With fresh prepared foodservice, bean-to-cup coffee and newly upgraded fuel pumps, Wesco Inc.’s Champlain Farms is set to open its 41st c-store location this spring as the company celebrates more than 50 years as a family-owned business.
Now, the third generation of the family business is stepping into leadership roles at the South Burlington, Vt.-based chain and preparing to carry the company into the next 50 years.
From the Beginning
Champlain Farms can trace its roots to the 1970s, when Walter Simendinger established Wesco Inc.
An industry veteran, Walter had spent 16 years purchasing real estate for Mobil Oil, and he knew a good corner when he saw one. He purchased a gas station in Plymouth, Conn., and moved his family to Hartford. His son, Dave Simendinger, now president of Champlain Farms, remembers growing up in the family business.
“At nine years old, I was pumping gas and building price signs with plywood. Gas was 19.9 cents a gallon,” he said.
Living in Vermont had been a dream for Walter and his wife Jo Ann. In 1970, Walter divested the Plymouth gas station, and they moved to Burlington, Vt., with their four children. In Vermont, Walter embarked on a new strategy, purchasing key corners, but leasing the gas stations with auto-repair garages to other operators. He quickly acquired five locations in Vermont. Wesco Inc. was on its way.
In 1978, when Dave was graduating from high school, the operator at their Enosburg Falls, Vt., site left, and the family saw an opportunity to convert the auto garage to a convenience store. By then gas was selling for $1.34 a gallon, and self-service was just beginning.
With its first c-store up and running, Wesco Inc. shifted its agenda to converting its other auto bays to convenience stores.
Those early c-stores didn’t yet have windows or walk-in coolers. “We just built a box and put a nice roof line on it,” Dave Simendinger remembered. “We were leasing them and running them by whatever name that individual operator wanted to call them.”
Walter had not planned on his sons joining the business. Bill was off to law school. Dave had gone to college and majored in chemistry, but right when he was graduating in 1982, Gulf Oil exited Vermont, and Wesco Inc. acquired 15 gas stations from Gulf Oil.
“Now we’ve got 20 locations, and with that I said, ‘I’m going to jump in and help my dad run this,’” Dave Simendinger said. By the early 1980s, Wesco Inc. had already converted about four sites to convenience stores and began converting the newly acquired sites as well.
Soon after, Exxon also exited the gas station business in Vermont, and Wesco Inc. acquired additional sites from Exxon. Now, with a full fleet of c-store locations, it was time for a name.
“It was about 1983, and I was building a store in Lebanon, N.H. Driving back, I just came up with that name, Champlain Farms. I knew we had to come up with a chain name,” said Dave Simendinger. “Between Lake Champlain, and the farms of Vermont, Champlain Farms just made sense.”
He also designed a logo, incorporating Camel’s Hump, the mountain landmark for which Vermont is known.
In 1986, Dave stepped into the role of president; though, as a member of a family business, he’s used to handling whatever role is needed. “I still open stores,” he said. “If I drive by one of our stores early in the morning, and it’s not open yet, I’m going to open it. I’m not going to leave it closed.”
Walter passed away in 2009. While Dave focused on the operations side of the business, his brother, Bill Simendinger, an attorney, handled permitting until he passed away in 2014. After his passing, their sister, Kathy Sarvak, also an attorney, stepped up to manage virtually all the day-to-day legal issues for the family business and remains a key partner in the company today.
“It’s wonderful to have an attorney by my side every day to run this ever-so-challenging business, and she’s brilliant,” he said.
Today, Champlain Farms owns 40 convenience stores — 38 in Vermont and two in New Hampshire. Four of the locations are leased to other operators, while 36 are company-owned and operated. The chain has grown mostly through acquisitions, razing and rebuilding stores as needed, or remodeling to create space for walk-in coolers and new-and-improved foodservice.
“We built the chain with dozens of very dedicated and hardworking employees, many of whom have been here since the beginning and are very responsible for the success we share today. We have vendor relationships that go back to the very beginning, and many of these dedicated folks helped us in so many ways to become Vermont’s No. 1 chain,” Dave Simendinger said.
Now, the third generation of the family business, Dave’s children Jamie and Kurt, are stepping into leadership positions at the company.
Jamie Simendinger is a vice president and predominantly manages payroll and banking for the company, but as a member of a family business, she’s also used to wearing many hats. “Every day brings something different,” she said.
Kurt Simendinger, also a vice president, spends much of his time out in the field, communicating directly with team members. He noted that one of the keys to being successful in the family business is surrounding yourself with intelligent people, showing employees the utmost respect and demonstrating that you’re just as hard working as they are.
“It means putting yourself in a position to give up a Friday night to work down at a store as a cashier if needed, showing them, ‘Hey, look, we’re all in this together,’” he said. “It’s so motivating for Jamie and me to show our parents that we’re in this — and we’re motivated every day to come to work and give it everything we’ve got.”
In the early 1990s, Champlain Farms found itself in sudden need of a new store design.
