Dash In recently unveiled its third-generation (Series 3) c-store format, showcasing its evolution into a food-centric one-stop shop, complete with an elevated made-to-order menu, a revamped layout and a transformed visual identity.
The 55-store chain with 41 franchise locations and 14 company-operated sites in Maryland, Virginia and Delaware plans to aggressively build 15 more Series 3 stores in the next 24 to 30 months. It’s also delving into technology with self-checkout stations and a mobile app launching this summer that includes a new loyalty program, mobile ordering, delivery and payment capabilities.
With its new Series 3 prototype, the evolution of Dash In’s brand strategy is on full display as it looks to deliver an ecosystem with convenience retailing, transportation fuels, food, beverage and car wash all in one spot.
The first new-to-industry (NTI) Series 3 site celebrated its grand opening on March 31 in Loudoun County, Va.
Julian “Blackie” Wills III, president and chief operating officer of The Wills Group, Dash In’s parent company, noted that the Series 3 store represents a five-year journey that included the goal of reimagining the store experience.
“In 2017, we were still focusing on pieces of the store without the overall plan for, ‘What do we want to be as a brand? What does Dash In want to stand for, and how do we want to show up to our guests?’” Wills said.
From 2017 to 2018, Dash In set about answering those questions by embarking on a full brand strategy review that included consumer research. The findings showed that Dash In was viewed as a destination for gas and general convenience vs. prepared food and beverage, and that the Dash In brand was being overshadowed by the gas brands in the forecourt. The feedback set Dash In on a mission to grow its brand awareness.
“It started with brand strategy work,” noted Wills.“That led to things like brand positioning and customer journey or touchpoint mapping. Building that out then ultimately fed into things like visual identity development, menu development, facility development and architectural design and interior design.”
Dash In’s new visual identity is a large part of the c-store chain’s transformation.
Both the Series 3 Dash In and the co-located Splash In car wash feature an updated look and new logos to differentiate them from competitors in the marketplace. The new Dash In logo is a wordmark-style logo with ‘Dash In’ scrawled in marker script. It also includes a map maker symbol that resembles a Google Maps pin.
“We wanted to bring the Dash In and Splash In brands closer together so they were more complementary,” Wills said. “They were different in terms of color palette and typeface. And now, we have very similar color palettes and typefaces, so it feels much more like sibling brands.”
Over time, some legacy Dash In sites are expected to receive the new logo.
“But we’re only going to do it where we start to integrate the other brand elements,” Wills said. “We would have to integrate the menu as part of that shift because we don’t want to create confusion. We want this visual identity of the brand to provide consumers certain cues about what they’ll be able to expect inside the store.”
How It Began
Julian Wills, and his brother Joe Wills, executive vice president of fuels marketing and real estate & development, are fourth-generation members of their family business, The Wills Group, which the family has owned and operated for 97 years.
The Wills Group was founded in 1926 by Wills’ great-grandfather Jim Wills and his business partner Harold Swann, who had been road engineers.
In the late 1920s, the partners saw an opportunity and entered the fuels transportation business. They became Texaco motor oil distributors and began building Texaco service stations, while also distributing Texaco heating oil and kerosene.
“They had a partnership agreement that said the surviving member of the partnership would buy out the other family’s interest,” Wills explained.
After Swann passed away, Jim Wills continued running the company, and later his wife Julia Wills took over the running of the business when he died.
“Julia ran it until my grandfather, Blackie, could run the business. Then it was handed down from my grandfather to my father, Lock. And now, it’s been passed down to the fourth generation,” Wills explained.
Wills noted he is celebrating 16 years with the business this month.
The Wills Group founded Dash In in 1979, and the first store opened that same year in Annapolis, Md. The first full-size Dash In Food Store on Route 198 in Laurel, Md., opened on May 1, 1981, and was a standalone c-store without fuel and the first c-store in Maryland to feature a foodservice program, serving up fried chicken and potato wedges.
“We literally were food stores where we had deli, bakery and food. … That business was really separate from the fuels business. We had the service station business and the standalone convenience business,” Wills said.
In the late 80s into the 90s, The Wills Group began combining Dash Ins with fuel stations. In the 90s, Dash In began partnering with co-brands and quick-service restaurants on the foodservice end.
“Then in the early 2000s, we started to migrate away from that back to a Dash In proprietary menu, and we really got into franchising at that time,” he said.
Following several major oil acquisitions with Shell Oil predominantly in the early 2000s, Dash In became a “rejuvenation brand.”
“We went into these old, tired convenience stores that were in need of some investment and used the Dash In brand to modernize and add category management, pricebook, a dispensed beverage program and a small-format foodservice program,” Wills said.
Over the last decade, Dash In has been reintegrating prepared food and beverages.
In 2014, Dash In launched its Neighborhood Store format that included made-to-order food offerings, and in 2017 it introduced its second-generation stores that brought advancements to the menu, as well as the kitchen and beverage equipment package.
Over the past six years the company has been focused on growing its company-operated stores. Its Series 3 store is now set to lead it into the future.
