In rural communities across the Midwest, you are likely to spot a Casey’s General Store, sometimes even more than one in the same community. Illinois is Casey’s second largest state, only behind Iowa, where you’ll find the corporate offices of the convenience store chain. Second is still impressive considering there are 1,770 stores in 14 states and Illinois has 410 of them, with a large percentage in electric cooperative areas.
Rural areas oftentimes don’t have a local grocery store, restaurant or gas station. Having a Casey’s can help meet those needs. While there are a couple of different types of Casey’s stores, there are two things that you’ll find are standard – pizza and gasoline. And in some areas, the pizza can now be ordered and delivered, a new option that has been successfully implemented. “Our prepared foods makes up only about 8 percent of our revenue, however it is about 32 percent of our gross profit, so it is a very important part of our business,” says Casey’s Vice President of Finance/Corporate Secretary Brian Johnson. “We are focused on driving sales to this category which is why you see expanded coffee bars, made-to-order subs and testing of miscellaneous initiatives, like pizza delivery, in some of our larger communities.
“Given our small town business model, repeat business is critical to our ongoing success. To do that we focus on keeping a clean, well maintained store and high quality food service,” explains Johnson. “It doesn’t matter if you live in a large metropolitan area such as Chicago, or a rural community like Athens, people are busy and have a need for convenience, particularly when it comes to food service. Fortunately, we have a made-from-scratch product that is made fresh at every store.
“Approximately half of the stores are in communities where the population is under 5,000, and we take a lot of pride in having a rural focus.” Athens falls into that easily with a population of 1,988, according to the 2010 census.
Athens store manager, Trish Halleck, who hails from Petersburg says, “We haveregulars who come in every day. It’s a group of four or five men, mostly retired, who have been coming here probably since the store opened 20 years ago. They hang out in the back talking and drinking their coffee.”
Halleck has seen the group often over the past eight years she has worked there. She began as a cook on the lunch shift, advanced to assistant manager and was promoted to manager a few months ago. The Athens Casey’s has 20 employees and is open 24 hours a day. What is the most popular product? “Pizza!” says Shannon Brink, a Menard Electric customer who has worked at the store for a total of almost two years. “And they really like the new brisket sandwich we have, too.”
When school dismisses, Halleck says the kids start coming in. “The school is just across the street. They stop by for their Gatorade and snacks from the kitchen.”
In asking the employees on site why they work at Casey’s, the answers were unanimous and enthusiastic. Stacy Maxim who lives only six blocks from the store is the newest employee. With a smile, she says, “I work here because it’s close to home. I already knew and liked everybody and had experience at gas stations.” Halleck adds, “People are friendly. They joke around with us. They help us out by telling us what they need. The best part is seeing the familiar faces every day, neighbors.”
Riley Fisher has lived in Athens for 10 years, and considers himself a regular. “I come in every Sunday,” and as he grabbed lunch out of the warmer, said, “I also come in and grab lunch or a snack sometimes.”
Expansion and economics
Johnson says, “There are a little more than 6,000 people employed by the stores in Illinois and more than 27,000 employees chainwide.” In 2014, the plans are to add 70 to 105 additional stores (4 to 6 percent of the business base.) The growth is expected across the company’s 14 states (Arkansas, Iowa, Illinois, Indiana, Kansas, Kentucky, Minnesota, Missouri, Nebraska, North Dakota, Oklahoma, South Dakota, Tennessee and Wisconsin.)
“We plan to replace 20 stores a year, and this year we plan to complete an additional 25 major remodels, which actually increases the size of the existing building and adds a walk-in beer cooler, expanded coffee bar and allows us to offer our made-to-order sub sandwich programs,” Johnson explains.
There are a few Casey’s in larger communities, as well. Bloomington is a prime example in Illinois. Corn Belt Energy serves those two businesses, according to Justin Stuva, Energy Advisor at the cooperative.
“At the end of the day if we have a clean store and quality food products, we should be able to attract people to our stores,” adds Johnson.
If you talk to the employees and customers at the Athens location … he is right on the money!