Roaster’s Market, which celebrated its grand opening in 2020, brings an upmarket c-store experience to Ada, Okla.
The 5,200-square-foot site features a welcoming atmosphere and an expansive rotisserie menu and coffee bar. It also provides a drive-through, online ordering and touch-free restrooms, all of which came in handy during the early days of the pandemic when social distancing was top of mind for many customers.
While Roaster’s Market is a single-store operation — for now — the location boasts the upscale design, foodservice acumen and tech-forward initiatives that are traditionally the domain of much larger chains.
And Roaster’s has its sights set on future growth, with plans for a second location and a loyalty program on the horizon.
Mike Lawson, owner and CEO of Lawson Retail Operations, drew on his more than 20 years of experience in the industry when developing Roaster’s Market.
Lawson entered the fuel industry in 1995 when he acquired Danielson Fuel Services, which has provided fuel for c-stores in the South Central U.S. since 1975.
While acting as president of Danielson Fuel Services, Lawson also founded and served as CEO of Convenience Store Alliance (CSA), a buying program for independent c-store operators that helped them leverage their group buying power to achieve better pricing and position themselves to compete with larger chains. Lawson later divested Danielson Fuel Services and CSA in August 2020.
In 2012, Lawson also launched Lawson Holding Co., which included a transportation division, called Lawson Transportation, and a retail arm named Lawson Retail Operations.
Under the retail arm, the company bought a small truck stop in 2017, in rural Oklahoma, to test its ability to execute a retail operation.
“We had all the components. We just wanted to make sure we were able to do it,” Lawson said.
Along with a team that facilitated retail accounting, the company hired a general manager named Ben Bowman, who had steadily worked his way through the ranks with the distribution company and the buying program.
Bowman took control of the truck stop location and “did everything that we’d hoped for and more,” Lawson noted. The company still owns the site today.
In 2017, Lawson began to develop the concept for his c-store brand, Roaster’s Market.
Once the truck stop proved a success, the company purchased a former service station, which became the original Roaster’s Market location, officially opening its doors on July 16, 2020.
Comfortable, Fresh Feel
Lawson knew he wanted an upscale design for Roaster’s Market that conveyed its foodservice-centric vision to customers as they entered the store.
He partnered with design firm Paragon Solutions and shared three concepts he wanted the firm to draw from and join together as they created the Roaster’s Market design.
“I wanted to combine the design and atmospheric elements of several trending cafés,” he noted.
“One was Corner Bakery in the Dallas area,” Lawson explained. “It’s a smaller chain, has that café, barista-type feel, white-painted brick on the outside and comfortable woodwork on the inside.”
The second was Zoës, a local Mediterranean chain with “bright, fresh pillars.” Lawson liked the warm, inviting atmosphere of Zoës, and he especially liked that the atmosphere conveyed a sense of freshness that signals to customers that it offers fresh, quality food.
“And then (third), Panera Bread, along the same line, but it gives more of that warm feel of its food offering,” he said.
Today, as customers enter Roaster’s Market, they’re greeted by red brick walls with dark green accents. The interior of the store includes a seating area with space for 40 guests that includes four tables as well as seating along a bar. Outside, a patio seats 50 and features table umbrellas and misting fans. A canopy was added once it became known that outdoor seating would be preferable during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Music also plays a large role in the ambiance of the store. Typically, the songs played are recognizable ‘70s and ‘80s tunes, with other genres mixed throughout.
“It’s just very upbeat, and it makes you feel good when you’re in there,” Lawson said. “That ties along with the feel of the place, which is unique. It’s higher-end.”
Roaster’s Market boasts entirely touch-free restrooms, including touch-free toilets, faucets, soap dispensers and towel dispensers. The restrooms feature airport-style doorways and subway tile walls.
The entire Roaster’s Market lot measures eight-tenths of an acre, with the forecourt featuring four gas pumps. Roaster’s plan for a future second location includes space for eight gas pumps.
Coffee and Rotisserie
The Roaster’s Market concept began to take shape with two ingredients: craft coffee and restaurant-quality food. After researching typical c-store food on the East Coast and following the offerings of well-known, established stores, Lawson decided the Roaster’s brand would be known for its made-to-order food.
Roaster’s uses technology to allow customers to build their own meals.
“I wanted everything fresh, and I wanted the highest-quality ingredients,” Lawson said. The foundation piece in its menu is rotisserie.