Dash In’s Series 3 site features a modern look with organic materials, such as concrete, brick and hardwood — including exposed wooden beams — to give the store an organic feel. The floors are made of polished concrete.
The color scheme includes muted hues, with the primary colors being black and white.
The store’s exterior also features a black-and-white color scheme with white brick piers and black along the roofline. Wooden beams are visible on the decking of the roof.
“We wanted to make sure that the environment felt welcoming and organic for guests,” Wills said. “We think we’ve been able to raise the bar overall for the industry in terms of what a convenience store environment could look like.”
The 5,600-square-foot store features 17 fueling stations, much larger than the chain’s traditional sites that span 3,200 square feet to 3,400 square feet.
The biggest design change occurred inside the store within the center store merchandising area, where Dash In brought down the height of the gondolas to 48 inches to improve sight lines.
“We wanted to allow the guests to be able to see completely across the store,” he said.
Dash In was also intentional about providing wayfinding throughout the store, employing a significant amount of directional signage, as well as headers around the store to identify products and amenities.
Historically, Dash In stores have not offered seating, but most of the planned Series 3 stores, including the Loudoun County site in Virginia, provide both indoor and outdoor seating.
Foodservice acts as the centerpiece of the store’s design.
“The food is very much front and center when you first walk in,” Wills said. “We’ve got a big wayfinding sign that says, ‘Fresh Eats,’ and has this chevron (patterned) wooden backing to it, and you can see the open kitchen there.”
Dash In first introduced the open kitchen concept, where customers can see the food being prepared, in its second-generation store.
The company has planned three versions of its Series 3 prototype. The Loudoun County store features the largest version of the design, which includes alcoholic beverages, a beer cave and a wine merchandiser. A 4,500-square-foot version excludes alcoholic beverages, while a 3,400-square-foot version will be used sparingly and excludes indoor seating. All three feature the full food and beverage menu.
The Series 3 prototype offers unbranded fuel, as Dash In prioritizes brand awareness in the forecourt. Dash In’s other sites have partnerships with Shell and Exxon, which will remain in place.
“We have extensive relationships with Shell and Exxon outside of Dash In,” Wills noted. “The Wills Group has another 225 locations that operate under the legacy gas station model; predominantly, the Shell flags, some Exxon and some other major oil brands. But at least for Dash In, particularly in this (Series 3) model, it’s always going to be private label.”
Out of the 15 Series 3 stores planned over the next 24 to 30 months, half are expected to be raze-and-rebuilds and half are planned as NTI stores.
When it comes to brand identity, most of the top c-store retailers are known for their menu, Wills noted.
“We really knew we needed to lean into prepared food and beverage and become known for something,” he said.
The food and beverage program at Dash In has historically offered a combination of made-to-order and grab-and-go foods.
As Dash In embarked on its Series 3 design, it focused on building its own foodservice identity as it reworked the menu to feature elevated versions of c-store staples. The concept centered on the idea of putting a restaurant inside a c-store.
“We have line cooks, prep cooks and dishwashers,” Wills noted. “It’s kind of new for us, but it’s been very exciting, and we’re very bullish about where we think we can take this new brand concept.”
Today, Dash In is frying doughnuts and baking cookies, brownies, biscuits, croissants and pastries in-store. The pastries include both sweet and savory options, including a Spinach and Feta Danish and a Parmesan and Leek Danish.
“We’re also bringing in sliced potatoes, and then we’re frying those and making house-made chips, so you’re able to get a fresh product. That’s really been the big shift, moving towards less of a consumer-packaged goods offering to much more of a fresh, minimally processed type of foodservice offering,” Wills said.
Other fresh-prepared menu items include griddle-pressed burgers, which are available as a single, double or triple. The new Dash In also features a Smokehouse burger. All burgers are fully customizable with toppings and cheeses. Dash In also offers the Impossible Burger for customers who prefer a meat-free meal, as well as Impossible Sausage for breakfast.
The Dash In menu features all-day breakfast that includes fresh bacon, sausage and shaved ribeye steak cooked in-house. Those fresh-cooked meats are also available across the lunch and dinner menus on sandwiches.
The menu also includes flatbreads as a signature item, as well as quesadillas, Stackadillas, salads and bowls.
“Those bowls can be breakfast bowls — with bases like tater tots — to lunch and dinner bowls with field greens as a base or even quinoa as a base,” Wills said.
“We think we’ve got a little something for everyone, and (they’re) very friendly and familiar foodservice items for the segment,” he added.
The beverage area also received a facelift in terms of design and product selection. Dash In offers bean-to-cup coffee across its footprint, but Series 3 stores will also incorporate a tap wall for both traditional and craft sodas.
“We partnered with Tractor Beverage to offer several organic sodas,” Wills said. Among the many options are organic root beer, organic cherry cream soda and cucumber lime soda, which Wills noted are new flavors to Dash In’s market area.
Dash In has also added an extensive tea program that features a line of proprietary limeades, lemonades and aguas frescas beverages, as well as three natural energy drinks that include green coffee and guaranas.
The dispensed beverage area features a 22-foot wall, along which all beverage products from the coffee to the bubbler machines to the tap wall are displayed.
