By David Bennett, Senior Editor
As two children looked longingly at the new frozen drink dispenser, tethered balloons wafted away from the heat that escaped from the hot pizzas taken fresh from the new oven.
Cruising around the redesigned Duchess location, which marked its grand opening Oct. 7 in Pataskala, Ohio, everything in the 5,200-square-foot store was all that: new, fresh—and crowded by customers eager to see what the fuss was all about.
The location offers a uniquely-blended, customer-centric shopping experience, featuring fast-casual dining concepts that include an extensive made-to-order menu and touchscreen customization options that are unique to the Duchess convenience store chain, part of Heath, Ohio-based Englefield Oil Co.
By touching a screen, patrons have access to hand-made food offerings, including subs, pizza, burgers and all-day breakfast at the made-to-order restaurant called the deli. The sparkling interior is a departure from just two months before when construction workers hurried about building out the store, painting walls and installing rows of tile.
Customers in a hurry can order from the menu and pay at the drive through window—a first for the c-store, which also boasts a large beer cave with a wide selection of domestic and craft beers, an extended coffee bar area with several fresh-brewed, bold blends, a significant variety of grab-and-go options, and a soft- serve ice cream and frozen yogurt offering.
In the last decade, Duchess has undergone strategic shifts in its business plan designed to address future needs at the time while strengthening the Duchess brand to be more competitive through such initiatives as its Crown Card Rewards program, its own mobile app and other customer-relation platforms, making Duchess a staple throughout Ohio.
However, the company isn’t immune to market pressures and took steps to hedge against slowing cigarette sales and other economic unknowns that play havoc with in-store sales. The solution to create a broader foodservice program designed to deliver quality offerings is where the executive team of the third-generation business chose to turn its attention.
“Foodservice is where the industry is headed,” said Ben Englefield, co-president of Englefield Oil.
ALL IN THE EXECUTION
Greg Ehrlich, Englefield’s vice president of retail operations, explained while planning and designing the new foodservice concept has finally come to fruition after more than two years—from ideation to the actual opening—execution of the plan is critical if Duchess is to be successful in delivering on its promise of restaurant-quality food.
Duchess conducted a “soft opening” the month before to a select group of people and public officials to determine how the equipment and staff responded before officially opening to the public in early October. Such testing is necessary, especially with a new foodservice initiative, according to Ehrlich.
“Running a successful foodservice program requires the ability to make all menu items, such as burgers, subs, pizza, salads and barista drinks, in a high quality, consistent manner,” Ehrlich said. “Before opening this store we trained all kitchen staff at our test kitchen and again at the new store in advance of the opening. Our staff is encouraged to taste all of our menu items so they know how good the food is and can promote it to customers with confidence. We are extremely proud of how quickly our store team leaders and members have demonstrated the ability to prepare orders in a consistent and timely manner.”
The new c-store also features a dining area inside with seating for 20. The dining space is segregated from the rest of the store by glass-paneled walls to provide patrons Wi-Fi access and privacy from other shoppers.
Before opening this location, Englefield Oil trained all of its kitchen staff at a test kitchen and again at the new store in advance of the official opening. The staff was encouraged to taste all of the menu items so they can promote options to customers with confidence.
The goal was to provide consumers a comfortable dining experience well suited for what the deli offers. The company is looking at extending the concept to other existing sites.
“While we are pleased with the performance of our Subway and Taco Bell units, our proprietary program, the deli, allows us to better integrate our food and store marketing and advertising strategy and tactics,” Ehrlich said. “That said, we believe in evaluating each of our 120- plus stores on an individual unit basis to determine the best food programs for each store, based on a variety of factors. If a QSR or co-branded pro- gram is determined to be a better fit, we will go in that direction, if the deli ranks higher, then we will implement our proprietary made-to-order pro- grams at that location.”
PREPARING FOR THE FUTURE
Bill Englefield III started Englefield Oil in 1961 with three service stations. Today, the company is owned by his sons F. W. (Bill) Englefield IV and Ben Englefield. Englefield Oil operates more than 120 Duchess convenience stores throughout Ohio and West Virginia with annual sales of more than $1 billion.
Even before the Duchess brand was established in 1975, the company had experimented with a different kind of c-store in the city of Lancaster, Ohio. The store’s interior space was much larger than that of area gas stations. It had shelves of groceries, a deli counter and a cooler full of drinks. The location is recognized as one of central Ohio’s first convenience stores.
In 2009, Englefield acquired 42 ampm store locations in Ohio from BP. Today, many of those locations are suitable to be remodeled in the same theme as the new Pataskala store, though some sites don’t enjoy the same footprint, said Bill Englefield.
Some locations, he explained, will be ideally suited to house many of the new design features while some sites won’t have the physical space to accommodate a drive-through, for example.
“As we look at a location, we will have to decide that,” he said.
Ashley Englefield DeWitt, Englefield’s director of marketing, said for the Pataskala site, the drive- through option was an easy choice to act upon.
“We wanted to offer even more con- venience to our customers,” Dewitt said. “We can accommodate the mothers with children, the guy on the way to work or the customer who is in a hurry or wanting to avoid inclemental weather.”
Pataskala is the latest step in the evolution of Duchess, but for a c-store that often seems ahead of the curve, it won’t be the last.
“The brand has gone through many changes since its establishment in 1975, but it had been several years since we had focused on refreshing the brand,” DeWitt said.“This store is the catalyst in introducing the new, modernized brand to our customers.”