer people are going in stores to buy tobacco, they’re diversifying their wares. Where their ads used to tout the quality of their gas, QuikTrip now sells customers and the quality of their food. It’s hard to tell the difference between an ad for QuikTrip and McDonald’s (except QuikTrip doesn’t try to pander to certain communities by putting an overbearing hip-hop beat in their ads; an endeavor so forced that folks ought to find it insulting). And QuikTrip continues to emphasize cleanliness and attentiveness among its staff. I have never, not once, had a bad experience inside a QuikTrip; not even one of my own instigation.
I’m a man of few passions, but those I hold are fervent: my family; my home; pipe tobacco; liquor; my van; ‘Justified’ on FX; and QuikTrip are on the top of my list.
Oh, and there’s some other pretty nice gas station in town – RaceMac or RaceTrac, something like that – but they don’t sell cigars, so the hell with ‘em.