West Virginia’s gas station convenience store chains are fighting for their share of a tough market. Even so, they’re doing great things for the communities they serve.

The light on your fuel gauge is on. You’re headed out for a summer road trip, not even 30 minutes out of town, the needle is hovering over “E.” The kids already guzzled their drinks, and they’re squirming in their seats. And you’re craving a candy bar—or an energy shot. Or both. Luckily, you’re closing in on an exit.

The tall gas station signs come into view, sprouting like weeds. Which will you choose? The convenience store industry is incredibly competitive. Each store is fighting to have the cheapest gas. The most pumps. The cleanest bathrooms. The biggest selection of snacks.

Would the decision be easier if you knew one of those stops is West Virginia–owned and –operated, and the parent company is committed to giving back to the communities it serves?

You’re in luck. West Virginia has three such companies: GoMart of Gassaway, Beckley’s Little General Stores, and Morgantown-based BFS.

Meet the Family
Although filling stations are as old as the automobile, the modern gas station convenience store combo is a relatively recent invention. For decades, state law made it illegal for West Virginians to pump their own gas. Stations were full-service, manned by attendants who would fill your tank, check your oil, and wipe your windshield. Drivers seldom left their cars when stopping for gas. Some stations sold candy, cold drinks, eggs, and bread, but it wasn’t central to the business model. Gas was a good money-maker all on its own.

Then times began to change. In 1970 the state legislature made it legal for people to pump their own gasoline, and attendants began to disappear. Drivers started emerging from their cars at gas stations. Around the same time, it was becoming harder to make money on gas alone. The price at the pump was rapidly increasing, and stations fought to have the lowest prices possible. This sent profit margins through the floor and station owners scrambling for other ways to make money. They began to focus on drawing customers inside their stores. Interstate exits would never be the same.

The company now known as GoMart got its start in the early 1900s when brothers Fred, Charles, and Rod Heater supplied fuel to paddleboats on the Little Kanawha River. The family then moved into the bulk petroleum business before entering the gas station game. And in 1970, they installed the state’s first self-service gas station in Shinnston, dubbing it “Go Tron.”

The family opened its first GoMart convenience store in Gassaway in 1971 and, over the following decades, it would become the largest convenience store chain in the state. Responding to industry changes, GoMart experimented with adding proprietary food service like West Virginia-Fried Chicken and GoMart Delis before moving into branded franchise options.

BFS got its start a little later. The company began in 1974 when founder Marshall Bishop, who had managed a Southern States store in Sabraton, purchased his own seed and feed shop in Bruceton Mills. He called it Bruceton Farm Service. Bishop installed his first gas pump at the store in the early 1980s, hoping to capitalize on the ever-increasing interstate traffic. “We called it ‘the gas house.’ It wasn’t much bigger than a Porta Potty,” says daughter Hayley Graham, BFS’s marketing director. “We had a full-service guy in there who would pump gas.”

When the gas station proved profitable, Bishop opened a small convenience store in Mountain Lake Park, Maryland. He then built another full-service gas house in Cheat Lake, where Interstate 68 and West Virginia Route 43 now meet. “As he did these one at a time and saw success, he just kept going,” says Garet Bishop, Bishop’s son and the company’s CFO.

Bishop started adding restaurants to his stores in the early 1990s, recognizing that quality food options would help bring customers through the doors. The company tried opening its own sub shop but realized convenience store know-how didn’t translate to the restaurant business. Instead of giving up and leasing the space out to a restaurateur, however, Bishop opted to become a Subway franchisee. This allowed him to draw on the sandwich chain’s expertise and brand recognition while maintaining control of the operation. “He wanted to control what was going on in the store,” Garet Bishop says.

Now BFS locations include franchises of many popular fast-food chains like Burger King, Little Caesars Pizza, Subway, and Tim Horton’s. BFS further expanded its offerings in 2000, when it was granted six liquor licenses in West Virginia, allowing those locations to sell spirits. The company now has eight locations selling liquor.

