On the Growl

Oregon independent taps into a lucrative craft-beer business

By  Samantha Strong Murphey, Freelance writer

The Growler Guys started with 12 tapes in one store. Just 18 months later, the store has 46 taps and has been franchised.
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For the past 15 years, Stop and Go Mini Mart in Bend, Ore., has been known for its old-fashioned customer service. Now it’s known for more: Its 46-tap growler station has put it on the craft-beer map, quickly turning into a franchise opportunity worth toasting.

Kent Couch, owner of Stop and Go Mini Mart and president of The Growler Guys franchise, worked as a Safeway store manager for 20 years. He transferred to an independent grocer for a short year and a half before he bought the c-store and went into business for himself.

“It was in bad shape when I bought it,” Couch says. “We pretty much had to gut the place and rebuild it.” In addition to remodeling the 4,000-square-foot store, located at the second most trafficked corner in the community, he rebranded the gas to Shell.

“We’ve been flying the Shell flag for all the years since and we’ve had great success with it,” he says.

Couch was careful to update the store to current industry trends, but he wound back the clock with his approach to customer service. He remembers advice given in one of the seminars at the fi rstNACS conference he attended.

“They said the store of the future has to stand alone and create their own atmosphere and culture,” he says. “The cookie-cutter stores are gone.”

It was through customer service that Couch found his store’s identity. He started by putting his employees in old-fashioned uniforms: military-looking pointed white hats, white shirts, pants and shoes, with black ties and belts. He requires his male employees to be clean shaven and have short hair. He used the fact that his state doesn’t allow self-service at the pump to his advantage, going all out at his 12 fueling stations. His full-service gas pumping includes automatic window washing and trash emptying, use of the customers’ names and a complimentary lollipop at the end of every transaction.

“It costs us quite a bit in uniform expenses, but I think it pays off in the  end,” Couch says. “During the recession, we didn’t lose the gallons our competitors lost. Our market was hit heavily, but we didn’t suffer like the other guys did. We established our identity, and that helped set us apart.”

More Than a Smile

Couch’s customer service culture exists on the inside as well. He offers lots of incentives to employees for learning customers’ names. He finds that pays off, too.

“We’ve always had double-digit increases in our store year after year, even in tough years,” Couch says. “Earlier generations can remember that kind of customer service experience and appreciate it. For younger generations, it’s just a shock to see that level of service being delivered.”

Stop and Go Mini Mart is bursting at the seams with the volume it’s doing, he says. When the store first opened, it was doing $1.8 million in total sales annually. Now it does more than $14 million. With three registers running and lines sometimes still going out the doors, there’s not much room to grow.

Because self-service isn’t allowed in Oregon, customers don’t have to tend the pump. It frees them to venture inside the store to use the restroom and grab a snack. Couch makes sure to do his part to draw them in with his foodservice. He offers a variety of grab-and-go items, all made on-site, including burgers, barbecue pulled-pork sandwiches, Philly cheesesteak sandwiches, popular breakfast sandwiches and signature foods.

“Our signature item is chicken on a stick, chicken folded back and forth on a long skewer, an easy on-the-go meal,” Couch says. “We thought that was cool so we did meatballs on a stick and barbecue on a stick. Now we’re known for that in the community.”

The store has seating near its grab-and-go food service for roughly 20people, but employees don’t do much to encourage people to stay. Couch finds it ties up valuable parking space to have people eat inside.

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