While traveling to the Reading Terminal Market in Philadelphia, Lawson found a long line at the back of the building leading to a kiosk that had a rotisserie barbecue offering. The company, which had multiple Pennsylvania locations, was ‘rotissering’ its food offerings, from chicken pieces to corn on the cob, carrots and potatoes. One item, a jumbo chicken wing, specifically inspired the rotisserie-style Roaster’s menu.
“Chicken wings are just the biggest rage right now,” said Lawson. “It doesn’t seem to be slowing down at all. And this would be a nice, healthy take on it. And so we said rotisserie is going to be our cornerstone piece on how we’re going to prepare most of our proteins.”
When building the Roaster’s menu, coffee was another item that took the Roaster’s team traveling; they found their beans in Austin, Texas. Roaster’s coffee is made to order and high-quality with a barista experience.
“And (with) those two components, between the coffee bar and the kitchen with the rotisserie, we came up with the name Roaster’s Market — Roaster’s tying both to the bean and also tying to the method of cooking,” Lawson said.
Along with the rotisserie, other food options include corn, french fries, sweet potato fries, chicken salad, fried okra, fried mushrooms and quinoa. One of Roaster’s biggest sellers is its sandwiches, particularly breakfast sandwiches. Combos are also options, such as a made-to-order sandwich with a fountain drink and Roaster’s chips.
“We have our own special kind of seasoning and rub, which has been a really fun part of the process, that we put on for chicken or turkey or corn,” said Lawson.
“One thing that pairs really well with pretty much anything, any entree that we offer at the store, is our Roaster’s chips. They are freshly made potato chips with Roaster’s rub on them,” said Caroline Lawson, marketing coordinator for Roaster’s Market.
Opening in the middle of the COVID-19 pandemic brought challenges as well as opportunities to explore new technology.
The initial rush of customers following the opening of the convenience store slowed as increased COVID-19 concerns and lockdowns arrived, and like many c-stores, Roaster’s felt the impact. But as the new year passed and 2020 became 2021, sales began to rebound in a big way.
“As soon as the new 2021 year started, buying patterns and sales started a steep incline. People got out. They were ready to change and get back to normal behavior, and sales reflected it almost immediately beginning in January,” Mike Lawson said.
The challenge of opening during the pandemic called for certain aspects of the c-store to be taken into consideration more carefully than before. For example, technology has been an asset in serving customers amid social distancing concerns.
A drive-through that was already in place when the company acquired the site was used to help facilitate the flow of customers. Roaster’s added a menu board for the drive-through, so customers can place their orders before they arrive at the window.
“The menu board is perhaps maybe five to six car lengths back from the actual checkout window,” Mike Lawson said, “which provides ample time to start the orders and have them ready once the customer pulls up to the window to get their items.” This is especially helpful because many of the craft coffee drinks take extra time to make.
As many of the made-to-order items can only be offered in-store, food items are not available through the drive-through, but customers can order crafted coffee drinks, and other cold and hot drinks from the coffee bar via the drive-through, along with pre-packaged items or typical sundries.
In addition to the drive-through, Roaster’s Market also uses an online ordering platform called ChowNow that rolled out in November 2020.
“We’re averaging about 30 online orders a day, and we continue to see month over month that it’s performing better and better,” noted Caroline Lawson. “We’ve got just shy of 1,000 online customers to this point, and it’s been live for a little over half a year. So it’s done really well, and we’re expectant for it to continue to perform well.”
Also through the ChowNow platform, Roaster’s can track customer buying habits and reward repeat customers, as well as encourage them to return for future visits.
The Lawsons plan to expand Roaster’s Market to a second location within the next 12 months. They’re currently evaluating potential properties for the expansion. With the opening of their next location, Roaster’s plans to introduce a full loyalty program.
“Real estate is at a peak, and it makes it difficult on finding a good purchase opportunity. But once we do add another store, that makes it more cost-effective to apply and invest in a loyalty program,” said Mike Lawson.
In the meantime, Roaster’s continues to find new ways to best serve its Ada, Okla.-based customers. Roaster’s is centrally located in the town, which has a population of roughly 25,000 people, and offers the city’s school staff and students 10% off their food and drink offerings. The discount also applies to first responders.
Currently, Roaster’s is also working to partner with local college East Central University’s (ECU) athletic department, setting up scholarships for ECU’s football and basketball programs. It’s also identifying ways to best serve students during Christmas break.
As Roaster’s Market grows, it plans to continue to find ways to support its local community as well as introduce new customers to its store.
The store’s high-end atmosphere, upscale offering and small-town hospitality make Roaster’s Market special.
“It’s really all about friendliness,” Mike Lawson said when asked what he thinks makes Roaster’s stand out. “It’s the uniqueness and definitely the food in terms of its quality.”