An entrepreneurial spirit launched this c-store chain in 1984, and it’s only getting better. John Riley opened up his eighth c-store location in Weirton, WV in June this year. Considering when he opened his first he wasn’t sure which direction his entrepreneurial ambitions were going, the growth his chain has seen since 1984 is pretty impressive.
“As a young kid, I always wanted to own my own business; I just didn’t know what it was going to be,” said Riley, founder and president of Kwik King Food Stores. “My grandfather and my uncles were all entrepreneurs, so it’s something that was bred into me.”
After getting out of the Army at age 23, Riley went to college and then started working in the family business. It didn’t take him long to realize he didn’t like working for his parents. As he and his wife began looking at buying some rental properties, a long-time friend and schoolmate offered to sell the young couple a gas station, the Toronto Tribune newspaper building, a townhouse on a river, and a couple of garage apartments.
“He said if we wanted them, we just had to take over the payments,” said Riley. Each property was leased out, with the gas station being an Amoco dealer. When the lease came due on the Amoco, the man who worked there decided to retire. Riley and his wife put a “For Lease” sign on the gas station, but after three months with no offers, they decided to go in a new direction.
“We remodeled the building and started a convenience store,” he recalled. One of the visions the Rileys had for their business was to offer a drive-thru window, so they built one into their remodel plans. Today, each Kwik King Food Store is equipped with a drive-thru window, something no other competitor in the company’s market has.
“Originally, we sold pop, food, beer, cigarettes, and candy through the drive-thru,” said Riley. “As our product mix grew, we would even sell deli items. We copied what McDonald’s was doing in the restaurant business and put it into the c-store industry.”
The opening of Riley’s first location wasn’t where his success began, however. Funding for the remodel came entirely out of the couple’s pockets, and the business started off on a shoestring budget.
Riley continued to work for his family business for about five years before realizing that if his own business was to flourish, he had to take a chance and put 100% of his life into it. He quit his job and started running his first location full time.
About a year later, he and his wife bought their second location in East Liverpool, Ohio, and a year and a half later, they bought their third location. At this point, Riley decided to brand his chain with the name Kwik King to build some brand recognition.
“From that point on, I lived by the philosophy that I hoped to do a little better this year than I did last year,” he said. “We continued to build our business and look for new locations, and in 1998, we built two new stores.”
After building two more in 2003, Riley saw another business opportunity: petroleum. Kwik King left its current supplier, became a Marathon petroleum jobber, and started buying its fuel directly. At first, Riley used a freight company to haul the petroleum. In 2005, Riley Petroleum bought its first fuel tank wagon.
The following year, the subsidiary began supplying to commercial customers such as trucking companies, excavators, home heating oil customers, locomotives, and landfill operators. “At first, we were cautiously learning the business,” Riley said. “Now we’re running about five trucks and doing 750,000 gallons a month.”
With his petroleum business in place, Riley turned his attention back to the c-store chain. The drive-thru concept is still in place, but within the store, other changes have taken place.
Riley said each location comes close to being a full-service grocery store, with a full line of groceries, tobacco, candy, snacks, and a beverage section that includes pop, beer, juices, and more. All but one location has a large deli with homemade selections such as chicken, hot entrees, chicken wings, fish on Fridays, and the Kwik King sub line, which was introduced about eight years ago.
Similar to a Subway or Quiznos, Kwik King subs are run through a conveyor oven and are served hot. One major difference: Kwik King subs cost less than the competition, and Riley believes his product quality is far superior.
“We’re not paying a franchise royalty agreement, and the sub shops inside of our buildings are ours, so we don’t have to charge them rent,” he said. “These are both tremendous savings we can pass onto the customer.”
Kwik King also uses CMI for its inventory management system, so as employees receive orders at the back door, they can match up the invoice with the vendor’s invoice and quickly spot any discrepancies. Using this program, Riley said the company has eliminated vendors sneaking in new products that weren’t approved by the corporate office, and it has better control on its costs.
“We know what we’re supposed to be paying for the item,” he said. “Prices sometimes come in wrong, but employees can’t accept an item if the price doesn’t match. You’d be amazed how quickly a vendor will change his price to get his product in the back door.”
But even with the ability to leave some of the decisionmaking in the hands of his employees, Riley maintains a hands-on approach to his business, especially when it comes to dealing with customers. Kwik King’s website has only been up and running for about a year, but he said it’s been an effective tool in helping the company market its name and stay in close contact with customers.
“If someone has a bad experience at our store, they will e-mail us and let us know about it,” he said. “It gives us the opportunity to follow up and make it right for them so we keep satisfied customers.”
Typically, all e-mails come to Riley first, who then directs them to the appropriate store manager. His usual instructions: follow up with the customer personally, give them a gift certificate, and ask them to give Kwik King another chance. Afterward, follow up with the employees who were working that particular shift and find out who dropped the ball.
As Riley rolls out the welcome mat to the community of Weirton, he said he’s keeping his eye out for the next locale for the Kwik King. But he’s not looking to grow too fast.
“We hadn’t built any new stores in the past six years because we were building up our petroleum company,” he said. “Now it’s up and running, and we’re back out there looking for properties to grow our retail presence. It’s just a matter of finding the right location.”
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