Local Hero

Farm store never runs out of gas, Illinois products or fans.

By
Samantha Strong Murphey, Freelance writer

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It sits at the crossroads of interstates 57 and 70 in Effingham, Ill., tucked away in the breadbasket of America.

The fields surrounding Fast Stop General Store are filled with almost every major American crop. Agriculture is the name of the game here, and patrons come from miles.

They come for their favorite local fare, such as Fluffy Burgers, a Mattoon, Ill.-based maker of flavored hamburger patties, such as Hawaiian, Chili Cheese, Mushroom and Swiss. (There are seven flavors in all.) Fast Stop sells the half-pound patties in containers of four. It’s the store’s top-selling local food item.

“People drive all the way from Mat­toon sometimes just to get some of these,” says Fast Stop manager Bryan Dahnke. “That’s 35 miles away.”

Fluffy Burgers sit on Fast Stop shelves among 125 items produced in the state of Illinois. The company’s general-store culture fits well with its down-home offerings, including a well-stocked supply of all kinds of animal feed (even for your llama). The variety has helped deliver more than $5 million in overall sales.

Dahnke credits the success to Fast Stop’s local appeal. “When you’re born and raised here like we are,” he says, “people gravitate toward that. Supporting Illinois matters.”

More Than a Farm Store

Born just 10 miles away in Dieterich, Dahnke was brought on three years ago as manager and has been working hard to develop local offerings.

“Bryan has done a good job with join­ing up with a local sweet-corn grower,” says Gerald Witges, energy marketing manager for parent company FS, who oversees Fast Stop General Store. “He brings in fresh sweet corn and dumps it in a big ol’ trough in front of our cash coun­ter. When it’s corn time, they’re comin’ for that Schottman Sweet Corn.”

At $4 for 13 ears, it has people calling in to ask about it, all the time, Dahnke says.

Fast Stop General Store as we know it opened in spring 2009, adding gasoline and c-store items to the feed depart­ment warehouse it had previously been. FS Town and Country Store, as it was formerly known, exclusively marketed farm-related merchandise.

“As we looked out at where we were located, we saw an opportunity over there for more gas pumps,” Witges says. “We thought: If we’re going to add more gas pumps, we’re going to need convenience-store items. We wanted to make this a destination, and it’s happening.”

Now the store has 20 pumps distrib­uting FS Home Grown Fuels out front and a traditional convenience offering inside, but it’s still very much a farm store. It carries fencing supplies, fly sprays, mole killers, grass seed and animal feed. The store’s high ceilings and stocked-to-the-brim shelves echo the facets of country life: wide open spaces and abundance.

“Walk in the store and look to the left and all you’re going to see is [work-boot brand] Muckboots,” Witges says. “It’s our biggest money-maker.” He’s been told the store sells the largest volume of Muckboots, by thousands of dollars. Since converting to a c-store, Fast Stop continues to sell even garage doors.

“We sell more than $1 million worth of Altamont Overhead Doors in a year,” Witges says. “There are three on the wall when you walk in.”

Product-Palooza

Outside the store sits fertilizer, plants, vegetables, flowers, flags, lawn ornaments, mailbox wraps and an ice machine. Inside, there’s an impressive smattering of home-grown products. What’s more impressive is Dahnke’s command of the inventory. The store carries more than 100 products from 15 vendors, and Dahnke knows them all.

“There’s Kathy’s Kitchen out of Vir­ginia, Ill.,” he says. “That’s salsas, canned pickles, relishes. There’s Plank’s from an Amish area of Arthur, Ill., that does syrups, peanut butter, apple butter and mustard. There’s Miller’s out of Ava with strawberry and blueberry preserves ...”

… And Oakland Noodle, Hill Top Maple Syrup & Honey, Sasse’s Apiary, Sauced Up Smokers, Uncle Joe’s, and on and on with soups, dips, barbecue sauces.

“You want to try to keep the products competitively priced, and we’ve had no trouble yet,” Dahnke says. “All the prod­ucts seem to move well.”

Traditional c-store items are there, too: a Ronnoco coffee island, a roller grill and a massive 36-head soda fountain that features Coke and Pepsi brands, as well as some RC products. There are two food programs, Champs Chicken and Hunt Brothers Pizza, which have been running for eight months; and a cooler of fruit, salads, yogurt and other healthy options added just this past spring. There’s a bulk candy section with 18 varieties, which customers can scoop into bags themselves and buy by the pound. But the bread and butter is still what’s local.

One of store’s most innovative local efforts is a clothing line for schools in the area. Fast Stop sells screen-printed T-shirts, ball caps, hoodies and polos with local schools’ names and logos. It even carries a sequined ladies’ shirt.

“There are five schools represented,” Dahnke says. “Four are for communi­ ties with grade school to high school, all together in one.” And 5% of the purchase price of each item goes back to the school.

“We work with a local clothing manu­facturer that already worked with the schools so we wouldn’t step on any toes,” he says.

And the response has been great. “Just the other day a woman was in here buy­ing five items from the line,” he says.

Country Wisdom

Fast Stop’s marketing fits with its culture: simple and customer-friendly. It does updates on an electronic message board easily accessible to motorists, fliers about specials inserted in the local paper and taste-testing events for local products. It runs radio advertisements from time to time and sponsors a local radio sta­tion’s “Trip-A-Day Giveaway.” And, in true country style, Fast Stop hosts huge cookouts at parent company FS’ 25 grain locations to give back to the community.

“We’ve got a big grill on a trailer and we go around to the grain locations when harvest is going on,” Witges says. “Octo­ber is both National Pork Month and National Cooperative month. Last year we cooked more than 11,000 pork burg­ers in 30 days.”

Fast Stop most recently has been experimenting with Facebook, posting code words customers can use when they come in to get special discounts. “We’ve had some response to it,” Dahnke says. “It’s a new area that we’re trying to expand.”

When it comes to communicating internally, candor—not hierarchy—gov­erns. “I think one of the key things with employees is that you have to have open communications,” Witges says. “We all have ideas and we have to be willing to accept constructive criticism both ways. Bryan and I talk back and forth if we have a disagreement about something. We don’t just sit with a burr under the saddle.”

Having regular meetings with the store’s 20 employees is key. “Employees come in and out on a temporary basis, but they need to be educated about what’s important: clean restrooms, clean store,” Witges says. “That’s what people remember.”

Dahnke says Witges’ dedication to attending as many of the meetings as he can makes a huge difference.

“If Gerald is there, they see that it’s not just information from a store manager level, but also a corporate level,” Dahnke says. “Owners who have multiple stores need to be involved and make sure people know they care.”

That country wisdom also fuels this fuel station’s local product business.

“People always think it’s nice that we dedicate a section totally to things from the state of Illinois, our local communities,” Dahnke says. “It shows that we care.”

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