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By Mehgan Belanger
How do more than 34 years of combined experience in the plumbing, heating and piping wholesale supply field relate to operating a convenience store?
"It doesn't translate," joked Trent Lee, co-owner of the recently opened Cheetah Mart, a 5,700-square-foot convenience store located in Fargo, N.D. Lee, along with colleague Jerrod McPherson, opened the store in mid-January. It features extensive fresh food offerings, dine-in seating and some unique store design surprises, including leather easy chairs circling a fireplace, an area of the store Lee dubbed "the library."
The c-store is a side project to the pair's day jobs -- working at an area branch of the plumbing and HVAC supply company Ferguson Enterprises Inc., where Lee is the general manager. The chance to operate a c-store struck the two as a great opportunity, and Lee was familiar with the industry -- two family members operate their own convenience stores.
"It's always been an area of interest, and that really drove us to it," he told Convenience Store News. "And Jerrod and I are great c-store customers. What better place to start?"
The store is situated in a 400-acre "city within a city" lifestyle center, currently under development called Urban Plains. When complete, it will feature shops and restaurants; a park with walking paths and a lake; multi-family housing; and even a 6,000-seat hockey arena for a local amateur hockey league team. The area around the center is comprised of single-family homes, businesses and medical facilities.
"There was a niche [in the area] that wasn't being filled, and part of our experience with Ferguson is to understand your customers and their needs, and provide services that go above and beyond," Lee said.
Cheetah Mart offers a variety of fresh food options, including a salad bar, full-service coffee bar, soup, sandwiches, pizza and roller grill offerings. Customers can choose to eat inside the store at a 40-seat dining area, outside on the patio area or take their food to-go, all while purchasing fuel and other convenience items in one stop. "There's nothing like it in Fargo," he said.
McPherson added: "We saw this as a huge opportunity for us, being able to give the customers what we like. But what most people miss in this type of a business is the customer service expectation, and friendly and efficient service. We give them an over-the-top experience they don't expect in a typical c-store."
Lee and McPherson teamed up with engineer Steve Whaley of the Whaley Co., who put the men's ideas on paper as a store design. "He was an instrumental part in putting together the concept that we have now," Lee said.
The storefront is all glass, and the store itself was described by Lee as having a "high-end coffee shop" feel inside, through the use of pendant lighting and open bar joists, allowing an airy space with black painted rafters and visible ductwork. The interior design color palette includes olive, taupe, creamy mustard and dark raspberry hues. The unique library area, with its leather chairs and gas fireplace, came to life out of a brainstorming session to emphasize the store's comforting, coffee-shop personality, Lee explained.
At the gas island, Cheetah Mart's Gilbarco dispensers feature 12-inch display screens at its 12 pumps, which play targeted point-of-purchase marketing including in-store promotions, car wash discounts and more. The canopy also uses energy-efficient LED lighting -- a first in the state, according to Lee. In fact, many of the store's design elements are low-energy consumption or "green" options, including radiant floor and rooftop heating for the store, lower water consumption at the car wash, the building's orientation and tankless water heaters.
"We built this with the idea of capturing a LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) rating, which would have made us the first c-store in North Dakota," Lee said, adding complications arouse when the general contractor for the location was not LEED certified. Today though, the contractor is certified, and if the exact store was built again, it would reach LEED gold standards. These design elements added 5 to 10 percent to the building cost, "but they are all things that make sense to do anyway. It pays for itself," he said.
Along the environmentally friendly lines, Cheetah Mart's Clark-branded fuel also boasts an E85 offering, and there is enough space on the lot to add additional fueling options for customers, such as electric outlets or natural gas, when they become viable, according to McPherson. "Who knows where we'll be five years from now," he said.
Inside the store, customers can construct a salad creation from the 15-foot salad bar, choose from three types of freshly made soups or pick from traditional c-store roller grill items. Cheetah Mart also is home to a Godfather's Pizza franchise, offering mini pizzas, breakfast pizzas, buffalo wings and more. Flanking the entrance is an eight-foot, octagonal open deli case where 30 varieties of store-made sandwiches are waiting for grab-and-go occasions. The sandwiches, which are made each morning, include offerings with ciabatta and multi-grain bread, as well as wraps. Also stocked in the case are cut fruits and veggies, as well as yogurt parfaits.
On the beverage side, there are six smoothie flavors available at any given time and 20 fountain heads. Despite opening the store in the frigid North Dakota winter, sales of smoothies and fountain drinks surpassed the co-owners' expectations. "I was wondering how many smoothies we were going to sell in Fargo, N.D., but that's been a home run for us," McPherson said.
There is also coffee bar named Daily Grind, where a barista makes custom coffee and espresso beverages similar to those found in a Starbucks or Caribou Coffee store, Lee said. The Daily Grind also boasts a high-end pastry offering, which includes a customer favorite -- a seven-inch round caramel roll, which Lee admits is "to die for."
For those with sweet teeth, Cheetah Mart also has a hand-dipped ice cream area with Ashby's Sterling premium ice cream.
Two other elements of the store -- a drive-thru window and a car wash -- will open in the future. Including the cost of the land, the store's total price tag was between $2 million and $3 million.
Upon entering Cheetah Mart, guests are greeted by associates from the sales counters that are set in the rear of the store.
To encourage a friendly, welcoming staff, "we spent lot of time coaching our folks in being engaged and greeting customers, so they feel welcome there and know we appreciate their business," said McPherson.
And so far, customers have been impressed and awed by their new neighbor. "There's been a kind of a rumbling around town, with people asking 'What's a Cheetah Mart?' It's a unique name so it stands out. Everyone saw it being built, and as soon as it opened they wanted to check it out," Lee said, adding, "Then they came back, and came back again."