By David Bennett, Senior Editor
With the explosion of fresher food and beverages in the convenience store channel, such offerings are becoming more accessible. Then again, some c-stores are worth a trip just for the experience.
With a growing following in northern California’s Bay area, AU Energy LLC’s Loop Neighborhood convenience stores fit both criteria as the 24-store chain, known simply as the Loop, has earned a reputation for being as crisp and inventive as the offerings found inside its locations.
“Loop was created out of our desire to redefine convenience stores. We looked at the landscape of convenience stores at the time and determined what was missing,” said Varish Goyal, president. “Most stores were really only offering products that targeted the male audience, so Loop was created with females and Millennial customers in mind.”
A FRESHER FRONT
A family business, AU Energy operates a total of 130 c-store sites and also boasts a wholesale division that delivers fuel to about 80 dealer locations. It was in 2013, that the concept for a new c-store concept was launched. Most of the retail locations have been branded by the fuel name, either Shell or Chevron, but in 2013, the company introduced the new brand, based partially on food and beverage programs contrived around freshness and more natural ingredients.
Today, Loop boasts higher quality products such as a fresh salad bar and deli offerings. Some Loop stores feature a full salad bar, priced by weight.
“We have soups that are freshly prepared and delivered. All sandwiches are freshly prepared,” Goyal said.
Most sites in the Loop chain boast well-lit, spacious locations accented with bold interior colors—retail kaleidoscopes where patrons can choose food and beverage selections that are a departure from regular c-store offerings.
But it’s the chain’s commitment to value-added programs that is the big draw.
“We have partnered with the same suppliers and vendors from some of the leading grocery stores to ensure fresh, high-quality products every day,” Goyal said. “Loop strives to take the convenience stores we are used to and take them one step further. So while we still offer the usual snacks, drinks and beer, we put in the extra effort to make it even better. For example, instead of just donuts, we have fresh pastries delivered each day.”
Loop patrons also have their choice of frozen yogurt, sushi, smoothies, organic fruits and veggies, gluten-free snacks and soups made on site.
Goyal said Loop is breaking through the convenience store stigma by being one of the first to offer fresh, high quality products, including cold brew coffee and an expanding selection of finer wines, not to mention new pizza offerings and better produce sets.
“We knew that we needed to change the stores from the inside out in order to distinguish our brand over all the others. After recognizing that the current market wasn’t offering these kinds of products and was ignoring the female and Gen-Y audience, we determined what products we needed to offer and built from there.”
The company’s rational was that just because patrons were in a convenience setting, they shouldn’t have to settle on skimpy foodservice offerings. The approach soon showed patrons Loop was more than just the corner c-store, said Goyal.
“The best thing about Loop is that there is truly something for everyone; it’s no longer just focused on the male consumer anymore,” said Goyal. “It’s a whole experience for our customers from the moment they walk through the door to the moment they leave. We have noticed that people are taking their time wandering the aisle and enjoying the experience of the store rather than heading straight to the aisle they know they need and leaving.”
In 2015, Loop executives announced they had made a commitment to Partnership for a Healthier America, an organization devoted to working with the private sector to ensure the health of the nation’s youth by solving childhood obesity.
Part of Fremont, Calif.-based AU Energy, Vintners Distributors was founded in 1978. It was during the following two decades that the family business began developing a strategy for offering area residents more—in the form of its Loop retail concept. The company also develops real estate.
Since the first Loop location opened in Santa Clara, Calif., the idea of healthier choices has paid off in more in-store sales.
The company is currently looking at a few locations suitable for new store building projects—albeit for smaller spaces. “We are working on a smaller store footprint, which we plan to roll out in 2019,” Goyal said.
This includes a new store design that would encompass 1,200-1,500 square feet, targeting neighborhood communities where commercial-zoned lots are often smaller. Though the operational sites might be smaller, it provides the company the opportunity to grow the retail brand. A normal Loop site is more than 2,500 square feet.
And Loop continues to gain traction, especially as AU Energy has integrated new technological strategies to entice new customers.
The convenience retailer’s approach for continuing to build its brand now involves initiatives incorporating social media and customer loyalty, which include its emergent Loop Loyalty Program. Customers have the option to enroll in the loyalty program to earn points for everyday purchases. These points can be redeemed at any Loop in-store kiosk or customers can choose a coupon from the app. Rolled out earlier this year, the c-store app is multi-functional and user friendly.
“You can view different locations and prices, explore Loop job openings and find deals happening at your nearest Loop store,” said Goyal. “A huge part of the Loop Neighborhood app is the rewards program. After downloading and enrolling, customers can begin to earn points for their purchases. For every one dollar spent inside the store, the member will earn four points. For every gallon filled, the member will earn two points. These points are easy to redeem inside the Loop store or on the mobile app.”
As the chain continues to spread the word of what the Loop has to offer, the fact that it is growing as a family-owned and -operated enterprise is extra special for Goyal. Family businesses are the backbone of the National Advisory Group (NAG) convenience store association.
“It’s a great opportunity to work in a family business. The management team is always available, decisions are made quickly and ideas can be implemented and tested faster than most large companies,” said Goyal. “This allows for some really fulfilling work to be done for the betterment of the industry, our employees, our customers and the community.”