The next big thing: Gas station restaurants open in metro-east

News-DemocratJanuary 20, 2014 

The new Huddle House and Phillips 66 station now open under the same roof in Mascoutah would have made a good stop for one of Clark Griswold's vacations.

Thirty years ago, as the fictional tourist played by Chevy Chase was making his way to Walley World in the Family Truckster, he lamented, "I'm so hungry I could eat a sandwich from a gas station."

Today, the Griswolds would probably be more than happy to have gas station food.

"What was funny then, 30 years later, it's less funny," said Jeff Lenard of the National Association of Convenience Stores. "Because to a lot of people, food at gas stations have evolved from desperation to destination."

American fueling stations have gradually become more than just a place to fill 'er up and buy a candy bar or a cup of coffee. Lenard said newer gas stations along the country's interstates now provide travelers better food that is worthy of the trip.

"People expect you to have food," he said. "And they are not necessarily surprised if it's exceptional food."

Last week, Don Schomaker and his business partner opened one called Eddie's Travel Center, a Phillips 66 gas station that adjoins a Huddle House restaurant in Mascoutah. The Atlanta-based restaurant chain is open 24 hours and serves Southern-style breakfasts in generous portions. The menu includes fried and scrambled eggs, slow or sugar cured ham, rib-eye steak, country fried steak, bacon, sausage, hash browns and grits.

Located at 9810 Perrin Road, Eddie's Travel Center is named for Schomaker's father, a lifelong Mascoutah mechanic, and his business partner's father of the same name. Eddie's Travel Center not only accommodates hungry travelers needing gasoline, but also fuel for diesel trucks, refueling and trash disposal for RVs, plus a dog park, or "puppy park" as Schomaker calls it, for travelers to let their dogs out to roam and get a break from the road.

"It's more family-oriented," Schomaker said. "We focus on family for people coming from up and down the interstate and who are local."

Schomaker also owns and operates a New Baden convenience store and carryout eatery called Kokomo Joe's and said he spent a lot of time researching his latest venture. He believes this gas-and-restaurant business model is one that more consumers are looking for. He said the location, where Interstate 64 meets Illinois 4, provides a good stop for travelers to refuel and refresh.

"With the I-64 traffic and Highway 4 traffic and the airport is catty corner to it, it will be a very good spot," Schomaker said. "We also have a college nearby. McKendree University is a few miles down the road. I think as far as where we are, it might be the last stop for some truckers and travelers."

According to the National Association of Convenience Stores, more than 149,000 convenience stores operate across the nation. On average, these store will annually generate more than $250,000 in food sales -- including $227,000 in prepared food, $62,000 in hot dispensed beverages like coffee, $21,000 in packaged sandwiches, $41,00 in cold beverages and $5,000 in frozen dispensed beverages.

Lenard said the idea of having food at gas stations, to a certain extent, is somewhat similar to how top restaurants end up in hotels. He said the best hotels are constantly occupied and host guests looking for finer dining. Now, more consumers expect more from gas stations.

"They're getting their gas and they're able to grab a great meal," he said. "You're seeing more people saying that's what they want. It's definitely a trend you're seeing more of."

He also believes that the recent recession has helped drive more consumers to alternative venues for food other than traditional sit-down restaurants. This has had an impact on how people look at food and has presented more opportunities to retailers.

"People also expect food everywhere," he said. "At a lot of retail stores where food is not the primary product, like furniture stores, they sell food. At Best Buy, they're selling candy and beverages. Home Depot sells candy and beverages. People expect food in a variety of locations. They are much more likely to embrace fresh food that is prepared."

Contact reporter Will Buss at wbuss@bnd.com or 239-2526.

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