From craft soda to candy, Pops offers nostalgia and novelty alongside food and gas.
By Erin Del Conte, Senior Editor
Road trippers driving through Arcadia, Okla. on the iconic route 66, can’t miss the giant 66-foot LED pop bottle that lights the way and signals the location of Pops, a 5,000-square-foot restaurant, convenience store and soda ranch.
Once customers finish posing for pictures by the giant pop bottle and admiring the store’s state-of-the-art architecture, they can choose from more than 700 flavors of soda from all around the world.
Pops got its start in Arcadia, Okla. in 2007.
“Basically there was a small gas station that sat here for years and years; just your standard little rural gas station. The owners retired and sold the property. Pops Founder Aubrey McClendon bought the property and seeing as it was on the historic highway felt the store should capture some Route 66 nostalgia. For McClendon, that nostalgia included memories of road tripping as a kid and the different types of soda he could get as a kid in different parts of the country,” said Marty Doepke, vice president of the company.
McClendon hired acclaimed architect Rand Elliott, the same architect that worked on the Route 66 Museum—located a couple hours from the c-store—to design and expand the old c-store into a 5,000-square-foot soda ranch. Elliott created an ultra-modern design with a 1950s-style soda counter and all glass shelving to hold the glass soda bottles.
“People show up just to take a look at the architecture,” Doepke said. The giant LED pop bottle brings a large amount of exposure for the business, including as a backdrop for Oklahoma travel and local news stations doing weather reports. “That bottle has been a huge key to our success,” he said.
McClendon passed away in 2016. Today, Doepke helms day-to-day operations at Pops L.P.
Doepke has been involved in the Pops business since before it opened. “I came up here and actually opened the Arcadia location.”
Doepke met McClendon, who was the co-founder, chairman and CEO of Chesapeake Energy, when Doepke was working for Aramark Corp. “I knew quite a bit about him and what type of person he was, and I wanted to work for him, so that’s what prompted me to join Pops.”
McClendon called his father ‘Pops.’ “His father Joe was a soda jerk when he was a kid and Aubrey called his dad, Pops, and that really contributed to the name,” Doepke said. That and the plethora of soda pop options.
“When we opened the doors we had 400 different types of bottled pop, all packaged in glass bottles from all over the U.S. and around the world. We quickly saw the popularity of what we had to offer and went from 400 to 500 types of pop very quickly,” he said.
Today, Pops’ Arcadia location offers six gas islands with 12 gas pumps, and 700 types of soda in all colors of the rainbow that are housed on glass shelves. Pops also offers the standard convenience store fare including snacks, grab-and-go items, health and automotive products.
In addition, Pops features a full-service, made-to-order-style restaurant. The menu features burgers, fries, salads, sandwiches, chicken, breaded steaks and desserts. “Everything goes well with the pop and it’s been a huge draw for families and kids,” Doepke said.
“The pop is why we’re here, but it works together with the restaurant, the architecture, the fuel—just the overall package. That’s really what makes us what we are. When we opened the store it was a gas station that had a restaurant and a little bit of retail, and we’ve since turned into a soda store with a restaurant that also offers fuel,” he added.
Families with young children are the main target demographic. “We’ll see an incredible amount of tourism throughout the year,” Doepke said. “We’ve got a wide range when it comes to our customers and our guests, but we are really driven by families and kids. The general rule for us is when school is out we’re busy.”
In 2016, Pops opened a second location in Nichols Hills, Okla. that doesn’t offer fuel. It does feature the restaurant and a small amount of retail such as pop, candy and Pops-branded merchandise.
“Candy has also become a big segment for us. It goes together with what our draw is with our demographic being families and children and offering the pop. We’ve seen a huge surge in our nostalgia candy section. That has been probably the biggest growth department for us since we’ve opened the door,” Doepke said.
The nostalgia candy section includes long-time favorites such as Red Vine, Slow Poke and Clark Bars, just to name a few.
“They’ve been a huge hit. We’ve seen that grow from a very small section within our standard candy offerings to growing into its own section,” he said.
The top two best selling pop flavors haven’t changed since Pops first opened its doors. Sugar-cane-based Dr Pepper, which comes in an eight-ounce glass bottle, has been the best selling soda flavor since day one. The No. 2 best selling pop flavor has always been Round Barn Root Beer, which is bottled locally. “It gives a nod to another Route 66 icon, which happens to be about a quarter mile across the street from us. The Round Barn is in Arcadia itself,” Doepke said.
It’s no secret that carbonated soft drink sales have declined at convenience stores as customers seek more health-conscious alternatives. Many beverage manufacturers and c-stores have responded with craft sodas featuring more natural ingredients.
The effervescent retailer has seen a similar trend. “Most of our soda does feature cane sugar instead of high fructose corn syrup. The stigma of the high fructose corn syrup has been a negative on soda sales over the years,” Doepke said. “As a result, we’ve seen the mass-produced brands suffer in sales over the last few years. Meanwhile, we’ve seen a surge in craft soda sales. It’s amazing to see how many brands are out there and most of them do include cane sugar as the sugar substitute, or Stevia in some of the more natural brands.”
In mid-February, the c-store rolled out a new app complete with mobile ordering for pickup from the restaurant and is exploring ideas for mobile ordering on the c-store side of the business too.
Pops decided to introduce an app and mobile ordering to keep pace with market trends and other local restaurants.
“You’ve got to stay fresh and keep up,” said Doepke.