SIGNAL Food Stores is differentiating in a crowded market with a successful proprietary foodservice program, a competitive employee benefits package and a focus on the future, from remodeling stores to adding CBD products.
SIGNAL was established in 1984 with one store in Ava, Mo. Today, the chain spans 11 locations in southwest Missouri. In 2016, the company relocated its headquarters from Springfield, Mo. to Ozark, Mo. to accommodate its growing business.
In 2017, SIGNAL began remodeling all 11 stores to bring them in line with the more “modern, industrial” design of its flagship store in Ozark, Mo. and create additional space for foodservice, hot dispensed and cold vault offerings. The final two remodels are set to be complete by 2020.
SIGNAL’s employees are one of the driving forces behind the chain’s success. The average cashier has been with the company for five years, and the average manager for 12. In an industry with a notoriously high turnover rate, the company has succeeded in retaining employees by ensuring caring about its people is a core part of its culture.
“I think it starts from the top,” said Sean Bumgarner, vice president of Scrivener Oil Co. Inc., the parent company of SIGNAL. “We only have about 160 employees, so we’re small enough to know them all by name.”
Bumgarner also credits the company’s benefits, which include compteitive wages. At SIGNAL, new hires earn $11 to $12 per hour, depending on the location, while the minimum wage sits at $8.60 in Missouri and $7.25 federally.
“If you pay better, set clear expectations and train them the proper way, then you end up having better-quality employees in the long run, and they stay around longer,” Bumgarner said.
At SIGNAL, training continues well past the new-hire stage. New employees undergo a day-long basic training period at the main office, followed by two weeks with a dedicated trainer at the store location. After about a month with the company, Bumgarner personally meets with new employees to check in.
“I’ll drive out there and see them, make sure that they understand what they’re doing, why they’re doing it the way they’re doing it — and see if they have any suggestions to make the company better,” he said. “Some of them they do, and we’ll try to implement that into our future training
In the third quarter, the company plans to begin an ongoing, advanced training program for all employees, which includes online courses that will livestream from the main office, as well as web-based questionnaires.
SIGNAL also offers a company-sponsored 401(k) program, paid vacation after a year of employment and incentive programs for meeting fuel-gallon goals or inside-sales goals.
“Each store has different goals,” said Bumgarner. “Once they meet those goals, we have a party. We rent a limo, we take every employee out. … It might be dinner, it might be drinks, it might be an amusement park — something that everybody thinks is going to be fun.”
Proprietary and Branded Foodservice
SIGNAL is also growing through its foodservice offerings, which include co-brands Subway, Quiznos and Papa John’s, as well as its own proprietary brand, Hank’s Chicken, Fish & More. All are overseen by Jami Jordan, who is a vice president at the company along with Bumgarner.
“We wanted to differentiate ourselves from other c-stores that sell chicken,” said Jordan. “To do this, we set out to create a brand that focuses on fresh, fried chicken in a clean and welcoming environment.”
The brand’s No. 1 seller is chicken tenders, but Jordan said they also sell a lot of catfish, livers and gizzards.
“Our chicken is not your typical greasy, rubbery ‘gas station chicken,’” she said. “We hand-bread all of our chicken and catfish. … Customers often think that we are part of a larger franchise and are surprised to that find we’re a local, self-made chicken concept.”
Employee benefits and a commitment to quality foodservice aren’t the only modern aspects of the company.
After the Agriculture Improvement Act of 2018 passed, better known as the Farm Bill, SIGNAL started selling cannabidiol (CBD) products from Hemp Bombs in all stores, including oils, rubs, gummies, pet treats and vape products. Gummies, Bumgarner said, are the top seller for the category.
Despite its popularity, Bumgarner said misconceptions still exist about CBD, which is derived from the hemp plant and does not contain tetrahydrocannabinol (THC), the main psychoactive component of cannabis.
“We’re still getting a few upset customers that we’re carrying (CBD) even though there’s nothing wrong with it,” Bumgarner said.
“We have one town where the cops pulled it out because they didn’t think it was legal, and we finally had to get an attorney involved and prove it was legal,” he added. “We still have to fight that perception that it’s a bad product.”
Bumgarner did make sure all of the CBD products were returnable as a precaution, but he said he’s not worried about potential Food and Drug Administration (FDA) regulation, in part because customers tell him they benefit from the products.
“Several say it helps with their aches and pains,” Bumgarner said. “A lot of them say it helps with their anxiety. Two of them have told me it helps with their children’s seizures.”
With close to 30% of transactions tied to a SIGNAL Rewards card, the company is always looking for ways to offer its customers more.
Although the chain hasn’t embarked on new technology, such as frictionless checkout, Bumgarner is interested in the developments.
“The nature of our business is convenience,” he said. “If we could get somebody in and out without having to wait in a line, I think that’d be great.”
For now, Bumgarner said the company is focused on bettering its existing business, while keeping an eye on innovation.
“I like change.” he said. “If you’re not changing, you’re going in the wrong direction.”