With a revitalized foodservice strategy and other company initiatives, FriendShip is charting a course for fresh retail waters.
By David Bennett, Senior Editor
The FriendShip chain is located along the south shore of Lake Erie. While the highly seasonal market can create challenges for c-stores, FriendShip is experienced in weathering unique retail climates.
Beck Suppliers Inc. is a petroleum marketer that owns and operates FriendShip. The family business offers other services that include gasoline, diesel and propane distribution, tank installation and removal, automatic car wash equipment and air vending machines.
For all its diversity, the company, based in Fremont, Ohio, a few years ago began planning to transition the convenience chain to an organization with a more robust foodservice focus. After amassing a group of industry veterans—led by Greg Ehrlich, president of Beck Suppliers, the result is FriendShip Kitchen, which officially rolled out this June with a prototype store in Elyria, Ohio, part of the greater Cleveland region.
The newly launched foodservice concept begins…and ends with the retail brand.
“FriendShip Kitchen is branded 100% FriendShip, from the highway exit signs, to the fuel forecourt to the store itself,” said Ehrlich.
This next generation, FriendShip Kitchen is the largest retail space the c-store chain, which now operates 25 stores, has developed to date. The 5,500-square-foot store contains a full-service kitchen, gourmet coffee bar, oversized, upscale restrooms and a beer cave with touch-free doors. The building’s architecture, layout, materials and graphics were developed in conjunction with a complete brand refreshment. Square Dot, an independent design partnership based in Columbus, Ohio, led the brand refreshment and store-identity design, while Gray Cat Enterprises led the site layout, operations and menu planning.
“This new store has gone from ideation to opening over a period of 36 months,” Ehrlich said. “When we started the project it was just a concept, and even as the concept was developed, it was not until about 12 months ago that we settled on the location. This facility incorporates best practices from leading companies within the convenience and restaurant industries. Our product selection and menu were developed to meet both current and emerging consumer trends.”
The interior of the Elyria location is designed with an uncluttered floor layout, boasting unencumbered sight lines that make the store open and spacious. Displays are smaller and there’s plenty of room for patrons to move around.
It’s also easy to get to the food.
FriendShip Kitchen offers a broad array of hot and cold freshly-made beverages, meals and snacks. Customers can start their day with freshly-prepared on-the-go breakfast sandwiches, stuffed burritos, donuts and muffins. Its FriendShip Signature coffee blends are all made with gourmet roasted beans, ground just before brewing.
The combination of offerings are designed to entice customers. Moreover, the continuity of the foodservice platform will go far in making FriendShip Kitchen a food destination.
“As morning turns to lunch, our delicious breakfast pizzas transform into traditional oven-baked pies topped with a variety of fresh ingredients,” said Ehrlich. “Fresh slices of pizza are always ready to go and whole pies can be made to order with call-in and on-site ordering available. Online and mobile app ordering is not currently available but is under evaluation. Salads, sandwiches and wraps are made fresh on premises for time-starved customers looking for healthier dining options.”
STEADY AS SHE GOES
The first FriendShip location opened in 1985 near the coast line of Lake Erie. Beck Suppliers was started by grandfather Virgil Beck in 1950, expanded by sons Bill and Larry. In 2000, sons Doug, Dean and Brian purchased the company from their dad, with Doug serving as president until his passing earlier this year.
The Beck family that recognized a big part of FriendShip’s future and ability to compete resided in good food. They set out to fill their ranks with experts.“We needed execution, but we were looking for innovators,” Ehrlich said.
The FriendShip management team blends a talented group of FriendShip veterans with outside executives from top chains in the country, Ehrlich said. Ehrlich is a former management consultant with A.T. Kearney, led three convenience chains and has consulted to convenience retailers and suppliers as president of Convevo Partners.
As the company transitions to a foodservice focus, it was looking for a highly-skilled foodservice leader. Foodservice specialist Ed Burcher also joined the company ranks in 2017 as vice president of foodservice. Burcher is a former foodservice leader for Wawa and the architect of Petro Canada’s Neighbours convenience store and food service programs.
These two industry leaders joined an already talented retail management team led by Brian Beck, senior vice president; Gregg Edwards, vice president of operations; and Kevin Campbell, director of marketing.
Other staff in key positions include Aaron Hirt, district manager for new store concepts, who came over from Speedway after about eight years with that company. Hirt said the dynamic team that FriendShip was putting together and the direction the company was headed excited him, prompting him to make a career shift.
“The personalities I encountered are some of the best I’ve worked with,” said Hirt.
All the planning and hard work is paying off. FriendShip is already preparing to break ground on its next new-generation store—this one in the city of Olmsted Falls, Ohio, which is located less than 20 miles from Cleveland.
“As this is our first new-to-industry FriendShip Kitchen store, we expect to make some changes as we learn what is working well and what can be improved,” said Ehrlich. “We have an alternate 4,600-square-foot design that we expect to break ground on soon.”
While foodservice is a priority, the company has expanded its reimaging efforts to other parts of the retail operation. For example, last fall the company opened a new-build, tunnel car wash on the outskirts of Amherst, Ohio. Ehrlich explained that Beck Suppliers is already experienced at installing car wash equipment, and decided in 2017 to get into the business full-bore.
The car wash features modern amenities including RFID vehicle tags that allow customers to automatically access the car wash system. There are also modern vacuums that customers can use for free.
There are three packages that patrons can buy or they can pay for single washes. Beck has installed a system using large foam fingers that spin slowly to protect the vehicle’s finish. The company even provides patrons Simoniz microfibre drying towels that are laundered and used again.
Now and in the future, FriendShip is dedicated to maintaining strong ties to its customers, emphasizing the concept of ‘friendship.’ That concept for now will remain up close, in focus and personal. This is especially true at the foodservice counter.
“We considered using ordering kiosks, however, we value the time our hosts have with our guests, and decided the efficiencies added with kiosks were not worth losing the personal interactions with our chefs,” Ehrlich said.