Crossville, Tenn.-based Speed Mart President Viral Patel has been working in convenience stores since he was a teenager, shortly after emigrating from India. Now, he and his extended family operate seven Speed Mart stores across middle Tennessee that employ family and nearly 30 others.
“Our family started with store one, and we got that going, and then expanded to the second store, and then the third, and then now we have seven operating,” said Patel.
He and his brother Sandeep, as well as his father and an uncle, are also very much involved with the business. Viral and Sandeep have grown into the business’ main operators, though. “We’re the youngsters, so we’re the ones who are expanding the legacy of it,” Viral Patel explained. “And with the technology we’re operating with, I have roughly 26, 27 employees working currently.”
Today, the chain is enticing customers with pizza offerings, rolling out Bitcoin kisoks that handle various financial transactions, implementing solar power and even handling store construction and renovations in-house.
From the Beginning
When Patel was 10, his parents and siblings left India for Illinois. His grandparents, an uncle and other family members were already in the U.S. After a few years living in Illinois, the family moved to Tennessee. That was around three decades ago.
“And since then, we’ve been helping family and now running the stores,” Patel said, “and everything is going smooth.”
He and other family members worked at his grandfather’s leased convenience store location three decades ago. When the building owner raised the rent, the family decided to move to a new location, purchasing a store in Crossville, Tenn.
“And that happened to be a good store,” Patel said. “And after that, we built one ground up. Bought land and got construction done and opened a ground up (build) — and that is our biggest store, Miller Mart One, out of Crossville.”
Patel and his family had no experience with new construction but were lucky enough to find good contractors who did. One builder handled all the forecourt aspects of the project — the canopy, fuel tanks, pumps and signage.
For his building contractor, Patel said that the family drew up a blueprint … of sorts. “Just a sketch — how we wanted it to look and lay out. It took, from start to finish, six months. And we had a good location up and running,” he said.
The experience inspired Patel and other family members to learn more about the construction process and the actual skills of a builder as well. Now they do their own store remodeling and even built a new home.
“If we can do something on our own, we usually do it on our own,” Patel said proudly. “It saves labor and gets it done a lot faster — and when we need it.”
Going Green Earns Green
For Speed Mart, energy efficiency is a no-brainer. The newly built Miller Mart One store incorporated a rooftop and canopy solar power system. Patel called it a good investment, providing a significant amount of the store’s power.
Patel operates on the principle that if the company isn’t expanding or improving the store, profits should still be reinvested. “And solar is a good, big investment,” he explained, “where it takes a big portion of the profit and puts it back into the building as an expense.”
He’d like to expand similar solar configurations to other stores, but Patel said the hefty tax and grant benefits that made the first solar build possible are about to expire.
“It’s kind of pricey without that,” Patel said. “And right now, when we installed at Miller Mart One, payback was eight years. And after that, it’s profit. But if the tax credit goes away, that payback is going to be 12 years.”
That’s too long of a time frame for Patel’s liking. But he still supports energy efficiency efforts. Patel is a firm believer in the benefits of LED lighting, both exterior and interior. “Yes, and it makes the store look 10 times newer, bright lights,” he said. (See the LED article on p. 88 for more on Speed Mart’s LED initiatives.)
When it comes to foodservice, for Speed Mart, simple is better. And so is pizza. Patel contracts with Hunt Brothers Pizza for one of his stores, and a new pizza vendor, Crazy Italian Pizza, for another five. “We don’t have anything like hot fries or anything (involving) major cooking,” added Patel.
Two stores offer Scoops Ice Cream. His stores also feature a solid grab-and-go island with items that can be consumed cold or warmed in a microwave.
Still, Patel subscribes to the old-school model of rolling up your sleeves and doing whatever it takes to keep the stores running smoothly.
“See, I usually run around and handle any repairs,” he said. “I do anything, besides running the cash register. I try to get enough employees so I don’t have to be stuck behind the counter, because I am more hands-on.”
But he knows when to delegate, too. Patel admitted he isn’t terrific with computers, so he lets his store managers handle much of that type of work, as well as making sure the stores are well staffed. But he credits technology with simplifying many of the stores’ operational tasks.
“Without technology, we wouldn’t have made it,” Patel said. “Because remotely we can change prices, remotely we can do payroll, and it’s just been a good experience.”
Patel is also heavily involved with a trade group he said helps small operators like Speed Mart consolidate their buying power to help them stay competitive. Strategic Alliance for Affiliated Store Owners of America (SAASOA) also helps operators with understanding new technology, marketing strategy, working with vendors on issues like tobacco scan data and more.
He and several other operators represent members in Tennessee and act as a resource for those who have operational questions and other concerns with running their businesses.
Patel’s latest venture grew out of his use of ATMs and Bitcoin kiosks in his stores. He partnered with DigitalMint on the initial installation of the Bitcoin machines, which has now led to a separate business that offers multi-function ATMs.
“We tested it at our stores — two of my stores first,” Patel said. “This kiosk can do ATM (transactions). It can do check cashing, and it can do bill payment — thousands of bills. You name it. … It can do money transfers to 50 other countries. It can do bitcoin. It can do phone cards, gift cards, Verizon prepaid minutes. It’s got like 10 different items on one machine, which runs by itself.”
In addition to his own stores, Patel has contracts now to place the machines in 13 locations near him. Patel saw an opportunity to provide something nobody in his region offered.
In seizing these types of opportunities — whether buying or building stores, learning how to make improvements themselves or taking advantage of money saving energy efficiencies — Speed Mart and the Patel family continually find ways to better serve central Tennessee’s c-store customers.