Sheetz just opened its eighth area store and is looking at opening more.
By DON SHILLING
VINDICATOR BUSINESS EDITOR
YOUNGSTOWN -- Bill Palma stood beside the red and yellow Sheetz store on Salt Springs Road ready to find out if what he had been hearing was true.
Was a gas station really a great place for lunch?
"We'll see," said Palma, 40, of Struthers, as headed in for a sandwich one day last week.
A co-worker, Rob McDonough, persuaded him to give Sheetz a try for the first time. They used their lunch break to drive from Liberty to grab a couple of sandwiches. They didn't need gas.
"He heard people saying, 'If you're hungry, go to Sheetz.' He asked me if it was good, and I told him, 'Heck yeah, it's good,'" said McDonough, 31, of Grove City, Pa.
McDonough often goes to Sheetz with his wife. He gets a sandwich, and she gets a salad.
He likes it
A few minutes later, Palma came out of the store, proudly showing off his sandwich. He was impressed with Sheetz's ordering system, which uses a touch-screen and allowed him to get the toppings he wanted.
"You can't beat it," he said. "The convenience is nice."
Palma is one of many in the Mahoning and Shenango valleys who are hearing about this convenience store, which offers freshly made sandwiches, pastries and coffee.
Kim Saltzmann, 26, of McDonald, said she often goes to Sheetz for the food, but this time she came for some pop.
"I come here for everything. This is the only store where I get my gas, my cigarettes, my drinks," she said.
Expansion from base
Sheetz arrived in the area three years ago as part of its expansion from its home base of Altoona, Pa.
Stan Sheetz, company president, said officials are confident that their brand will be successful in new markets.
"We feel we have rather distinctive offerings," he said.
The International Foodservice Manufacturers Association gave Sheetz its Silver Plate Award last year for being the best in the "chain fast service" category, the first time a convenience store won the award.
The stores offer hamburgers, hot dogs and a variety of sub sandwiches. Using automated terminals, customers choose their bread and meat and select from a variety of toppings, including several kinds of cheese, peppers and olives. For a fee, they can add extra meat.
Sheetz relies on word-of-mouth advertising to spread the word about its stores, with a little help from reduced prices on sandwiches and gas during grand openings.
At the area's newest Sheetz in Canfield Township, about a dozen people were waiting for sandwiches one day last week.
Many new stores
Sheetz is so confident in its strategy that it has been opening about 20 new stores a year and next year plans to open 24. The company operates 272 stores in Pennsylvania, Ohio, Maryland, West Virginia and Virginia. Next year it probably will enter North Carolina.
The new store on Boardman-Canfield Road is the company's eighth store in the Mahoning and Shenango valleys, but Sheetz said it probably won't be the last. He didn't want to talk about locations, but he said he sees more room for the company to expand in the area.
Sheetz runs the company with seven family members. His father, Bob, started the company when he opened a corner store that sold milk, bread and groceries in 1952.
He later added more stores, and the chain began selling gasoline when Pennsylvania approved self-serve pumping in 1972.
The chain operated traditional small stores that were crammed with merchandise until sales starting falling in the 1980s. An intensive campaign of interviewing customers led to a new model, which included larger stores, concrete parking lots, more gas pumps, canopies over the pumps and more open space in the stores.
Low gas prices
A key part of the company strategy is to offer gas prices that are a little lower than other stations, Sheetz said.
"We tend to drive prices down in all markets in which we operate," Sheetz said.
Although gasoline sales make up 60 percent of company revenues, the sales have a low profit margin, he said. The idea is to get the people at the pumps to come inside and buy something else.
Sheetz serves more than 50 million meals a year and has sales of about $2 billion.
The food part of the model took off in 1988 with its Made-To-Order sandwich selection.
Sheetz said, however, that company officials are continually looking at ways to be better, and the model for new stores is changed every year.
For example, the current model, which was used for the Canfield store, calls for higher ceilings, a more colorful interior decor, more open space, larger restrooms and carpeting.
Sheetz is considering bringing its sandwich-ordering system to the gas pump. That way, sandwiches could be ordered and ready by the time a customer is done filling up.