Grocerant Profile: Ryan Sheetz, of Sheetz

The Great Grocerant discusses the distinctive grocerant position of Sheetz, with Ryan Sheetz, Assistant Vice President of Brand Development. The chain operates 513 stores with fuel pumps in PA, VA, WV, MD, OH and NC. Sheetz opens a new store every 10 days. All have foodservice; 213 have inside seating, including all new locations that have ample space.

The Great Grocerant:  What inspires you to pursue the grocerant opportunity today?
Ryan Sheetz, of Sheetz: Two big shifts today - in the competitive landscape and in consumer behavior – make our grocerant concept more vital than ever. First, we compete with so many retail formats, including drug, dollar, big, box, grocery, fast casual, QSR, and gas and convenience. It’s incredibly complex. Second, consumers’ time is always at a premium. We like to think we save people time by offering diverse services and products, especially grocerant convenience.

Our grocerants also appeal to Millennials, and are a big part of our success. Millennials are very sociable, and we offer them a fun in-store experience to connect with friends over great food. Technology, such as our ordering terminals and wifi, help too.  

Millennials are willing to try new things. They see they can get great food at Sheetz and say “cool, let’s try it.” They don’t have the same hang-up as other people who think they can’t get quality food at a gas station because they were once scarred by bad service or crusty nachos. We work hard every day to overcome these channel perceptions. 

Millennials use our stores and grocerants a lot. 

Foodservice is part of the Sheetz family history and heritage since the chain’s birth in 1952. Our dairy roots evolved into c-stores and gas. Our spirit has always been to combine the best of c-store and restaurant offers.

TGG:  Tell us the first three words that come to mind when you think of your grocerants.
Sheetz: Pioneering is one of our DNA markers, a nod to innovation. We want to create the Sheetz that will put today’s Sheetz out of business. If we don’t innovate, we become irrelevant and die. We want to be that innovative offer coming to town. Resource – our brand is a resource for you. We fill up your car and belly and package it in a great environment with great service. We combine the best of c-store/gas station with the best of food in 513 of our stores that sell fuel. Everyone who experiences what we offer in food (grocerants and pantry filler products), should feel the love and feel that we have their backs. Time – we innovate to save you time 24/7/365. We do this for everyone round the clock.

TGG:  What sets your efforts apart to win meal share vs. many kinds of eateries and food retailers?
Sheetz: Our high-energy vibe, touchscreen ordering and fast service, and comfortable seating distinguish Sheetz. So do our positive culture and diverse workforce – Fortune Magazine named us the #8 U.S. retailer to work for. And our innovative quality foods are consistent chainwide and customizable to each order. Sheetz has a few proprietary brands:

  • Made To Order (MTO), our fresh prepared foods, which people order to their liking on terminals
  • Made To Go (MTGo!), our ready-to-eat grab-and-go choices of sandwiches, salads, yogurt parfaits, and sides on display in cold cases. Our commissary in central PA supplies most of these
  • Sheetz Bros. Coffeez, our lineup of handmade specialty coffee drinks, espressos, smoothies, teas, nutrition shakes, and confectionery drinks. Every staffer is a trained barista, and we brew coffee every 30 minutes.

Think of our offer as between a QR and a fast-casual eating experience – quality food delivered quickly.

Sheetz connects well with Millennials, who comprise two-thirds of our 17,000+ workforce. We also survey Millennials before we open a new store – such as the 15,000-square-foot format on the ground floor of a building where 1,000 U. of West Virginia students reside, in Morgantown, WV. The result: this store has inside seating for 50 (tables, booths and counters) with wifi, power outlets every three feet, mounted TVs, and cold beer and wine caves that really resonate with the college crowd. The store emphasizes fresh prepared foods and broad grocery offerings, and has an open kitchen.

We purposely decoupled this Sheetz store, plus one other, from gasoline. We aim to learn about running a restaurant without the help of gasoline as a traffic driver.

Our usual c-store format is much smaller, seats up to 30 indoors, and has outdoor patios with inviting furniture and pergolas where space allows.

TGG:  How do you acquire ingredients and products for foodservice –particularly “free-from” products?
Sheetz: Restaurateurs are very sophisticated at acquisition, and we have to be too. Our commodities department tracks ingredients and pulls them into kitchens daily.

We focus on “free-from.” Food safety and quality assurance have always been top priorities for Sheetz.  We can already access a lot of “free-from” and local ingredients from diverse suppliers who help us, but we’re still developing the right marketing platform for it. For example, Sheetz owns so much of its supply chain we can consistently deliver a great-tasting sub roll across 513 locations. We can say it will contain only five ingredients and be free of certain others. Our $28 million kitchen is a resource that helps us control where we want to apply the “free-from” trait.

TGG:  Describe the importance of the grocerant to the rest of the store.  Can it change how shoppers view the store?
Sheetz: The grocerant widens our consumer appeals beyond most c-stores, and boosts trip frequency and basket size. Our fresh prepared foods, specialty coffee drinks, and inviting store design help Sheetz attract women, who usually prefer to shop at grocery, drug and dollar stores rather than c-stores.

TGG:  Share with us your own food background, and how you see the role of grocerant chef enhancing a store’s success.
Sheetz: I’m a CPG brand junkie who grew up in the family business, and worked for a regional dairy operator and Hershey Foods before making MTOs in Sheetz stores. Our central culinary chef innovates in foods and beverages with a five-person R&D team. In our stores, customers can access both a hospitality manager and a kitchen manager.  Sheetz trains every store worker in every culinary program, so all know how to make every single item – because time is at a premium for our customers.

TGG:  What can NRA Show do to help your grocerant be more successful?
Sheetz: We attend NRA Show with such eager eyes and ears, we want to learn everything we can from the restaurant experts. It is wonderful that a group as sharp and high-caliber as NRA focuses on the grocerant concept, which is new, pioneering, and driven by competitiveness. This show leads to provocative thought.

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