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04/26/2021

People first

Highway 2 Gas Bar plays an essential role in a small Alberta community with a big heart. Owners Marilynne and Bruce Brulotte on how the pandemic has shaped their business, from foodservice to category management and staffing.
Marilynne and Bruce Brulotte (Photos by Jodi Sware)

Location, location, location. This real estate cliché has become reality for c-store owners, especially as the country’s economy continues to reel from the raging pandemic. But for those lucky enough to be planted in just the right spot, it’s business as usual. 

Located about four hours northwest of Edmonton, McLennan, Alta. is a picturesque transportation hub. Highway 2—which stretches from the Canada-U.S. border through Calgary and Edmonton to Grande Prairie—passes right through McLennan, which has a population of about 800. Local business owners Marilynne and Bruce Brulotte knew it was an ideal spot with a ton of potential. 

The Brulottes, who have owned the local Home Hardware store since 1992, decided to take over an adjacent vacant spot in the strip mall in 1999.

“It was a gas station many years ago, and we decided that even though McLennan already had a gas station, competition is not a bad thing, plus they didn’t have a convenience store in theirs,” says Marilynne. “We wanted to get more business and flow through the community, so that's why we opened the Highway 2 Gas Bar.”

For the first few years, the Brulottes leased out the c-store. The location—one of the 200-plus Fas Gas Plus franchises in Western Canada, with 24-hour fuel pumps—originally featured a car wash until the confectionary was expanded into that space. The couple has been running Highway 2 Gas Bar themselves for seven years, splitting their time between both stores.

“Bruce is more Home Hardware, and I'm more Highway 2, but he’ll still handle anything to do with gas or propane,” says Marilynne. “I do most of the book-keeping work and the ordering.”

In 2011, the duo upgraded the hardware store to a Home Hardware Building, and five years later, they paved the strip mall’s parking area. The c-store has a 24-hour ATM on the premises, and sells everything from live bait to lottery tickets to fireworks, which is one of the best-selling items year-round. The plan is to renovate the space to add a new accessible washroom and the c-store into a vacant 1,200 sq. ft. unit next door so they can offer more in the way of confectionary and other items they’re customers are after.

“We're always looking to improve our product line,” she explains. “We've got propane bottles, and we're planning to put in automotive propane eventually.”

As for tobacco sales, they’ve levelled off, reports Marilynne. “At the beginning of the year, people are trying to stick to their New Year’s resolution and they're trying to quit smoking, so that’s when the vaping stuff sells more." 

Thanks to its prime location, Marilynne reports that the pandemic did not adversely affect overall sales for the store. 

“For us, it's been business as usual,” she says. “We take all the precautions—masks, shields and sanitizer. We get lots of highway traffic because we have lots of parks in the area, so we really didn't slow down. We were quite busy throughout.”

However, staffing presents an ongoing challenge, Marilynne admits. The couple doesn’t hire students because the store’s shifts are from 6 a.m. to 2 p.m., and 2 p.m. to 10 p.m.

“In a rural area, it's hard, and we're always looking for staff,” she says. “If one staff member's sick, then we're scrambling. I wish I could attract and keep the right people—we’re always looking for incentives, but being a small community, you get what you get and you hope people stick around.”

When new employees come onboard, the Brulottes provide a manual for them, along with a uniform and name tag. 

Prior to the pandemic, the c-store had introduced fresh soup, stews, pizza, hot dogs from a roller grill and other entrees to their product line, but last March, they cut back to offering pre-packaged food only.

“When COVID hit, we had to stop everything where people used self-serve,” Marilynne explains. “And now, we don't have the facility to sell fresh food, since we only have one staff working at a time. We hope to start up again after the pandemic.”

The c-store’s customer base is split evenly between tourists passing through and local residents. Fas Gas’ loyalty card program, the Litre Log, offers savings on fuel, which attracts lots of people, she says, adding price-wise they are very competitive with bulk stations. Plus, they have a fleet card program (with volume discounts) and, as part of the planned renovations, will be adding a larger diesel fuel tank with saddle pump to fuel larger trucks.

The Brulottes are proud to support many grassroots charitable organizations in the community.

“We’re very busy and active in our business—we work six days a week, so we’re here all the time, but we really try to support anything that has to do with kids,” says Marilynne. 

“We help the Elks, the Legion, the local schools and minor hockey teams. For us, this business is all about the people. It’s fast-paced, and you get to meet or catch up with people in the community. That’s what we enjoy the most.”


OPERATOR INSIGHTS

1. Provide multiple reasons to visit: In addition to staples and snacks, the c-store has a 24-hour ATM and sells live bait. “We're always looking to improve our product line.”

2. Stock fireworks year-round: They’re not just for Canada Day—people are looking for ways to celebrate everything from Family Day to birthdays. 

3. Give back: Honour your community by supporting grassroots charitable organizations. “For us, this business is all about the people.”