Tang Mart is standing out in Alabama. The four-store chain, based in Gadsden, Ala., is reimaging its locations to incorporate its playful Tang Mart brand design. It recently launched a new bean-to-cup coffee program, and it’s strategizing to expand its foodservice program and double its store count in the next five years.
Releasing the Dragon
Jonathan Tang founded Tang Mart in 2013. Tang was working with his father-in-law Ira Phillips’ company IRA Phillips Inc., a Chevron and Texaco wholesale fuel supplier and Pacific Pride franchisee, which has been servicing northeastern Alabama since 1938.
IRA Phillips Inc. owns convenience store properties and tanks, but leases the stores to c-store operators. When one of the convenience stores became available in 2013, Tang jumped at the chance to build his own c-store brand.
“Tang Mart is a stand-alone company that is an operator of IRA Phillips Inc.,” Tang explained.
Tang didn’t have a background in retail, but he was familiar with the top-quartile chains in the industry and felt confident he could create not only a safe and clean shopping experience, but an environment that offered a fun place to both work and shop.
In 2015, he partnered with design firm Paragon Solutions to develop an original design and logo for the chain that incorporated a sense of playfulness to create an approachable, friendly and contemporary vibe throughout the locations.
“My last name is Tang — my father’s Chinese, and my mother is Caucasian —and so I wanted to pay a little homage to my Asian heritage,” Tang said. But it was important to Tang that the design wasn’t cheesy or traditional.
“I wanted to do something fun,” he said. Paragon Solutions’ designers suggested adding a playful, animated dragon character to the logo, along the lines of Yoshi from Nintendo’s Mario video game franchise, and Tang loved the idea.
Today, the design features a lovable, green, cartoon dragon icon that is carried across the store design from the logo to the “Thirsty Dragon” messaging above the fountain section to the “Awaken the Dragon” tagline on its “Black Dragon” coffee to its outdoor pet relief-and-play area — adding personality throughout the store.
Keeping with the spirit of fun, Tang Mart also incorporates other whimsical sections, like its Himalayan Beer Cave and its Yummy Yeti frozen drink program, which features an animated yeti character.
“We’ve got this fun yeti, holding up a frozen drink,” Tang said. “We’ve taken some of those subtle branding elements and Asian heritage and carried them throughout the stores. It’s been well received. I think a lot of people enjoy that fun, playful dragon.”
Next up, Tang Mart is set to grow its foodservice program and plans to incorporate the dragon icon into that branding as well. “We want to involve him in that, maybe holding a pizza or something,” Tang said.
Today, Tang Mart operates four sites in Alabama that range from 2,000 square feet to 3,500 square feet and offer Chevron- and Texaco-branded gas. One location has already been fully redesigned, with three more to follow this fall.
“The other three have certain elements but aren’t 100% branded Tang Mart,” he explained. “The plan is to have all remaining three sites converted from the Chevron/Texaco Food Mart image to Tang Mart building image by the end of the year.”
Tang Mart is at the beginning of its foodservice initiative today, with plans to expand. Currently, it features a proprietary pizza program via its grocery supplier.
“We use their pizza product, and we brand it as our own, similar to our coffee program, which offers our distributor’s coffee, but we brand it Black Dragon coffee,” Tang said. “That’s been a (helpful) thing for me in growing my branding element. When (customers) want a Black Dragon Coffee, the only place they can come get a Black Dragon Coffee is at Tang Mart.”
Tang Mart also features grab-and-go breakfast biscuits in sausage, steak and chicken varieties. Tang is eager to implement an expanded breakfast program, as well as additional lunch offerings beyond pizza. Some items being considered based on current trends include empanadas and barbecue sandwiches.
Tang hopes a robust, well-executed food offering will drive traffic to the stores.
“Once I get the customer in the store, I feel like I win,” he said. “Because I try to operate and run a store that is better than my competition. … When they come in and see all the different branded elements and items we have, it differentiates us from our competition.”
On the tech front, Tang is using geotargeting to entice potential customers with advertisements sent to their cell phones when they are within range of the store.
“We can identify target areas and target groups of people that we want to show ads to, which obviously drives store traffic,” he said. Tang Mart is also eyeing the possibility of a loyalty program or a mobile app in the near future.
But it’s the small touches that make Tang Mart a destination for customers.
Its designated pet relief-and-play area at one of its locations right off the interstate, for example, appeals to travelers with pet passengers. “We know that people are traveling. It’s just another way to show, ‘Hey, we’re convenient for you,’” Tang said. “We carry the dragon icon into the pet area on our signage that says, ‘It’s your duty to pick up the doody.’”
The interstate store also features outdoor picnic tables so customers can enjoy their pizza outside.
Tang Mart stores also offer free air for tires. “That’s just some goodwill we can give to the community and our customers,” he said. It also helps drive business as customers fuel up or visit the store while they’re there.
“Especially here in Alabama, there’s not a lot of major chains … so people have gotten in the rut of going to the standard issue gas station, and we’re trying to break that mold,” Tang said.
But above all, it’s Tang Mart’s employees and superior customers service that help the chain stand out.
“We want people, when they come in, to feel like they’re welcomed. … We want to make sure they have a pleasant experience,” Tang said. “That ties into our culture, which is (that) we want it to be a fun place to shop and work, and so that permeates the whole way through — the fun things that we like to do to make our customers feel welcome.”
Adapting to 2020
In the early days of COVID-19, Tang proactively installed plexiglass guards in the stores and provided masks and gloves to employees.
“That’s definitely impacted our way to go to business, interacting with our customers, and our vendors as well,” he said.
“We had implemented prior to (the pandemic) a bean-to-cup fresh-brewed coffee program at all our stores,” Tang noted. Removing the open-air coffee pots had the added benefit of minimizing touch points around the coffee program. Customers can be assured the coffee is brewed fresh for them on demand, and not sitting out for possible contamination.
Tang Mart is assessing the new normal in light of the COVID-19 pandemic and evaluating curbside pickup options. “There’s some regulations here in the state of Alabama that prevent some of that, especially with alcohol and tobacco items,” he said. “So it’s been a figuring out process of what we can do, what we can’t do and what that looks like in the future.”
In the next five years, Tang aims to double his store count to eight locations.
“My goal is to grow our store footprint and our store count through right-sizing our network of stores (through IRA Phillips) — maximize the good stores and operate more of those,” Tang said.