From updating locations with open kitchens and a freshly-prepared foodservice program to growing its alcohol selection—not to mention planning for a dozen new stores—the Maryland-based chain is gearing up for tomorrow.
By Erin Del Conte, Senior Editor
Dash In Food Stores recently unveiled a 5,600-square-foot prototype convenience store in Chesterfield County, Va. on 2.4 acres, featuring 16 fueling positions, an open kitchen concept and a growler/crowler program.
The 55-store chain, which also operates 38 Splash In ECO Car Washes, is set to embark on an aggressive growth plan to open about a dozen new stores, grow its fleet of car washes and modernize its existing locations in the next two years.
“We’re going through a pretty aggressive process of re-investing in the chain through re-development. We’ll probably re-develop as many sites in our existing network as we will bring on new sites,” said Dash In President Julian “Blackie” Wills, the fourth generation in The Wills Group family business.
Dash In was founded by Wills’ father, Lock Wills, and is one of the subsidiaries of Wills Group, which began in 1926. The first Dash In c-store opened in 1979 in Laurel, Md.
Dash In’s 5,600-square-foot concept store, which opened this April, in Chesterfield County, Va., 20 miles outside of Richmond, Va., creates a store experience around “fresh thinking,” which informs everything from the design of the store to the fresh food available. The concerted concept is expected to drive the overall growth and direction of the Dash In brand over the next few years.
“We built an entire new store experience that can serve as the new benchmark for what we envision the Dash In customer experience being for the consumer,” Wills said.
The holistic approach is meant to envelop shoppers once they enter the store.
“The goal for Dash In is to make life more rewarding for time-stretched people by emphasizing a sense of local and personal connection that transforms the necessary errands of today’s busy life into engaging experiences,” Wills added. “We think this site in Chesterfield County is the initial expression of where we’re taking the new brand and trying to build this elevated consumer experience.”
Dash In worked with several design partners and a brand consultant to create the new location, which features earth tones and materials—such as brick and wood siding, an exposed ceiling and subway tiles. Dash In brought local elements into the design, including sepia-tone imagery of the James River to convey the Dash In’s brand’s commitment to being a local, neighborhood store. Exterior architectural elements of the prototype were influenced by Jeffersonian architecture.
The site also features a 52-foot-long roll-over Splash In ECO Car Wash, open 24/7, seven days a week, with six free vacuum stations and weather canopies.
The new location is Dash In’s first 5,600-square-foot store. Most other recent stores have been around 3,400 square feet. The larger footprint allowed Dash In to take advantage of local alcohol sales laws and introduce a growler/crowler program, as well as an expanded wine wall featuring 90 choices, and a beer cave.
The growler/crowler program features eight taps and beer from more than 200 craft breweries in the state of Virginia.
“We think there’s an opportunity within the c-store space to offer an elevated experience with craft beer,” said Wills. “We targeted Richmond specifically because there’s 37 breweries located in the Richmond area and it skews very high for craft brewing.”
The growler program features 64-ounce glass jugs or ‘growlers,’ which can be filled on site, and the crowler program features smaller 32-ounce aluminum cans or ‘crowlers.’ Crowlers offer a longer shelf-life, retaining freshness for a few weeks.
Customers can also exchange old growlers for a new one on their next refill, while the crowlers are recyclable. The beer fill-up plus growler/crowler retails for $7-$24 depending on the beer purchased.
Dash In is the first retailer in Virginia to offer a crowler program. Using the third-party mobile app, Tap Hunter, Dash In updates customers on the specialty beers on tap each week.
“So far we’ve tapped 21 Virginia breweries, 20 regional and national craft breweries and then another six micro-breweries,” said Wills. “We also offer wine from five local wineries in our wine selections including two organic wines, and we offer a mix-your-own six-pack for bottled craft beer.” Wines range in price from $4.99 to $22 per bottle.
OPEN KITCHEN CONCEPT
The new c-store is also the first Dash In location to introduce a new open kitchen concept.
“We intentionally placed the new open kitchen in the center of the store, so when customers enter, it’s the central focal point. We also want to make clear our commitment to making fresh food,” Wills said. From a design standpoint, Dash In wanted to convey transparency around the food production allowing customers to watch the food being made.
The open kitchen serves up items from Dash In’s ‘Craveable’ made-to-order menu concept, which is already rolled out to other locations. Dash In plans to eventually transition all 55 existing locations to the Craveable menu, which features artisan sandwiches, grab-and-go wraps and salads made in-house daily, as well as an all-day breakfast with freshly-cracked eggs.
Favorite menu items include the Cranberry Chicken Salad Croissant and the Turkey Cucumber on Ciabatta. The Chesterfield site has introduced two new menu items including the Chicken Parmesan Slider and the Buffalo Chicken Quesadilla, which are in the process of rolling out to other locations.
The open kitchen will also eventually be introduced to all Dash In stores.
“The intention is within the next five years, we really want to totally modernize the chain to include this new open kitchen, so that our brand is very consistent between stores,” Wills said. “We’re really focused on re-shaping the customer experience.”
In addition to introducing around 12 new stores in the next 24 months and upgrading existing locations with foodservice, open kitchens as well as modern features, Dash In also plans to expand its car wash offering.
“We’re currently under construction for our first tunnel conveyer car wash, which is a large format car wash, expected to open later this year,” Wills said. “It’s co-located with a Dash In location, so we’re looking to grow not only our Dash In stores, but also our Splash In ECO Car Wash chain concurrently. In most cases they will be co-located at the same sites.”
The Wills Group, in April, released its 2017 Community Engagement Report, “Keeping Lives in Motion,” which highlights its increased commitment to community engagement and giving back in communities across Delaware, Maryland, Virginia and Washington, D.C. The Wills Group focuses on areas where it believes it can make the greatest impact: Eliminating Childhood Hunger and Ensuring Safe and Healthy Homes.
“Dash In is involved with our childhood hunger effort,” Wills said. “We’re working to incorporate that effort into our community engagement around our store openings. I think that that’s an essential component of our commitment to demonstrate to customers that we’re invested in the community.”
In 2018, Dash In aims to add fundraising at the store level as well.