Small Town Heroes

Fran Duskiewicz

Fran Duskiewicz

There’s something about places where our roots remain. The same can be said about the convenience store industry.

By Fran Duskiewicz

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Many years ago, when I was a young English teacher sitting in the teachers’ lounge, expounding upon why central New York was such a great place to live, the school’s guidance counselor chastised me for being so provincial.

She was right, of course. Look up “provincial” in the dictionary and you’ll see a picture of my mug.

How could I be anything other than provincial? I grew up in a village of 1,000 people, graduated from high school with 100 students in our class, and earned my college degrees from Colgate University in Hamilton, N.Y., a small town about 30 minutes from where I lived. I then secured a teaching position right back at my old school in my hometown, where I stayed until I was 30 years old.

Even when I left for a career in the c-store industry, I stayed provincial. Nice N Easy Grocery Shoppes’ corporate headquarters was in Canastota, N.Y., another small town about 45 minutes from my hometown. Nice N Easy’s ownership and staff were also small town people, and most of the stores were in small towns, serving small town folks.

I loved it and still do, and I love the convenience industry because it is, at heart, a provincial industry. The very best chains grew from local fuel companies, dairies and local entrepreneurs. They knew their customers because they came from the same place, and customers supported their stores because they knew the ownership.

They saw the company represented in local newspapers, TV commercials, and supporting local events and causes. The pressure within these companies came from satisfying customers and not shareholders, which is as it should be.

Now I live in Naples, Fla., which is about as diametrically opposed to central New York as possible, even beyond the obvious, which is that doesn’t snow here. Everything is new. Six lane boulevards intersect around the area, providing access to brand new gated communities and shopping plazas. Everything is very pretty and pretty darn homogeneous, too, including the convenience store offerings.

No provincial hometown heroes here, just one publicly-owned offering after another, or stores built by very large private companies where a premium is based on consistency, no matter where the store might be built. These stores are attractive, but make no impact, at least upon me.

Naples is a city of transplants. Everyone I meet here comes from someplace else—Indiana, Illinois, Massachusetts, Michigan, Ohio and Pennsylvania. When I tell them about what I did for a living, their faces brighten and they proceed to tell me about the local c-store chain from their hometown area, how much they loved it, and how they wished they had stores in southwest Florida. I know. Company Founder John MacDougall used to tell me we’d make a killing down here.

I think what I feel and what my neighbors tell me expresses the very nature of the convenience industry and why it’s so different from the cookie-cutter fast food joints, drug stores and dollar stores that litter the landscape. We have the ability to be different and special to those we serve, because of our provincial nature. We understand you because we ARE you. We live here, too.

Parker’s in Savannah, Ga. is great because Greg Parker loves Savannah and wants to take care of its citizens. Family Express is great, because Gus Olympidis is driven to be great, and the people of Valparaiso, Ind. know that. Rutter’s is great because Scott Hartman and his ancestors have served York, Pa. from the days of the Revolutionary War.

Nice N Easy was great because John MacDougall didn’t care about mergers and acquisitions, only the next new store and how it could be better. He answered to his own muse and employees and customers loved him because of that. He understood that whenever he was out and about, people knew he was THAT guy, who owned THOSE stores. He appreciated that weight and the expectations that came with it.

There’s a funny thing about Naples. It appears to be a favorite spot for convenience store executives and owners, whether they are retired or snowbirds. But most still remain hometown heroes where they first began.

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