KenJo Markets

Carmel Dream

KenJo Markets is luring customers with an interactive app and made-the-same-day foods.

By Tim O’Connor

A few years ago, gas station and convenience store retailer KenJo Markets realized it needed to improve its customer loyalty card program to keep pace with competition. Other convenience stores had rewards programs, but KenJo wanted something more interactive and fun for its customers. It found that in Verge Retail, a marketing platform company that built a phone app that acted as an extension of KenJo’s existing reward’s program.

The app, which launched in February, gives KenJo a way to push coupons to customers through games and tie-in promotions with products such as Red Bull energy drinks. Vice President of Operations Jimmy McBrayer says the company is happy with the number of downloads after about six months and is looking for new ways to drive usage. “While we’re not fully using all of its capabilities right now, we do have it,” McBrayer says. “We’re tinkering with it, playing with it and using it to some degree.”

The app is just one of the ways KenJo Markets sets itself apart from other convenience stores. The company also prides itself on its service standards, array of products, fresh sandwiches and the customer experience. The goal is to get 1 percent better every day, McBrayer says. “The amount of retailers in our area compared to other places is extraordinary,” he adds. “You always have to look for that thing that’s going to separate you from the other competitors on the corner.”

KenJo began in 1977 as the retail arm of petroleum supplier Downey Oil. Today, the company has 37 stores in eastern Tennessee under the Marathon, Shell, Exxon and Mobil brands. Downey Oil also operates other filling stations with the Citgo banner.

McBrayer credits the company’s family ownership for driving its success. “Any decisions that need to be made, the decision-makers are here every single day,” McBrayer says. “We can discuss the issue, decide the issue and execute what we need to do.”

KenJo thrives in part because of the close business partnerships it has developed during the past four decades. The company considers itself a Pepsi property, carrying a large range of the soft drink maker’s products. But KenJo values the smaller suppliers as well, the local manufacturers who make the jelly candies and beef jerky that customers love. “They help put products in our store that the consumer wants and it’s a win-win for everybody,” McBrayer says.

The importance of those business relationships extends to the restaurants that operate in conjunction with KenJo at several convenience store locations. The company operates Fasco Foods and Harco Foods to bring Hardee’s and chicken restaurants Charley Biggs and Buddy’s Bar-B-Q to its customers. McBrayer says KenJo frequently entertains new franchise opportunities, but will look to those three restaurants first wherever it adds co-branded concepts.

Super Subs

KenJo’s two-foot long Super Granddaddy sub sandwiches are known as one of the best meal deals around. Organizations like high school booster clubs buy them in bulk to feed their football teams.

KenJo’s three latest acquisitions are all to the north of its Maryville, Tenn., headquarters in markets where it does not have other stores. Despite this, locals were familiar with the KenJo name and many poked their heads in during the remodelings to ask about the subs. “People where we were not located knew about the Granddaddyies and were excited we were bringing them to town,” McBrayer says.

The Super Granddaddy may be where KenJo made its name, but the company is also raising the profile of its other food offerings. Last year, the company expanded its lineup of chilidogs by introducing barbecue sauce, nacho cheese and jalapeno-covered hot dogs. More recently, KenJo launched a new food concept called Fresh Express Destination, which brings items such as sliders and 8-inch subs to its stores. The concept is a response to customer demand for fresher and more wholesome food. All of the Fresh Express Destination items are made daily.

Fresh Express Destination is only at one KenJo location now and will soon be installed in a second location as part of a property acquisition. Eventually, the company will roll the concept out to all of its stores, but the process could take a few years to make all the necessary upgrades. “That’s where KenJo is headed just as fast as we can get there,” McBrayer says.

Even though Fresh Express Destination is focused on delivering made-the-same-day meals, McBrayer believes it will also help the convenience stores move more old standbys, such as soda pop, Hershey’s and M&Ms candy, by increasing the total customer count. “It’s really good for the whole store when we do this kind of thing,” he says.

Building Loyalty

KenJo strives to provide a clean, homey experience where customers are greeted with a smile every time. “You leave having met the expectation you came in for,” he says. It takes a team of well-trained employees and managers to match those expectations.

To better support those workers, KenJo in January finished implementing a shift from a centralized supervision structure to a decentralize approach. Before, the company had three supervisors who oversaw all of the individual locations. Now it has 10. With fewer stores under their umbrellas, supervisors are able to spend more time at individual locations teaching employees and reinforcing the company’s values and expectations.

The company lives those values not only in its daily operations, but also in how it supports its communities. For the past decade, the KenJo Foundation has raised money through golf tournaments and other events to contribute to the capital costs of local projects, such as building animal shelters, community college campuses and the Great Smoky Mountains Heritage Center in Townsend, Tenn. The company also supports local organizations by contributing coupons to discount card books, a popular form of school fundraising.

Those ties to the community have created a strong sense of loyalty among customers. When the Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill occurred in April 2010, KenJo still had many locations under the BP branding. At first, McBrayer worried the consumer backlash against BP for the spill would impact sales – a trend seen throughout most of the country. Instead, in turned out customers viewed those gas stations and convenience shops primarily as “KenJo” stores, not BP, and the company made it through that period with minimal impact.

Those customers may be the lifelines of the business, but McBrayer credits the employees who make it run. “There’s a lot of loyalty in this company,” he says, mentioning several people who have worked for KenJo more than 20 years. “You don’t find longevity like that in a company unless there’s good ownership and a good program going forward. We have that here.”

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