Filling up at a gas station used to present a simple choice: Regular or high-test. Today, the question is apt to be, "Here or to go?"
In this day of automated teller machines and drive-through windows, service stations and fast-food restaurants throughout the Baltimore area are teaming up to offer harried consumers a hamburger and a tank of gas, in one convenient location.
"America's favorite dining room is the dashboard," said T. J. Callahan, senior consultant of Technomic Inc., a restaurant consulting firm in Chicago. He noted that the fast-food restaurant-gas station combination is becoming popular across the country.
In the past year, at least a half-dozen such businesses have opened in the Baltimore area, and a dozen or more are planned. Pull into an Amoco, and you can order a Big Mac. Fill up at Exxon, and don't forget the Frosty.
"It saves me from chasing up and down the street," said Jean Smith, an Elkridge resident who stopped to fill up her car at an Elkridge Exxon and grabbed a chicken sandwich and iced tea at an adjacent Wendy's.
"It's a time saver," agreed Jean DePriest, a Florida resident who stopped at the station on her way home from visiting relatives in Baltimore. "We were going to get gas and then find something to eat, but then we saw the Wendy's right here."
Gas stations have long offered soft drinks and candy bars. In recent decades, many added small convenience stores.
Five years ago, fast-food restaurants and gas stations began to open joint operations in the Southeast and Southwest, hoping to entice consumers who tell pollsters they feel more rushed than they did a decade ago.
While precise numbers of restaurant-gas station combinations aren't available, McDonald's reportedly has 180 such outlets throughout the country.
For the service-station operators, food sales provide a way to increase revenue while gas prices are flat -- a gallon of regular unleaded averages $1.07, compared with $1.13 five years ago.
The restaurants like the arrangement because they can share space and costs with well-situated service stations -- locations that can cost $15,000 to $20,000.
"It gets us into a location that a stand-alone could not afford," said Joe Cunnane, chief operating officer for DavCo Restaurants, which operates more than 200 Wendy's and Friendly's franchises in the Baltimore and Washington area and recently opened the first of three planned fast-food-and-gas-station combinations.
The arrangement offers competitive relief to gasoline retailers beset by narrow profit margins and faced with huge discount stores such as Kmart, Price Club and Wal-Mart that are beginning to sell gas.
"The market is always changing," said Rick Phelps, president of Carroll Independent Fuel Co., which plans to open two Mobil stations with carryout restaurants in eastern Baltimore County. "We wanted to increase the revenue sources on a single property."
Said Sam Hassan, manager of the Exxon and Jerry's Sub and Pizza operation in Cockeysville: "We provide a one-stop shopping center."
While oil companies hope the food will bring more customers to the pump, many customers pulling into the service stations pass up the gas altogether.
At Hassan's Exxon station recently, most of the customers lined up at a Jerry's takeout counter had not bothered to fill their tanks.
"I really like this concept," said Brad Burris, a Hunt Valley consultant, as he waited for his pizza. He said he frequently stops at the station to buy fruit, coffee and bagels.
The business arrangements vary. Sometimes a gas station owner buys a restaurant franchise. Sometimes the restaurant owner becomes a service station dealer. Sometimes the gas stations and restaurants are operated separately.
While some gas stations have struggled to become attuned to the fast-food industry and its emphasis on speed, customer service and cleanliness, Callahan said most are catching on quickly. "You're going to see a lot more of this," he said.
DavCo opened a Wendy's-Exxon combination in Elkridge in February and plans to open two more this year, in Savage and Kent Island.
In Elkridge, customers can fill up their cars, eat in a sit-down Wendy's restaurant, buy a sandwich from the deli counter, order a Friendly's ice cream cone and shop at a convenience store. An attendant at the cash register wearing headphones asks customers at the pumps if they'd like a sandwich.
"I'm attracting 1,000 cars a day to my parking lot," Cunnane said. "I'm pleased with results so far."
Pub Date: 5/21/98