Inside a shop at 36th and Lyndale, there’s a full-sized rack of CBD products by the register. To your right, three airpots of Peace Coffee changed out every hour-and-a-half for maximum freshness. A fridge case offers grab-and-go wraps from Afro Deli, cage-free eggs, and more than one variety of fancy pink coconut water. By the door, a shelf with kale chips, oat milk, organic mayonnaise, and gallon jugs of Cry Baby Craig’s local hot sauce.
This shop also happens to be a gas station on a major thoroughfare in South Minneapolis, packed to the brim with cars, each taking turns carefully nosing their way into fueling position with varying levels of patience.
Owner Lonnie McQuirter is proud to be able to stock all of these products, and they’re selling pretty well. 36Lyn Refuel Station will take in nearly $12 million in revenue—roughly 3 times the national average according to industry publication Convenience Store News—by the time 2019 is over. But Lonnie knows that kombucha and cheap gas are just two facets of the real product he offers his customers: Those precious extra minutes they save while shopping with him, rather than making multiple stops.
“A lot of people are under this assumption that we’re reliant on fuel for our sales,” says 36Lyn’s director of operations Lonnie McQuirter. “We sell people time. If we can’t save you time, you don’t stop here.”
Lonnie and his father, Lonnie J. McQuirter, had only just bought the station in the spring of 2005 when his grandfather James McQuirter became suddenly ill. Lonnie’s father made the difficult decision to step away from his new business to care for his family, entrusting the whole of the business to his 19-year-old son.
Lonnie had grown up nearby at 40th and Nicollet and attended high school at North High because of its STEM program. He dreamt of being an engineer, but his interests drifted towards business in the latter part of high school. He started reading the New York Times and Wall Street Journal religiously and devouring business books in earnest. He realized that college wouldn’t be financially viable—and later that there wouldn’t be much time for school while working at the gas station seven days a week.
Lonnie set out to emulate his father, a principled businessman who also owned the local cleaning company Squeaky Clean, and believed in taking care of his people. On the night that the McQuirters took over the store, they let the existing staff know that they were all getting $4-an-hour raises.
Even with that extra kick in workplace morale, 36Lyn’s new manager was in for a steep learning curve and the first few years were tough. A few bad actors, both external and internal, were quick to take advantage of Lonnie’s relative inexperience.
“There’s kind of this ‘oh shit’ moment, when you realize you’re knee-deep in debt and you have employees stealing from you even though they got a $4-an-hour raise,” Lonnie says ruefully. “I’ve had vendors sell me gift cards that didn’t actually work. I bought $8,000 worth of them, what am I going to do now?”
On April 20, 2010, the Deepwater Horizon drilling rig exploded off the coast of Louisiana and the BP name became a toxic albatross overnight. As a BP franchisee, Lonnie says that sales cratered and there were five protests in the weeks following the catastrophe. There’s still a distaste for the brand that lingers for many customers today, and it’s one that Lonnie shares.
“The relationship with BP is not great. High level, I’m a drop in the bucket from the way that they see it,” Lonnie explains. Apart from a weighty handbook of corporate standards, all BP had offered in the way of support for the McQuirters’ fledgling business was the occasional and patronizing fly-by inspection.
“As a franchisee, there’s this idea that if you have an international brand out front, they’re actually doing something for the operator. As someone who has been in this business for a while, I would definitely say that the value of a brand just isn’t there anymore.”
With no help from corporate, Lonnie had no choice but to innovate. Borrowing a technique from his dad, he began a series of small experiments. Fresh fruit was added to the traditional snack offerings. Subpar vendors were swapped out for higher quality products, one by one. Progress was slow and methodical and came via long hours spent interfacing with customers and observing how they shopped in the store.
“In gas stations, and I’ve been in thousands, you’ll see people walk around aisles and they’re looking for something healthier, because that’s what they’re craving,” Lonnie explains. “They’re not craving a bag of chips, they’re not craving any of the vices.
“We try to have an item-based inventory process here which allows us to rationalize every product that we have on the shelf,” he continues. “Eighty percent of your sales come from 20 percent of the items on the shelf, so why would we sell a subpar hot sauce if we can sell something better?”
But even turning the store’s inventory over came with its share of challenges. In the early days, Lonnie and his staff knocked on a lot of doors but found that larger brands often didn’t take them seriously enough and some smaller vendors considered their products too premium to be sold in a gas station.
Peace Coffee was one of the first big time local brands to take a chance on 36Lyn. Lonnie and his staff toured their facility and attended training on how to make the best cup of coffee. Eventually, he was able to switch to US Natural Foods and Co-Op Partners Warehouse as their main suppliers. This meant adding Bob’s Red Mill flour, Organic Valley milk, and frozen foods from Amy’s Kitchen and Mucci’s Italian replacing Jack’s and Tombstone.
Lonnie doesn’t have as much control over his store’s forecourt as he’d like, but he’s still made some improvements. His crown jewel, a DC fast-charging station for electric vehicles, was installed in 2014.
“We were the first gas station in Minnesota to do it and one of the first DC fast chargers in Minnesota,” Lonnie says. He actually got the idea from a regular customer who worked for a local company that produced the chargers. “With a Nissan Leaf, you’ll get 80% charged in about 15 minutes. For a young family, or for a working professional, that’s a life-changer, especially in the winter.”
The additional energy costs are an exchange Lonnie is happy to make, just like when he shuts down his pumps during the city’s Open Streets celebrations every year. A car-free event seems like bad business for a gas station, but Lonnie says it’s one of his most fun days of the year and allows his employees a break from the routine. They’ve even booked bands to play on their roof to entertain the passersby.
As the store has grown, so has Lonnie’s six-person staff. Some have taken an interest in the technical challenges of running the store, while others have helped to pitch vendors, offer merchandising ideas, and assist with marketing efforts. The store’s meme-filled Instagram and Facebook accounts are an absurdist delight, helmed by an employee who first started working in social media for Lonnie before expanding their client list to include other local businesses.
Lonnie has grown, too, becoming something of a youthful luminary in his industry over the last few years. He was recently onboarded as a board member of the National Association for Convenience Stores, a board that is mostly made up of representatives of much larger chains. He’s been the subject of several glowing profiles in trade mags and regularly makes trips to national conferences and trade shows as a featured speaker to share strategies and network with colleagues.
That’s the kind of stuff that seems to get Lonnie more excited than anything—new ideas for the business. Finding new ways to maximize the ability of his 800 square foot store to better serve its customers and employees. When asked about his personal life, Lonnie jokes that he spends whatever free time he has at the library reading, an assertion confirmed by the pile of business books spilling from his bag.
Lonnie is busy dreaming up the next big innovation for his tiny little store. Whatever that next idea is, it will undoubtedly be centered on serving the folks that have supported him and the store since he was a teenager.
“We’re extremely grateful for all of the customers, all of the people that have worked here, the people that have worked on the business or worked with the business, people I’ve bounced ideas off, all the other organizations I mentioned,” Lonnie says, smiling beatifically, “I don’t think I could have really lasted as long in this business if we didn’t have the customers and the community support and the staff that we do.”