The Power of Three

Cracker Barrel convenience stores establishes multilayered generator strategy

By  Steve Holtz, Online News Director & Beverage Editor

A full year after a Cracker Barrel convenience store in Slidell, La., (background) was rebuilt following Hurricane Katrina, neighboring properties remained in disarray.

BATON ROUGE, La. -- Like most long-time residents along the Gulf Coast, Jim Bickley can toss out a list of hurricanes he’s lived through like they’re old pals—Andrew, Ivan, Katrina … And as a convenience store retailer, he can quickly conjure up memories of property damage and desperate customers from each storm.

For a long time, such storms were just a part of life for Bickley and the rest of the Gulf Coast. But 2005’s Hurricane Katrina changed that.

“I think the proving ground was Katrina,” said the president of American General Investments, which owns and operates 53 Cracker Barrel stores in Louisiana. “That was a deal that nobody had ever experienced, the magnitude of it and what it did to this part of the country.

“It’s like anything else, until you get some major incident, it doesn’t call any awareness to it.”

Hurricane Katrina raised Bickley’s awareness dramatically. The category 4 storm destroyed one of his c-stores; 14 other sites were damaged and closed for a few days or a few weeks.

“We went through Katrina and [Hurricane Andrew in 1992] with nothing except little generators, the kind you might use at your house,” Bickley said.

Today, Bickley has a three-pronged generator strategy that aims to get stores up and running as soon as possible after a power outage.

*First and foremost, the Cracker Barrel main office in Baton Rouge, La., is tied to a large-capacity, natural-gas generator that kicks in with any power outage.

“The most important thing is to get the office—the command center—going so we know where everybody is and can track the situation and know what we’ve got to do,” Bickley said. “Before, we couldn’t run all the computers, the phones and all the things that are truly necessary to keep the business operating.

“We went with natural-gas generators, so we don’t have to worry about servicing the diesel engines. It’s cleaner and easier for us to operate.”

*Secondly, the chain has contracted with a local supplier tasked with bringing generators to Cracker Barrel locations that are experiencing power outages. “I always have six or eight generators on call,” Bickley said, “and they’re big enough to power a whole store.”

*Finally, there’s those smaller, gasoline-powered generators that predate Hurricane Katrina.

“We’ve still got those smaller generators back here, and they’re enough to get the lights on in a store and have it pumping gas and ringing up the cash register. They’re small and kind of noisy, but they get the job done.”

By Steve Holtz, Online News Director & Beverage Editor
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