“Up until about 1990, the oil companies would pay us to look like their shoebox buildings down in Houston, Texas, with the agenda that every building needed to look the same across America, whether it was Gulf or Exxon or Texaco,” Dave Simendinger said. “We’d use their colors, their stucco, and a lot of them were Southwestern designs. Overnight they said, ‘That’s it. You’ve got to get your own look.’ Every single oil company all about the same time said, ‘You can’t look like us anymore.’ Boy, what a challenge that was, because we’re not architects. We’re business people.”
Dave started by selecting a roof line he liked that peaked at the top with a slope on all four sides. He decided the roof would slope 11 feet to the overhang, with the total height of the store measuring 21 feet.
At the time, most c-stores had flat roofs and were prone to leaks due to snow and ice, and this roof eliminated those issues.
“Every store has a different shape, but this roof line really helps make them all look the same all the way around,” he said. “I’ve gotten so many compliments on it.”
With their unique roof line, large windows and pale-yellow exterior, the stores resemble New England Cape Homes, all designed by Dave himself, with three feet of brick below the windows and architectural shingles on the roof.
“That design could go anywhere from roadside America into the neighborhoods,” he said. “A lot of our stores are in neighborhoods, so this fit really is aesthetically pleasing.”
Over the past two years, Champlain Farms received a facelift in the forecourt when it upgraded its gas pumps.
“We spent $1 million putting all new gasoline dispensers in to get up to date with EMV,” he said. “We’re also constantly reimaging our major oil standards. Their contracts come up constantly, so every time you reimage, you get a new canopy, new pumps, new signs.” Today, Champlain Farms partners with Shell, Sunoco and Gulf in the forecourt.
Now the chain is set to build a new store in Milton, Vt., which is scheduled to open next spring. The new c-store will measure 2,500 square feet, which is the target size for most of Champlain Farms’ stores today.
Many of the stores contain a unique design feature to help keep them cool. In 2009, Dave and his wife took a trip to Howe Caverns in New York. It happened to be a blazing hot day, but it was cool underground. It got Dave thinking, “Under my walk-in cooler, it’s 35 degrees year-round.”
The thought set in motion the chain’s first “tunnel store,” where they constructed a cinder block tunnel under the walk-in cooler and used the cold air from underground to cool the store, resulting in energy-efficiency gains and a reduced electric bill. The chain has been adding the feature to new builds and remodeled stores ever since.
When guests arrive at Champlain Farms, they’re greeted by a fresh prepared, made-to-order proprietary foodservice program. Breakfast sandwiches are the most popular item for the chain, with breakfast sales double that of other categories.
Champlain Farms looks to keep its food offering simple so it can execute the program across its fleet of stores. Breakfast sandwiches comprise a major part of the food offering, followed by burgers, pizza and chicken, with sides such as french fries and onion rings. Each store has a deli manager who oversees foodservice operations. “If the deli manager wants to make a lasagna, they can certainly do that. We give them carte blanche,” he said.
Champlain Farms partners with New England-based coffee roaster Green Mountain Coffee, which has a big following in Vermont. This summer, it rolled out Green Mountain Coffee’s bean-to-cup coffee program at every location. Customer response has been positive, and it’s also brought benefits on the operations side.
“There’s no waste. When you open a store in the morning, you don’t have to go make the coffee. It’s all ready to go,” Dave Simendinger noted. “The beans cost less than the ground beans — so you have more margin.”
“Previously, a night employee would have to clean all the air pots, as well, so none of that is even happening anymore. It’s great,” Kurt Simendinger added.
Over the past two years, as restaurants have struggled due to the COVID-19 pandemic and labor shortages, Champlain Farms’ foodservice program has grown.
“Our food business is up 10%,” Dave Simendinger said. “We’re pretty happy with the amount of food we’re doing, but we have to be extremely careful with how we prepare things. Extra food safety is a huge priority for us.”
Dave credits his father Walter’s foresight with the chain’s success today.
“My dad was such a real estate guy. He bought some of the most wonderful locations in the state. That was always his focus: Don’t buy any secondary sites, and focus on the interstates. We control high-density areas and high-traffic areas, so we get tremendous visibility,” he said.
As the Simendinger family looks ahead, they’re examining potential loyalty programs for Champlain Farms. Currently, Shell and Sunoco’s loyalty programs help to drive a lot of business for the chain. They’ve also put an increased focus on using technology to streamline reporting and to improve loss prevention, including new cash drawers that weigh the cash, video monitoring that management can access via smartphone and gun safes to protect cigarette inventory.
As Champlain Farms evaluates future expansion, the company is taking a strategic approach.
“We want to grow without it hurting the existing chain,” Dave Simendinger said. “Fast, rapid growth just doesn’t seem to work.”
He noted he’s watched other chains become consolidation casualties, while Champlain Farms has moved up the rankings in terms of chain size without adding a single store, as others drop off the map.
As the next generation picks up the torch, Jamie and Kurt are mindful of the history that brought them to this point.
“I think preparing for the future is a lot about learning the past and how this all started,” said Jamie Simendinger, “and then working to keep the legacy going.”