By John Lofstock, Editor
When CST Brands acquired Nice N Easy Grocery Shoppes following the death of founder John MacDougall last year, many around the industry wondered if we’d seen the last of one of the convenience store industry’s most recognizable and celebrated brands.
The short answer is not by a long shot.
Clifford Fuel, the largest Nice N Easy franchisee, continues to work with CST to not only grow the brand, but to continue to refine it. The result is a sparkling new 5,250-square-foot store in New York Mills, N.Y., which celebrated a grand opening last month.
The unit is an impressive raze and rebuild that was planned and built over a nearly two-year period. “I got involved in the planning stages for this store in January of 2014,” said Rick Miller, director of convenience store retail operations for Clifford Fuel. “Jim Clifford (company president) already had a good drawing as this building is similar to another rebuild we did a few years earlier in Kirkland, N.Y. With the help of corporate Nice N Easy, we had a great game plan.”
The spacious store includes Nice N Easy’s world-class foodservice program, a full-service Dunkin’ Donuts with a drive-through, more that a dozen seats, free WiFi service and a hip beer cave featuring imported and domestic beers and a vast assortment of micro-brews from a host of New York-based breweries.
“We are fortunate to have a great team here at Clifford Fuel and have great partners in the vendor community that support our efforts,” Miller said. “The nice part about this location was the old store remained open while most of the construction was being done on the new location in back of the old location.”
The site was only closed for about a month.
“We are very proud of this convenience store, which features the finer points of what Nice N Easy has developed over the years, but also includes some new features that our customers can get excited about,” said Peter Tamburro, the general manager of convenience store operations for Clifford Fuel.
Tamburro, a member of the National Advisory Group’s board of directors since 2012, is the former vice president of franchise operations for Nice N Easy Grocery Shoppes where he supervised existing franchisees as well as helped franchisees set up marketing, foodservice and store operations. Following the sale of Nice N Easy to CST Brands, Tamburro joined Clifford Fuel and seamlessly helped the growing oil company open the latest Nice N Easy store.
Clifford Fuel currently operates more than 20 stores throughout Central New York and boasts 275 employees. The company operates five car washes in the market and distributes Citgo and Sunoco fuels to more than 40 dealers with its company-owned tankers.
The new store oozes convenience for its many time-starved customers. On the foodservice side, the unit features Nice N Easy’s menu of made-to-order subs, wraps, salads and sandwich melts. The Mama Mia brand offers freshly-made pizzas and strombolis.
For those looking for healthy grab-and-go snacks, a chilled front-end gondola markets a variety of fresh fruit cups and parfaits. The unit is also the first store in the market to feature Coca-Cola’s countertop Freestyle machine, which offers dozens of fountain soda flavors.
While the in-store offering is loaded with amenities, the forecourt is equally stocked. The fuel island features 16 fueling positions and customers are offered a $1 off a car wash coupon while fueling. Additionally, customers can take advantage of Citgo gift cards to receive up to 5 cents off of each gallon purchased.
An attached car wash is highlighted by two distinct offerings—a soft-touch friction wash and a touch-free wash, both of which can move cars in and out in just a couple of minutes. “Speed at the car wash is key because customers are always busy, but also because it allows us to move more cars through the wash every day,” Tamburro said.
Benefiting from the Brand
Clifford Fuel began its long relationship with Nice N Easy Grocery Shoppes in the early 1980s and has grown steadily ever since.
“We began by leasing a gas station we owned to Nice N Easy right after they started operations in 1980,” Jim Clifford said.
The relationship worked for both sides and blossomed. About five years later, Clifford Fuel converted another store it owned to the Nice N Easy brand and began operating as a franchisee.
Working with a large chain like Nice N Easy helped Clifford Fuel learn to be a convenience store operator, an important profit center for the company that has helped it expand through the years when other local fuel distributors failed. “We get the benefits of a 90 store chain when we’re only operating 17 stores,” Clifford said.
Today, Clifford’s three sons—Jimmy, Mike and Tom—also work with him in the family business. Jimmy is involved in the gas side of the business and works closely with dealer accounts and compliance. Mike works on the c-store side of the business working with vendors, overseeing category management and managing the pricebook. Tom, a junior at Hobart College, works in both areas as he learns the intricacies of the c-store industry when he is home from college.
“We’re in the same markets as a lot of the Nice N Easy corporate stores, so we get the benefits of the brand name and all the marketing that goes into their own stores here as well,” Clifford said. “Plus, because they are such a progressive chain that likes to introduce a lot of new programs, we are in a position to take advantage of the ones that work and pass on those that aren’t as effective.”
Clifford noted that Nice N Easy also organizes a myriad of promotional programs for the community and holds several events in the central New York area to benefit charitable organizations. His employees are encouraged to participate in the events, including a variety of walks and runs with the American Heart Association.
While the store is doing well following the grand opening, Miller credits the strong store staff for its early success.
“I recruited some of our best employees from other stores to open this store,” Miller said. “Manager Bill Laraby has more than 16 years of experience with the company and our foodservice manager, Shelly Rotach, came from our Clinton, N.Y. store with more than 15 years as a Nice N Easy employee. Additionally, we have two assistant managers, Cameron Alati and Dylan Montana, that rounded out the core of a strong team. Our employee count is now double what we had at the old location and it’s clear that our people are our biggest asset. I am very excited about the crew that we have at the location.”