Published in CSP Daily News
Key West c-store operator talks fried chicken in paradise (slideshow)
KEY WEST, Fla. -- With all the wild roosters on the island, one would think running a fried-chicken program would be a no-brainer, possibly even a competitive advantage. But Joe Sucharzewski (pictured), director of operations for Key West, Fla.-based Dion's Quik Marts assures visitors that the 11-store chain procures its chicken through licensed, certified vendors.
CSP Daily News spent some time with Sucharzewski, to find out what it takes to thrive in a market of top-notch competitors, supply challenges and the fickle nature of tourism.
Q: So what brought you to Key West?
A: I left 7-Eleven corporate in Feb. 2008, and after hearing about Dion's needing someone to help with operations, I came to work for Dion's in June 2008.
Q: It's a great place to visit--paradise, really--but what's it like to run a c-store operation here?
A: It's hard on many levels. We rely on tourists being able to afford to come here and that's been tough the last few years with the economy. We're just now seeing a comeback with the hotels starting to offer deals. Then finding good people is hard with the labor pool coming mostly from the service industry. Many of them are used to daily cash flow versus getting paid every two weeks. Building new stores is also difficult. You can't find two-and-a-half acres with land so restricted, plus fuel has to be pre-existing with the county making everything difficult [with strict environmental, rate of growth ordinance (ROGO) and building codes].
Q: And fuel?
A: It costs more to bring fuel here. There are weight restrictions on fuel transports because they have to go over all those bridges [that tie the Keys together]. They have to drive 45 miles an hour over two-lane roads. And there are tropical-storm restrictions too. Other c-store costs are impacted by the weight restrictions as well, not just fuel trucks are restricted.
Q: With the barriers of entry so high, what's your competition like?
A: We've got Circle K, and another local competitor, Tom Thumb's. The rest are independents.
Q: With such a competitive landscape, what has Dion's done to fight back?
A: We've always had a great foodservice program with our chicken. We've become known for it. It's a staple for us. One of our stores provides our fried chicken for their charter boat trips out of Key West, where they buy our chicken and take it out on the boat for their passengers. But one of the important things we've focused on is the basics of in-stocks, making sure we have what customers need in the stores. We've changed the product mix, enhancing what was already a great business in our hot food program. We've also rearranged the layouts so that they're more open and there's less opportunity for theft. We've been going project by project, upgrading store equipment, improving our coffee and food service programs and working with our vendors to put in gourmet sandwiches and other hot food items. It's great to do something and see quick returns on investment, sometimes in just a few months.
Q: What kind of results have you seen?
A: Continual growth, some stores double digit.
Q: So despite all the challenges, you still see opportunity.
A: When we look at where we need to be, we're only at 5%. There's so much we'd like to do, but we have to prioritize.
Larry Dion, the patriarch of what is now a Key West, Fla., fuel distributor with 11 company-operated c-stores and additional leased sites, was a child of the Great Depression, even selling bread as a 10-year-old to help the family make ends meet. Though he spent most of his youth in Massachusetts, his family traveled the Overseas Railroad, with their car on board for the ride, from Miami to Key West in 1934 to live for a year with his uncle Fred who was gaining a foothold in the community.
Key West was a far cry from the New England winters, lush, tropical and at the time the home of Pulitzer Prize-winning author Ernest Hemingway. He penned many of his greatest works while living on the island.
In 1942, just after the start of World War II, Larry enlisted in the Army Air Corps. His tour brought him to Iowa, where he met his wife Flo. Their long-distance romance led to marriage after the war, when Larry brought Flo back to Key West, where his family had moved.
In 1948, Larry learned the local Sinclair Oil agent was struggling, and after negotiating terms, he and Flo took over the contract. The business had a bulk plant at the corner of Francis and James Streets, which was made up of three above-ground storage tanks, an oil warehouse and a small, wooden office building. That and two tankwagon trucks were the start of Dion Oil Co.
Flo worked just as hard as Larry, climbing the three-story staircase to "stick the tanks" for inventory, doing the accounting and ordering as well. The two worked hard over the years in a community that saw booms and busts, thriving off of everything from shrimp to sea sponges, the military at one point to the tourist town it is today. In time, their son and daughter became an integral part of Dion Oil and Dion's Quik Marts, expanding the business into Dade County in the early 1980s. Today, daughter Suzanne Banks is the company's CEO.
While the business diversified over its 64-year history, its constant has been fuel and convenience.