Warrenton Oil Co. launches its Swirls n Sweets frozen yogurt concept in its convenience stores and in a standalone format.
By Erin Rigik, Associate Editor.
Warrenton Oil Co. knows first hand that staying versatile in an ever-changing industry is the key to long-term success. This past fall, the owners of the FastLane convenience store chain debuted their very own standalone frozen yogurt concept—Swirls n Sweets—and are set to expand the business, adapting the program to fit inside one of their c-store locations this spring.
The company is no novice when it comes to expanding beyond the traditional convenience store space. In addition to its 33 FastLane convenience stores, Warrenton Oil also operates roughly 30 car wash bays, 18 co-branded food operations on its c-store properties, two Holiday Inn Express hotels and Woco Transportation Co.
With a smorgasbord of foodservice experience already under its belt, including 11 Chester’s Chicken units, six Hunt Brothers Pizza operations and one Broaster Chicken, Warrenton Oil officially made the leap into frozen yogurt in September 2012 with Swirls n Sweets.
“We had a space where we have a c-store plus two white boxes that we built with the intention of leasing,” said Mary Banmiller, director of retail and hotel operations for Warrenton Oil. “Subway leased one of the spaces, and a couple years later we decided to try the yogurt concept in the remaining space.”
The frozen yogurt trend has been booming since 2010. Initially, there was a concern the yogurt fad might have peaked and therefore not have the longevity needed to jump-start a business, but there wasn’t an ice cream business in the area, and Warrenton Oil felt the opportunities outweighed the concerns.
“The last family-owned ice cream shop had closed in the city three miles north of us,” said Banmiller, who is also the incoming board chairman of the National Advisory Group (NAG). “It’s an easy concept. It doesn’t require a lot of labor. It’s a self-service program, so customers basically wait on themselves, which makes it efficient. We said, ‘We’re already in the food business and we know how to do that, so lets give this a shot.’”
Construction began on the space in July 2012 and the store opened its doors to the public on Sept 26 in Moscow Mills, Mo.
Upon entering the store, customers can select from 18 flavors of frozen yogurt and 30 toppings, including healthy options. Because customers pay by weight, they can mix and match as many flavors or toppings as they desire, and create their favorite combinations. While it’s too early to measure success, Warrenton Oil expects to average sales of 200 cups per day.
Swirls n Sweets also debuts limited time only (LTO) flavors, including a peppermint pattie flavor during the winter holidays and a pumpkin flavor during Thanksgiving that met with rave reviews from customers. For customers who aren’t sure what flavors to mix, Swirls n Sweets offers combination suggestions. “On one machine we have strawberry and cheesecake flavors, but when you mix them together it becomes strawberry cheesecake,” Banmiller said.
“It was a fun concept to work on, and much easier than opening a convenience store, because we didn’t have to deal with setting up the gas pumps and integrating them with the registers. We just had make sure six yogurt machines and a register with a scale worked,” she added.
For assistance with troubleshooting, Warrenton relies on its equipment company Midwest Equipment. “They were great to work with. They got us through the training and came back and helped us when we ran into a few problems where we left a machine on or didn’t turn it off properly,” Banmiller said.
With the standalone shop up and running, Warrenton is now preparing to introduce the frozen yogurt concept inside its FastLane convenience store near its headquarters in Warrenton, Mo. At presstime, the yogurt machines had already been ordered and construction was scheduled to start at the beginning of February. The company hopes to have the concept open by March 15. Given space constraints, the concept will have four instead of six yogurt machines, but otherwise will mirror the full-size operation.
“One of the challenges will be seating because we don’t have enough space to do the seating we want. And with yogurt you do need seating. So we’ll need to put seating in a different section of the store to accommodate customers,” Banmiller said.
Converting the standalone concept to a smaller footprint has both benefits and challenges. On the one hand, there isn’t as much space, but on the other, it gives FastLane the chance to direct the customers it’s already capturing toward the yogurt shop, and in doing so it also presents cross-merchandising opportunities. “They’ll already be inside the store, so it will be easy to say, ‘Go over and get a sample,’ because one of the things we do is everyone who comes in can sample any flavors they want,” Banmiller said.
Customer response has been strong. “We’ve had a lot of activity on our Swirls n Sweets Facebook page. The biggest compliment someone posted was that it’s just such a happy place. It has bright colors and a fun design. So that made us feel really good. We want it to be a fun place for families.” Banmiller added.
Celebrating 40+ Years
Warrenton Oil has remained a family business for the duration of its history. In 1972 Banmiller’s parents R.G. and Betty Baker started First Capitol Oil, which originally sold fuel oils and lubes. The Bakers soon purchased a service station and expanded into gasoline marketing, marking the start of FastLane Convenience Stores. In 1984 R.G. and his eldest son, Wayne, purchased Warrenton Oil Co. of which First Capitol became a division. In 1993, the company purchased the Columbia operations of Davis Oil, growing its c-store fleet. From there, the company continued to grow through both acquisitions and new builds. Today all eight of R.G and Betty Baker’s children are actively involved in the management of the company.
In 2013, Warrenton Oil is focused on both evaluating how its yogurt concept progresses, and is rebuilding its Kingdom City, Mo. convenience store. “We’re always planning on growing if the deal is right,” noted Banmiller. “We’ll always look for opportunities.”
At a Glance: Warrenton Oil
Mary Banmiller and her seven siblings are active in the management of the family-owned business. The company was founded by Banmiller’s parents in 1972.
C-Store Brand: 33 FastLane Convenience Stores in Missouri
Car Washes: about 30
Employees: More than 500
Food Operations: Chester’s Chicken (11), Broaster Chicken (1), Hunt Brothers Pizza (6), Swirls n Sweets Frozen Yogurt (1 standalone, 1 c-store concept under development)
• Wayne Baker, President
• Jim Baker, Car wash & Construction Manager
• Mary Banmiller, Director of Retail & Hotel Operations
• Mark Baker, Vice President
• Elaine Baker, Senior Retail Coordinator
• Ann Cilek, Office Manager & Designer
• Robert Baker, Retail Area Manager
• David Baker, Vice President of Sales
• Woco Transportation: Operates 21 transportflat bed trucks and one fuel tank wagon
• Holiday Inn Express Hotels: 2 in Missouri