For The Atlantic’s series of interviews with American workers, I spoke with him about how he got into the convenience-store business and his aspirations for his store. The interview that follows has been lightly edited for length and clarity.
Bourree Lam: What do you do for work, and how did you get into it?
Kent Couch: I'm not college educated. I started out working at a grocery store for the first 20 years of my career. I started at the bottom and worked my way up to a store manager, and then realized that I didn't care for working for a corporation. I thought I would buy a grocery store, but I ended up falling into the convenience-store world, just by accident, and found it to be a lot more entertaining and challenging than the grocery world.
Lam: In what ways?
Couch: It moves a lot faster, and you can make changes [to the service and store offerings] and adjust a lot quicker than in the grocery business. It's a much faster-paced business, which suits my personality.
Lam: Tell me about your store, a Stop'N'Go Shell station.
Couch: I bought the station 19 years ago in Bend, Oregon. Once I got into the store, I realized that I was missing a lot of the elements I needed to actually operate a convenience store. I just didn't know where to go to find a lot of the tools that I needed to run a store. Somebody suggested the National Association of Convenience Stores, and I went to its convention for the first time in the late ‘90s; from there, it was game on. There is quite a bit of difference between a grocery store and a convenience store, and I’ve never forgotten what I learned at that first conference. The speaker said that we have to set ourselves apart from our competitors. From then on, that's what I decided to do: Make myself look different than my competitors, and give people a reason to come to me. Make myself a destination, instead of just simply a convenience store on a corner.
Lam: How have you done that in the last 19 years?
Couch: There’s two states where drivers cannot pump their own gas: Oregon and New Jersey. The owners of gas stations in Oregon, for the most part, think it's a handicap. For me, it was the opposite. We were able to set ourselves apart with our customer service. Now, our fuel attendants wear white pants, a white shirt, black belt, tie, and a pointy-looking service-station hat. Everybody's dressed up and they deliver impeccable service: They'll check your air, wash your windows (both front and back), give the kids a sucker, give the dog a bone, and offer to take out any trash if you have it inside your car.
Once we started doing that, we started getting people talking about us throughout our community, and then people outside our community started talking about us, too. That really helped us become more of a destination than just simply a convenience store.