On Location with CSD

It isn’t often one finds a c-store with a hanging chandelier and a fireplace in the office, but Dave Carney’s Hillside Chevron Station in Torrance, Calif., is anything but conventional.

This April, the store began a major renovation, transforming what was a traditional c-store into a site with charming old-world Santa Barbara style; a Spanish colonial revival style of architecture adopted by city leaders after the 1925 earthquake destroyed much of the downtown commercial district.

The new building opened its doors in late July and features a warm color palette throughout the store, arched windows, a red tile roof, blue canopies and tile planters, creating an upscale shopping experience.

“We’re located at the gateway of an affluent community,” said Carney, a three-store operator and owner of Hillside Chevron, along with a second convenience store and an auto repair shop. “Our demographic for a c-store is not what I would call ideal, so we wanted to create an environment where our upscale customers would feel comfortable.”

To meet this goal, Carney decided to transform a tired, old Chevron, which had a 1965 gas station appearance, into a theme reminiscent of the 1920s to match the old-world look much of the local community embodies.

No Compromise in Convenience
As part of the redesign, state-of-the-art, high-speed fuel dispensers were added to increase pumping speed by 10 gallons per minute, as well as diesel fuel. The canopy and number of fueling positions were also increased to accommodate more customers and reduce waiting times. The c-store itself was also expanded on both ends to include a back office with a fireplace visible from the road.

“We wanted the building to look like it had been there forever,” Carney said. But there were some obstacles. For example, because it is a Chevron-branded site, there were branding requirements, such as a modern canopy and LED lighting. The challenge was to blend the old world look with the modern features.”

The 25,000-square-foot lot is positioned on a hillside. A retaining wall was added along the incline to capture more of the property for parking, and a remote storage building was constructed to expand the convenience offering.

“The city allowed us to put the men’s bathroom in the remote building and the health department allowed us to use half of the square footage on our lot for the c-store,” Carney said. 

Interior Design
Carney and his team hired an architect who specialized in the Santa Barbara style to help with the layout of the store. The interior design includes modern shelving with an old-style feel. Even the ATM machine has special cladding to blend in with the design. Specially ordered tiles were used to decorate the women’s bathroom, which is located directly off the sales floor.

To make a strong initial impression, as customers walk in the store they are greeted with a unique L-shaped gondola, heavy wood-beamed ceilings, a drop down chandelier and the coffee bar.  The store’s candy offering eschews shelving and is instead displayed in baskets, which Carney personally chose from a large variety of samples.

“With the c-store, our concept is to have the best of the best,” said Carney, who spent months sampling various coffee offerings to choose a brew he’s happy with. Interestingly, he opted to eliminate the soda fountain to focus on providing a strong coffee service.

To help the tobacco selection stand out, it is housed in two side cabinets that feature arches and lighting from the top to illuminate the tobacco products, again capturing an old-style look.

Even the cooler doors received a makeover. Carney purchased frameless, seamless glass cooler doors for his six-door walk-in coolers. “We spent a year going to different retailers and took our cue from the look you find at high-end markets like Whole Foods,” he said. “Even supermarkets these days are remodeling to have warmer colors and softer lights.”

All told, the store totals 1,000 square feet of space with a mix of packaged products. On the foodservice side, Hillside carries a deli unit that features custom-made food from a local restaurant called THYME, which is sold under the private label THYME To Go. Other food options include high quality salads and California wraps that target on-the-go customers.

While the c-store will not include most frozen foods, it will feature an ice cream novelty cooler.  “It’s a small space, so we have to make sure we don’t overdo it,” Carney said. “We’ll stick to doing the categories we do very well.”

To generate excitement for the store, Carney reached out to the community to inform them about the redesign. He goes a step further on Tuesdays offering seniors full-service at the pumps along with checking the oil and tires at no extra charge.

Construction Woes
The redesign included two phases of construction. Phase one, which began in November, included building the retaining wall and storage unit on the hillside and creating additional parking. The remaining hillside was landscaped with native plants.

Phase two began on April 1, and consisted of expanding the building by about 500 square feet and adding the office and bathrooms. Two service bays used by Carney’s adjacent auto business remain on the property.

Carney and his team had to be flexible with their redesign plans. The company originally planned to start construction last August, but found the permit process took longer than expected. Carney also wanted to move the building to the back of the lot to provide room for a grand entrance and achieve a better layout. However, because the c-store is in a residential area, the store must be positioned 20 feet from the property line.

“Originally we got a conditional use permit to build a new building for auto repair on the hillside, but the city said if we were going to do that we’d need to close two of the driveways, and they were the driveways closest to the intersection that we get 80% of our traffic from,” Carney said.

To keep the conditional use permit and keep the driveways, Carney had to settle for remodeling the existing location, forcing the team to find creative ways to work with what they had.

Creating an Identity
Carney is no stranger to unique store designs. Across the street from the Chevron, he runs an auto repair shop featuring white wicker furniture, a trellis and a water fountain in the waiting area, as well as homemade baked products for the customers, courtesy of his wife.

Carney’s other c- store, a more traditional Chevron station, is also in Torrance about three miles from the Hillside Chevron. The Crenshaw Carson Chevron is a small gas station and c-store that was remodeled three years ago. That redesign paid off nicely.

“Our second c-store is in an area where the demographics are more aligned for convenience customers,” Carney said. “We took that store from 150,000 gallons a month when we bought it in 1999 to 500,000 gallon a month now.”

Carney hopes that success follows him to Hillside. “Before the store closed for construction it was pumping 225,000 gallons monthly, and we were bringing in $18,000 a month in c-store sales. We project the gas volume will go to 350,000 gallons and $75,000 a month for c-store sales,” he said.

With the Hillside Chevron design Carney is testing his theory that creating an original identity for a store can drive business. “In our industry, so much is the same, and so much of what is lacking is the uniqueness,” Carney said. “I believe Chevron should allow each site to develop a personality to fit the market place they are in, and I have always believed that, so this is my chance to put my money where my mouth is.”

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