By Sarah Sekula, published in USA TODAY
Many things about the Valero gas station in the trendy U Street area of Washington, D.C., are typical. Like the blue dumpster that sits in the corner of the small parking lot, the chewing gum stuck to the asphalt and the orange construction cone that props open the door.
So as you enter the Fast Gourmet convenience store and waltz past the 99-cent Cheez Doodles, the row of Kit Kats and bottles of antifreeze, it’s surprising to find a massive chalkboard hanging high above the cash register. It lists delightful dishes like yellowfin tuna steak, spinach pie and the famous chivito, a tenderloin-and-ham sandwich overflowing with mozzarella, bacon, green olives and hard-boiled eggs.
Better yet, most everything is made from scratch, says Lina Almiron, a petite, 28-year-old Colombian woman who runs Fast Gourmet with her Argentinian husband, Fernando.
And here’s another bonus: It’s clean. Really clean. Even the restroom.
Tiled with dark, natural stone, “people say it’s the best bathroom in a gas station they’ve ever seen,” she says proudly. “It’s about the wow factor. We try to make it comfortable for people.”
If you’ve never chowed down at a gas station, well, maybe it’s time to reconsider. Five-star filling stations are popping up across the nation. And they will surprise you, in a good way. I’m talking pork-belly sandwiches, tapenade-topped goat burgers and pan-seared sea scallops. Not your standard gas-station fare. So be on the lookout: The same place you would go to buy energy drinks and beef jerky might now also house a snazzy food venue.
When I mention gourmet gas stations to my sister, Leah Murr, while visiting D.C., she is thrilled to take me to a late lunch at Fast Gourmet.
“They have the best eggplant fries,” Leah gushes.
As we scarf down falafel sandwiches and the beloved beer-battered eggplant fries while watching a soccer game on the flat screen, I, too, become a fan.
Not your everyday thing
Frequent customer Daniel Shorstein, a manager at Deloitte, says part of the novelty is that it’s “a legit food establishment hiding in a gas station, but it really does have delicious food.”
Though this scenario is unusual for gas stations in America, it’s not the case in Bogotá, where Lina grew up, and in Buenos Aires, where Fernando spent his childhood.
“In South America you find great gourmet food in the most bizarre places, like kiosks or in a little cart down the road or at gas stations,” Lina says. “We saw a need for a place like that here in the D.C. area, a place where regardless of your background, or size of your wallet, anyone could come by to have a great meal.”
Seems to be working. The Almirons say they see everything from Fords to Ferraris in the parking lot. All types gather here, from lanky teens looking for an after-school snack to State Department workers on hurried lunch breaks.
“The number of mom-and-pop gourmet gas stations is in the hundreds, but when you add the chains like Wawa, Sheetz, Nice N Easy Grocery Shoppes and Rutter’s, it is in the thousands,” says Jeff Lenard, vice president of strategic industry initiatives at the National Association of Convenience Stores.
Still, that’s not much, he says, when you consider the total number of convenience stores in the country: 149,000. Lenard predicts we’ll see more of this new breed of gas station in the coming years. “It just makes sense.” He likens it to great restaurants located in hotels.
“They are where people gather, and they have a built-in customer base,” Lenard says. “The same characteristics that gas stations have. The potential is there. However, restaurants cost millions, and gas stations do not.”
Paula Nwaeze, co-owner of Chef Point Cafe in Watauga, Texas, a restaurant attached to a Conoco gas station, can attest to that.
“We could not get a loan for a restaurant, but banks were very willing to lend for a c-store 10 years ago,” she recalls. “Just making lemonade out of lemons.”
The recession didn’t seem to hurt the business one bit, either. “Our revenue has increased every year we have been in business,” Nwaeze says. In 2009, it was featured on the Food Network, to boot. Not surprising, considering it serves escargot in garlic wine butter, scallops in curry sauce and duck breast with spicy plum sauce.
Similar success has come to Greg Parker, president and CEO of Parker’s Market Urban Gourmet in Savannah, Ga. “We currently do $6 million in annual sales,” Parker says. “Our store was actually picked by TripAdvisor last year as the fourth-best restaurant in the city.”
That’s probably because the crab stew consistently wins awards. And the extensive wine list works well with the upscale Southern comfort foods served. It’s charming, 6,000-square-foot space doesn’t hurt, either. A renovated automobile dealership from the late 1800s with Mediterranean-style architecture, it is certainly eye-catching, a place where you want to linger.
“Our head chef trained under the tutelage of her grandmother,” Parker says. “We all revere her food.”
Beyond the upscale cuisine at these newfangled eateries, there are even more surprises. The Green Spot in Dallas has a local market each week featuring Dallas-based artists. Uptown Chevron Food Mart & Car Wash in Maui has a cashier who knows customers by name. And Tioga Gas Mart in Lee Vining, Calif., hosts weekly concerts in the summertime so you can sit there and enjoy lobster taquitos while sipping on a mango margarita. The owners are adding a large outdoor patio with a park-like theme.
“When this is completed, we will be booking wedding events,” says Denise Molnar, Tioga Gas Mart’s manager.
If this all sounds slightly strange to you, you’re not the only one. When Saxapahaw General Store, which is housed in an abandoned cotton mill, first opened in Saxapahaw, N.C., “people thought we were nuts,” says chef and co-owner Jeff Barney, who serves gourmet goat burgers and scallops over applewood bacon with succotash.
But Barney, and others, have proved the naysayers wrong. Guess it’s safe to say: You can’t judge a gas station by it’s less-than-dapper exterior.
Chef Point Cafe
American-style comfort food and exotic fare
5901 Watauga Road
Urban street food with South American and Mediterranean influences
1400 W Street N.W.
Green Spot Market & Fuels
Healthy, organic, natural dishes
702 N. Buckner Blvd., Dallas
Parker’s Market Urban Gourmet
Southern comfort food
222 Drayton Street
Saxapahaw General Store
Contemporary American cuisine with French influences
1735 Saxapahaw-Bethlehem Church Road
Tioga Gas Mart/Whoa Nellie Deli
New American cuisine
22 Vista Point Drive (east gate of Yosemite)
Lee Vining, Calif.
Note: Open last weekend in April to the last weekend in October
Uptown Chevron Food Mart & Car Wash
Hawaiian comfort food and Puerto Rican, Chinese and Korean dishes
2085 Main Street, Wailuku, Hawaii