Most convenience store chains focus all of their energies on little more than convenience, offering customers packaged snacks and sandwiches aimed at getting them in and out of the stores quickly. Tiger Fuel Company, on the other hand, had the notion of giving customers more than food made with speed in mind. The company introduced its Gourmet-to-Go program nearly 22 years ago at its Bellair Market location in Charlottesville, Va., and its selection of freshly-made deli sandwiches have earned it the distinction of being “America’s first gourmet gas station,” according to District Manager Gordon Sutton. 

“Our delis have received a lot of critical acclaim over the years. Just recently we were featured in Bon Appetit magazine as one of America’s top 16 restaurants in old or still functioning gas stations,” Sutton adds. 

Tiger Fuel has been serving central Virginia since 1982, providing customers with fuel, car washes, convenience stores and home heating and propane products. The company has grown steadily over the last 30 years, and Sutton says that this is due in large part to the quality and service customers find at its retail convenience store locations. 

Having the advantages Tiger Fuel Company has is crucial when considering the scope of the competition it faces. The company’s retail operations have to compete with large-scale national players as well as smaller competitors, and Sutton says the market becomes more crowded every day. 

“I would say that more and more, at least on the fuel side, the big-box retailers like Sam’s Club and Kroger have really made things hard for us in our market,” he says. 

People Power

Nevertheless, Tiger Fuel Company has several advantages over its competition, and Sutton says they start with the people it employs at its stores all the way up to the front office. “The biggest thing is our people, our employees and our customer service,” Sutton says. 

The company believes strongly in hiring only those people who will make exemplary representatives, so it emphasizes the interview process. Sutton says Tiger Fuel Company’s upper management is heavily involved in this process. “If you’re going to come work for us, you’re going to interview with me or one of our other district managers,” he says, adding that all new employees are required to undergo training through the company’s “The Tiger Way” program. 

“We take that very seriously and we have a lot of pride in the people that we have working in the stores,” Sutton adds. 

After the strength of its people, Tiger Fuel Company’s other advantage is the quality of the products it offers, and its Gourmet-to-Go program is front and center in that regard. Featuring a full selection of deli meats from local suppliers, Gourmet-to-Go allows customers to create their own hand-made deli sandwiches or choose from a selection of regular favorites. The concept has become a stalwart feature of some of the company’s retail locations, and even has been featured in Bon Appetit magazine. Other locations feature The Market, which offers other gourmet food and beverage options. 

Working with local suppliers is something Tiger Fuel Company believes in strongly, Sutton says, and it’s something the company wants to expand in the future. He says the company is working with local craft breweries to provide locally produced beers at its retail locations. “Customers really seem to respond to that,” Sutton says. 

Creating Loyalty

Although Tiger Fuel Company has carved out a successful place for itself in a crowded marketplace, there are still some things it can’t control. For example, Sutton says, the company has been dealing with shrinking profit margins from the sale of petroleum, which the company has been fighting through its loyalty program. The company’s “Return and Earn” program gives customers discounts on fuel based on their purchases inside the store.

Sutton says the loyalty program will be a big part of the company’s plans for the near future, with mobile apps planned that will give customers the ability to sign in from their phones or other devices. Tiger Fuel Company should have its mobile loyalty app available by the end of the year, Sutton says. 

The next few years will be important for Tiger Fuel Company, as the company works to recover from the effects of the recession and get back to a place where it can start growing again. Sutton says the company has plans to completely renovate one of its stores this year, and hopes to begin growing through building or acquiring locations in the near future. With the company’s insistence on giving customer more than speed, Tiger Fuel Company believes it has the strength to stay on top for a long time to come.