Commuters making the daily trek to Toronto from communities as far away as Barrie, 113 km north of Canada’s largest city, can count on two things when they pull in to Alcona Esso Gas and Variety: a steaming cup of coffee and a beaming smile.
Alcona Esso is located about 103 km north of Toronto in Innisfil, a commuter town, and during peak drive times the store is a hub of activity. Mornings are particularly hectic, says owner Scott Knack. “Customers are getting their coffee and their smokes en route to starting their day. Convenience is important.”
To enhance the ease with which customers can make a purchase, Alcona Esso has a drive-through. In fact, the store was the first in the community of roughly 37,000 people to offer this type of service. That was in 1995. “Customers can get anything they want at the drive-through,” says Knack. “Some people even purchase a car wash at the window.”
Meeting the demands of harried and tech-savvy commuters requires being service focused and innovative. Knack, for example, launched a car wash app earlier this year to make purchases easier. He also offers users a monthly pass for this service.
The partnership with Esso, on the other hand, signals the store is affiliated with a well-known and well-regarded national company. “It’s a big brand. There is name recognition,” says Knack.
Then there is quality. Alcona offers customers their own brand of coffee, Rod’s Coffee, named after Knack’s father, who started the business 24 years ago. “Coffee is an important draw. It has to be fresh,” stresses Knack. It also has to stand apart from other vendors, so the coffee cups are exclusive to Alcona with their own design and logo.
Many customers also buy a homemade sandwich to go with their coffee. Each day, the staff prepare egg salad, tuna, turkey and ham sandwiches fresh for the buying. “We’re always trying to do something different, something that Tim Hortons doesn’t do,” says Knack. Although like the giant fast food chain, Alcona does offer customers the option to buy fresh doughnuts, at least for part of the year.
Regardless of what customers purchase, they’re met with a friendly smile and a heartfelt greeting. “We have a warm and happy atmosphere here,” says Knack. “We want people to feel welcome. Our employees are chatty. They ask about our customers’ day. That’s how I was raised.”
Knack also uses social media to engage with customers. “This helps keep people aware of us and what we have to offer.” On Sunday nights, for example, the employees will often post a reminder that garbage bag tags are available at Alcona: Monday is garbage day in the town.
That’s marketing savvy—it’s also thoughtful. Knack ensures similar consideration is given to staff. He often takes his 19 part-time and full-time employees out for a night of bowling or paintball. As well, he tries to accommodate requests for shifts and time off. “I try to schedule according to people’s needs,” Knack says. “We have staff who stay for a long time.”