Rocky Trail knows a traditional foodservice offering anchors his sprawling Minnesota travel center. But when he wanted to expand the program, he turned to a nontraditional c-store brand.
Above all else, it was the national recognition of Cold Stone Creamery’s name that prompted Trail, president of Trail’s Travel Center of America in Albert Lea, Minn., to add the upscale ice cream eatery to his foodservice offering.
"That’s pretty much what tipped the scales," Trail said, borrowing a line from one of the 600,000 or so truckers who every year swing their 16-wheelers into his travel center at the Interstate 90 and 35 juncture. "That’s what brought us to Cold Stone. People know what it is."
For the most part, it was that simple. In August 2006, Trail’s Travel Center, a Travel Centers of America franchisee, had a 900-square-foot space aching for a foodservice outfit that would complement McDonald’s and Pizza Hut, both of which had been part of the travel center since it opened in 1998. The two QSRs had the national ring Trail was looking for when he opened the business, so the name-brand familiarity of Cold Stone would offer cross-country travelers an indulgence they quickly recognized and trusted.
"We could have gone either way," Trail said. "We just didn’t feel like the option for another food-type thing was going to be the national name recognition that we needed."
Building the Business
Trail’s Travel Center is a juggernaut among the country’s convenience stores, a 28,000-square-foot behemoth, not including the additional 28,000-square-foot four-bay truck repair shop and truck wash Trail owns and operates on the site. The setup dominates 31 acres alongside a heavily traveled north-south vein of Interstate 35, which connects Des Moines, Iowa with Minneapolis, Minn.
In any given year, Trail’s Travel Center is among the top three earners at the 166 Travel Center of America sites in 41 states, Trail said. Trail himself is the minority within Travel Center of America, as his location is just one of 13 sites that are franchisee owned and operated.
Saying Trail’s Travel Center has a diverse consumer base with diverse tastes is a colossal understatement. Trail said about 90% of the 2.5 million or so customers that stop at Trail’s each year come in off the highways, most of them cross-country travelers. Truck drivers make up about 30% to 40% of the highway traffic, while the remaining customers (about 10%) are from Albert Lea, a town of 18,000, and the surrounding area.
Trail, 45, started in convenience stores in 1981 as a general manager at a similar business located across town. He and his father purchased that business in 1985, but just four years later began exploring property at the current site.
"That location wasn’t out on the freeway like it needed to be," Trail said of the old place. By 1998 he opened Trail’s Travel Center at the current location, motivated by what he called the age-old mantra: "Location, location, location."
"God’s blessed us with a really good location," Trail said, explaining how southbound motorists on I-35 pass a slight curve in the road before finding themselves "looking smack-dab in the middle of our great big building."
Beyond that, Trail offered a panoply of elements that have made his travel center a success: He has 160 dedicated employees, a fleet of maintenance workers for cleaning, even a unique Scandinavian-style architecture that appeals to the heritage of Albert Lea’s 35% Norwegian population.
To be sure, Rocky Trail is keenly attuned to his customers and the products and services they seek. The vast majority of his visitors are looking to fill up at the travel center’s 16 fuel dispensers for cars or 10 diesel pumps for tractor-trailers. The truckers pump three to four times more fuel than the four-wheel drivers, though much like anywhere in the country these days, fuel in itself does Trail’s Travel Center scant good regardless of volume.
"Your survival is based on your non-fuel offering," Trail said. "If you don’t have a strong retail offering, you’re not going to make it."
Trail’s in-store offerings include a 6,800-square-foot convenience store supremely tailored to the traveler-and-trucker crowd, offering televisions, radio antennas, electronics and clothing, just as readily as candy bars, sodas and chips. Other facilities include 10 private showers, a laundry room, a driver’s lounge, a 24-seat theater and the almighty 140-seat food court where Cold Stone Creamery is now located.
The in-store schematics and layout at Trail’s were designed to create wide-open spaces and high ceilings that would seamlessly blend the convenience store and other elements with foodservice offerings, said Steve Klingman, Trail’s general manager.
"It’s very open," Trail said. "You walk in and people go ‘Wow, this place is huge.’ Everything is very exposed to them; you get them exposed to all the things you have to offer."
The food court seats 100 people inside and 40 people outside. McDonald’s and Pizza Hut have been staples of the food court with McDonald’s leasing a 2,200-square-foot space (franchise rights weren’t available at the time, Trail said) and Trail serving as franchisee of the Pizza Hut. There’s also Trail’s Restaurant, a 24-hour sit-down eatery with a full menu.
Stone Cold Facts
Deciding what brand should fill the 900-square-foot space next to Pizza Hut proved to be a challenging one. It wasn’t until visiting Mall of America in Bloomington, Minn. that Trail learned about Cold Stone Creamery. He said Cold Stone had the makings for an ideal fit, foremost because of its national branding.
Cold Stone started in 1988 in Arizona, eventually growing to a national chain with more than 1,400 stores worldwide. In May 2007, about six months after coming to Trail’s Travel Center, Cold Stone merged with Kalaha Corp., a QSR franchiser of more than 14 different restaurants that include Blimpie, Samurai Sam’s and Surf City Squeeze. The Kalaha-Cold Stone merger created a $1.2 billion entity with more than 4,600 retail locations in 15 countries.
Cold Stone’s uniqueness hinges on creativity that eclipses virtually all other ice cream stores on the market, with its product made fresh daily and employees customizing orders by adding a variety of mix-in ingredients on a frozen granite stone.
Klingman, Trail’s general manager, explained: "It’s not your typical ice cream offering like a Baskin Robbins. It’s all about the show."
Cold Stone employees are known to break out in song when a customer drops money in the tip jar, and employees at Trail’s Cold Stone are experimenting with their showmanship by learning to flip ice cream balls in the air, Klingman said, adding: "It’s the entertainment value, the total package."
Trail’s customers seem to be in that ethereal consumer state between grab-and-go and extended-stay casual. Both Trail and Klingman said many of the customers are looking to get gas and stretch their legs before getting back on the road quickly, but they often want to relax, eat and shop, certainly more so than the typical small town convenience store.
"They might plan that particular stop, but they might not plan to go down to Cold Stone," Trail said. "You do have customers who want to come in and out and may not buy anything, just pay for the gas and leave."
As always, the objective is to draw them in. Klingman has devised a litany of promotional mechanisms to draw customers from one area of the travel center to another, including in-person promotions where foodservice employees offer free samples to customers in other areas of the travel center. There’s also an audio system that constantly promotes foodservice and other product bargains overhead, Klingman said.
Less than two years running, Trail’s Cold Stone is already on par with business at his McDonald’s and Pizza Hut, but he anticipates it could be even more marketable to the travel center since there’s already a McDonald’s and Pizza Hut in town but not a Cold Stone Creamery.
Klingman said he’s promoting the Cold Stone Creamery through local radio advertising and media, largely positioning it as a great place for families, birthday parties and the like.
"We do a lot of promoting locally, and that just keeps growing and growing and growing," Trail said. "That’s extra icing on the cake when you get that, because that’s above the normal interstate traffic."
Kalaha-Cold Stone officials said the Cold Stone Creamery at Trail’s Travel Center is their first foray into this market, but they had success with Blimpie in this category and are finding Cold Stone could be equally successful.
"It’s a great location," said Kate Guess, director of corporate public relations at Kalaha Corp. "They’re doing a fabulous job."
As for the truckers, even they like upscale ice cream paired with a little entertainment.
"My office is right out by the truck entrance," Trail said. "I can see truckers walking out with ice cream. They may be on the go, but they’ll head back to the truck and eat the ice cream."