Expanding Convenience

Convenience stores are facing competition from all sides. Fast food chains have their value menus. Super markets are becoming more aggressive with their loss leaders, curbside and home delivery, and dollar stores and similar value markets are popping up everywhere. Add to that customers are expecting more from their snack store experience.

North Country’s own Stewart’s Shops has been meeting customers’ changing needs for over 70 years. The company has over 300 stores across New York — most of them between Albany and the Canadian border — as well as a few in Vermont.

Chad Kiesow, Vice President of Facilities, explained that Stewart’s has committed upwards of $50 million dollars to capital improvements for each of the past three years. “Some of our older, legacy shops were not meeting what today’s customers were looking for,” he observed. “The average shop was about 2,000- 2,500 square feet — some even smaller. The average remodeled shop is closer to 3,800 square feet and costs between $2.5-3 million to build.”

In addition to the physical expansions, Stewart’s has expanded its product lines. “We wanted to offer more of what our customers were looking for, from the type of their experience, to the type of food we offer.” stated Kiesow. Customers can now choose from a variety of ‘grab and go’ or ‘take a meal’ items, in addition to freshly made sandwiches and salads that can be taken home or enjoyed in the expanded in-store seating areas.

Kiesow has made capital improvements his priority since becoming a vice president in 2016. He grew up in a suburb outside of Utica, the land of what he called “chicken riggies” and “halfmoon” cookies. He attended Syracuse University, graduating with a degree in Business Management and Accounting. Kiesow was working as controller for Bonfare Foods of Boonville, New York in the early 1990s when Stewart’s acquired all 40 of its stores “and me!” he shared with a smile. When he started with Stewart’s, he was in the fuel division, tasked with buying and marketing fuel. Nearly 20 years later his responsibilities have expanded to facilities and real estate management.

The Stewart’s executive team did extensive research before rolling out their remodel plan. “There were a great many things we considered. We wanted to make the stores flow so that customers were inclined to browse rather than just pop in and out,” Kiesow stated. Where there was land for sale near existing locations, they bought it. (Example: the Stewart’s Shop on Route 3 in the town of Plattsburgh). Those purchases allowed for an increase in the physical footprint of the stores as well as the parking areas and gas pump availability. That allowed the remodels to go forward without having to close the shops. “We knew it would have been a quicker result if we had closed for a period of time during the remodels but it was important to us to stay open and reliable for our customers,” he said.

Access to what Stewart’s has to offer is important to its customers. The U.S. Department of Agriculture coined a term “food desert” which identifies areas, both rural and urban, where access to healthful, affordable food is limited or even unavailable. While you might not think of convenience stores as grocery stores, there are parts of the North Country that are miles from a grocery store and, for families dealing with food insecurity, Stewart’s increased healthful offerings are most welcome.

Stewart’s capital campaign is unwavering and the resolve to modernize stores is stronger than ever. The days of mystery mayonnaise gas station sandwiches are done and thank goodness. Stewart’s Shops is happy to be able to offer customers a morning cup of coffee, a tank of fuel and pizza and subs along with something more interesting like jambalaya for lunch. In the age of foodies, convenience store customers nationwide are insisting the bar be raised on the food on which they graze, and Stewart’s is happy to accept the challenge.