The design is a significant change from older Dash In locations where the coffee, fountain and frozen sections are positioned separately in different areas of the store.
“We really wanted to put that all together as one continuous run,” Wills said.
A team member is stationed by the beverage tap wall to assist customers and explain the drink menu.
“We have a concierge team almost set up in this new store, where someone’s role is to literally just float around the store and talk to guests and help guests,” he said.
Technology is also a key component for Dash In moving forward. This summer, Dash In is set to debut its new app complete with mobile ordering, mobile payment, delivery and a loyalty program.
While Dash In had an app several years ago, Wills noted it wasn’t a good value proposition for the customer, so they retired the app and went back to the drawing board.
This new app is set to feature a wide range of capabilities. Customers will be able to purchase fuel, convenience items, foodservice and a car wash, all through the app. The mobile ordering and payment features will be available on the first day of the launch.
Dash In partnered with Punch on the loyalty program, where customers can earn points across fuels, convenience and car wash and redeem them across all three segments as well.
“After the launch, we have a roadmap of additional features that we’re going to launch over time,” Wills said. The next round of app features is expected to debut three to four months following the initial launch, with more features added each quarter after that.
The delivery feature isn’t new for Dash In, which has been offering it at select stores, but now it will become more widely available through the app.
“We’re partnering with Olo, and the big third-party delivery companies — Grubhub, Seamless, DoorDash and Uber Eats. We’ll turn that on as we roll out the app market-by-market, store-by-store,” Wills said.
Dash In is also in the midst of a back-office and ERP (enterprise resource planning) implementation. And, it’s rebuilding the e-commerce website for its car wash membership program.
“We eventually want to take the car wash membership e-commerce website and migrate toward car wash membership within our mobile app. That’s the next step,” Wills said.
Dash In also plans to expand its self-checkout service going forward. Dash In first introduced self-checkout in 2019, in partnership with NCR, and a total of six Dash In locations include self-checkout kiosks today. The new Loudoun County site offers three self-checkout lanes and two full-service lanes.
“In some ways, we’re trying to create what we feel is a fairly frictionless experience, but a high-touch experience,” Wills said. “We want our associates to interact with our guests. We want to build relationships. The new Dash In brand is really about creating the sense of local, personal connection with our guests.”
As the Loudoun County store is a neighborhood site as opposed to an interstate location, it does not feature electric vehicle (EV) chargers, but Dash In is testing the technology. A second-generation site that at press time was set to open in late April in Richmond, Va., includes four direct-current fast chargers.
“There, we thought it made good sense because we’re immediately off of Interstate 95. We’re a quarter mile off the interchange. So we are starting to test EV charging, but we’re really focused more on interstate locations as opposed to more of a neighborhood or urban location,” he said.
Splash In Expansion
Car wash remains an important initiative for the company, which operates 54 Splash In ECO Car Washes — 51 are traditional rollover car washes and three are large-format tunnel conveyor washes.
“We’re going to be building more tunnel conveyor washes in the future, including co-locating those tunnel washes with the (Series 3) Dash In store and fuel,” Wills said. “We offer car wash memberships today at our tunnel locations. We’re eventually going to be offering memberships across all car wash locations.”
The car wash membership may one day be directly available through the Dash In app.
The company is currently building a standalone Splash In tunnel car wash that is not co-located with a c-store.
“That’s a test for us. We want to see if that is a viable business model for us. Could we have standalone car washes?” Wills said.
Over time, existing Splash In locations will be converted to the new Splash In logo.
In 2023, Dash In plans to complete three remodels, six to eight rebuilds and open four NTI stores. While most NTI stores and several of the new builds will feature the Series 3 design, the three remodels won’t include the new prototype, but they will incorporate elements of the new brand and menu.
With the first Series 3 site up and running, Dash In is now evaluating how it can best integrate the concept into legacy sites.
“I think based on the initial experience, everyone is now eager to say, ‘How do we accelerate this? How do we get this into more stores quickly?’” Wills said. “We can’t rebuild every site, but at least let’s take core components of the brand offering and the menu, and let’s start to integrate that over time. Over the next, call it, three to five years, I want to take what we can of this brand concept and incorporate that across all locations.”
Dash In also aspires to double the size of its network within the next seven years.
“We think there’s a lot of opportunity to expand within our current footprint in the Mid-Atlantic,” Wills said. “We also are considering potential geographic expansion. That’s under review right now.”
As it expands, Dash In continues to prioritize employee engagement and customer satisfaction.
Dash In, and its parent company The Wills Group, were recognized in 2022 as a Great Place to Work for the second consecutive year and offer a strong benefits package and paid-time-off policy. The chain also has a concept called “genuine care” as part of its culture that empowers store teams to do everything possible to ensure customers are having the best experience possible.
“We’re very focused on customer experience metrics, customer satisfaction scores, online reviews, brand reputation ratings,” Wills said. “We’re trying to constantly elevate our customer experience, our customer engagement, as well as our employee engagement.”
“We’re trying to raise the bar in terms of what the offering in the store can look like,” Wills continued. “We’re hopeful we can raise the bar on customer service as well.”