About the same time Bishop was starting BFS, Harry Gilbert formed Little General Stores in Beckley. Current company president Greg Darby joined the gas station convenience store chain in 1980, when it had just eight locations. He had a newly minted accounting degree from WVU and became the company’s comptroller. But he didn’t enjoy sitting behind a desk and soon transitioned to operations, setting up real estate deals, signing up franchises, and buying, building, and leasing stores. Darby and Cory Beasley bought LGS in 1999 with Darby as president and Beasley as CEO. There were 38 stores when they took over the company. The men have since taken the company in the same direction as their in-state competitors—nearly quadrupling the number of locations in the process.

Each of the chains now has stores scattered all over West Virginia and her surrounding states. All three companies are growing, and each offers a variety of fast-food franchise options. Little General has even started building freestanding restaurants on properties close to its convenience stores. “I think they all feed off of each other,” Darby says.

Keeping Up Appearances
The convenience store business isn’t as lucrative as it once was, given West Virginia’s stagnant economy. “The pie’s only so big. We’re all fighting for pieces of same pie,” Darby says. Gas pumps at Kroger, Sam’s Club, and Walmart stores have only added to the competition. “They’re giving you discounts on gas in order to get you to go buy groceries,” he says.

Store owners do what they can to make sure their stores have a fighting chance. When Darby plans new locations, he goes up in a plane to study crossroads and watch traffic patterns. He puts his breakfast-oriented franchises in areas that see large amounts of morning traffic. “Going home, they’re going to get beer and snacks and bread and milk, or maybe a burger. You try to market your stores on that,” he says. He also counts rooftops while he’s in the air. Lots of structures nearby is a good indicator of a solid customer base. “Most people are going to go within two miles of their house. You’re going to be their destination,” he says.

GoMart assistant manager Terry Smith demurred when asked about her company’s strategy for locating stores, but said it’s pretty similar to Little General’s approach. “It’s location, location, location,” Smith says. “You have to look at where you feel you’re going to get the biggest bang for your buck.”

BFS takes stock of the convenience stores and restaurants already present in a community and allows that to dictate what kind of store it will build and which franchises it will put in the location.“If the area is lacking food offerings, we may build a larger store and have multiple brands offered. If there are many food offerings, we may open a convenience store with some grab-and-go food only and no branded fast food,” Graham says.

Staying competitive is about more than having the right location, though. Customers care just as much—if not more—about their experience at the pump and in the store. In this area, innovation is key.

Take Sheetz. The Pennsylvania-based chain has 588 stores in six states, including 59 in West Virginia. The company has long been committed to innovation—in 1993, it was the first in the industry to adopt touchscreens for its made-to-order food operation. The company rolled out online ordering in 2013. In December 2017, it introduced voice-activated ordering through Amazon’s Alexa virtual assistant.

In 2015, Sheetz opened its first-ever cafe location, near West Virginia University’s campus. There are no gas pumps at this 15,000-square-foot store, but it offers an extensive grocery section as well as indoor and outdoor seating areas. The company has since opened three more cafe locations based on this model.

Sheetz launched another new store design with its location just off Grafton Road at Interstate 68, which features an enhanced seating area and a streamlined food ordering and checkout line. This company-wide commitment to innovation is best summed up by a mission statement concocted by former president Steve Sheetz: “Our mission is to put the Sheetz of today out of business.”

Funny thing—West Virginia’s convenience stores want to put the Sheetz of today out of business, too. Inroads by it and other chains have local companies watching industry trends and customer expectations. BFS is always exploring new franchise options. Its new locations have larger footprints, modern decor, big windows, and LED lighting. “It’s very inviting. If you’re a mom with your kids, you feel safe coming inside. If you’re Bubba the truck driver, you feel welcome. We meet the needs of everybody,” says Ryan Dias, BFS’s merchandising director.

