Pilot Flying J does not take lightly its mission statement of “making life better for America’s drivers.” The company, formed in 2010 following the merger of longstanding travel center brands Pilot Travel Centers LLC and Flying J. Inc., recently invested more than two years and $200 million dollars to improve its existing travel center facilities and expand its offerings.
“Almost every dime of the capital we’ve put into our business during the last few years has been in response to our customers asking for something different, better or improved,” says Tim Purcell, director of merchandising for the Knoxville, Tenn.-based company.
One common customer request the company is striving to meet is an upgrade to its food offerings. Pilot Flying J in 2013 opened P.J. Fresh Marketplace, a dedicated 1,600-square-foot deli and fast casual dining restaurant concept, in its St. Marys, Ga., location, with three more planned in Texas, Arkansas and Illinois. After the four locations are up and running, the company expects to incorporate several of P.J. Fresh Marketplace’s offerings and practices into its other locations.
“Many of our drivers wanted another option for food,” Purcell says. “They wanted to go to a place where they can sit down and have a classic meal like meatloaf or chicken. The launch of the P.J. Fresh concept gives us the ability to do deliver that.”
P.J. Fresh Marketplace offers a variety of quality, freshly made snacks and meals including entrees, hot soups and hot breakfast platters as well as grab-and-go items such as salads, pizza and fresh fruit. The 1,600-square-foot marketplace also offers a frozen yogurt bar with toppings as well as premium coffees and teas. “This is a way for us to deliver food to people in a combination of self service and counter service that feels like a fast-casual restaurant,” he adds.
The concept went from an idea to a reality in roughly 180 days. Customers played an important role in developing P.J. Fresh, as the company presented packaging concepts and even potential names to drivers through surveys and panels. “Our customers literally told us what name to pick,” Purcell says.
The marketplace is complemented by a 3,000-square-foot convenience store that offers a larger space with expanded beverage, snack and candy options as well as an extensive cooler section.
In addition to unveiling P.J. Fresh Marketplace, the company also recently spent $50 million to update its showers. As a result of driver requests, upgrades include more hooks to hang and store personal items; better ventilation; softer, thicker, larger towels; and high-end, “spa-style” showerheads that provide ideal water pressure for a great shower experience. The renovation gives drivers a more comfortable place to refresh and relax before heading back on the road, Purcell says.
The P.J. Fresh Marketplace concept is the first part of a nationwide strategy to double Pilot Flying J’s in-house foodservice revenues, which in recent years have caught up to the sales of national quick-service franchises operating in its travel centers. “We’ve decided to put both feet in when it comes to the food side of our business,” Purcell says.
“The expansion of our food offering is a major part of our company’s strategy to grow sales despite the slow economy,” he adds. “Pilot Flying J understands that our customers expect a quality meal when eating with us and we are committed to investing the time, training and resources it takes to provide the best customer dining experience.
“I think our customers are responding very positively to our fast casual P.J. Fresh food concept because it delivers a variety of food with the highest level of quality and freshness,” Purcell continues. “We are extremely pleased that we are able to meet and exceed our guests’ expectations.”
Pilot Flying J is North America’s largest operator of travel centers and travel plazas. In addition to operating its numerous travel centers, Pilot Flying J in 2012 acquired Western Petroleum and Maxum Petroleum, which led to its creation in 2013 of Pilot Logistics Services. Pilot Logistics Services is one of North America’s largest independent energy logistics companies, selling and distributing more than 1.3 billion gallons of refined petroleum products to more than 15,000 customers annually, the company says.