Little General is also on a constant drive to update its stores—often tearing down old locations to start again with a clean slate. Darby compares it to the way fast-food restaurants completely rebrand and remodel their stores every few years. “They know image is important.” In the old days, convenience stores were usually around 1,200 square feet. Now, a new Little General location is usually around 7,000 square feet. The stores have more windows and bright LED lights. The exteriors are covered in brick and stucco. “Before, we’d just put a block building up. It looks more like a restaurant now. It’s more attractive,” Darby says. “People like new.”

GoMart has a different focus. Although constantly working to keep locations up to date, Smith says the company isn’t concerned with making sure their stores are the newest on the block. “People look at big, shiny, and new, but sometimes that doesn’t necessarily give you that hometown feel,” she says. “If we’ve got great people working at our locations, that’s what’s going to keep people there.”

The pressure is on. Sheetz is opening new stores in West Virginia every year. Alongside this rapid expansion, the company is also earning heaps of accolades: Fortune has included Sheetz on its list of “100 Best Companies to Work For,” “Top 12 Best Places to Work for Women,” and “Top 35 Best Workplaces for Millennials.”

Community Center
Convenience stores aren’t just for highway pit stops, of course. Most of our interactions with them have nothing to do with long road trips—just the hustle of daily life. “If it’s breakfast time and you’re out of eggs, where are you going to go? You’re going to run down to your local convenience store,” says Traci Nelson, executive director of the West Virginia Oil Marketers and Grocers Association (OMEGA) lobbying group.

The stores become so much a part of the landscape of our lives that it’s easy to take them for granted. But convenience stores play an important role in our state’s economy, employing thousands of West Virginians in communities that don’t have much else going on.

Little General is the 30th-largest employer in the state, according to the March 2018 data from Workforce West Virginia, the latest available. The company employs about 1,600 people statewide. Just one restaurant might have 30 to 40 employees, while a convenience store has about 10. GoMart ranks 35th on the list, employing 1,500 people companywide and about 1,200 in West Virginia. BFS, which ranks 46th, has more than 2,000 employees and around 1,000 in the Mountain State.

The convenience store industry also has a long tradition of philanthropy—one that goes much further than placing fundraising jars at the cash register. In addition to supporting local sports teams and churches, BFS regularly raises money for the Leukemia & Lymphoma Society, the Muscular Dystrophy Association, the Alzheimer’s Association, and the Chestnut Mountain Ranch boys’ home. “Marshall, our father, loves to give back. That’s one of his main drives in his life,” says Hayley Graham. “He’s instilled that philosophy into the company.”

Little General, meanwhile, has raised $3 million for the Norma Mae Huggins Cancer Research Endowment Fund. The company also donates $100 to the fund for every three-point shot WVU’s men’s basketball team makes. Darby and company donated $26,900 for the 2018–19 season.

For years, Little General has also given out $1,000 college scholarships to West Virginia high school seniors. The company handed out 20 this year, for a total of more than $300,000 since the program began. It’s all a reflection of Darby’s philanthropic philosophy, “If you can, you should,” he says. “I didn’t grow up with much. It’s nice to be able to go back and give.”

GoMart stores regularly work with Toys for Tots, Relay for Life, senior citizens’ groups, and Project Graduation. The company was also the first corporate sponsor of the Children’s Home Society of West Virginia and supports athletic teams in the communities it serves, as well as WVU and Marshall University athletics. “We are part of the community,” Smith says. “I think it’s valuable to our business. But it’s also the right thing to do.”

Nelson at OMEGA says the industry’s penchant for charitable giving is a natural outgrowth the industry’s commitment to the communities it serves. “People think of these stores as big corporations,” she says. “But it’s your friends. It’s your neighbors.”

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Zack Harold
Written by Zack Harold
Zack Harold is a southern West Virginia native. He covered education, health, and government at the Charleston Daily Mail before becoming the newspaper’s features editor. He joined New South Media in 2015, became managing editor of WV Living in January 2016, and took over as managing editor of Wonderful West Virginia in July 2016.