CHICAGO—Al Hebert knows gas station food. The writer (and taste-tester) behind the Gas Station Gourmet series, Hebert has traveled far and wide in search of the best places to grab some grub while you top off the tank. It’s no surprise, then, that Hebert’s Tuesday session, “4 Ways to Stand Out as a Small Operator: Tips from the Gas Station Gourmet,” was packed to the brim with insight for c-store owners looking to up their culinary games.

For those who missed the session—or for those who could use a checklist for implementation back at home—Hebert provided a roundup of four ways he’s seen c-stores across the nation develop loyal fanbases. 

Looking to see how businesses are standing out in the industry—or just scoping out your next meal? Follow Hebert’s adventures at, and read about the independent c-stores he profiles each month in NACS Magazine.

  1. Feature regional foods.
    “Focus on local favorites,” said Hebert. “Whether it’s Kolaches, cheese curds, boudin or gumbo, listen to the customers and the community. Give customers what they want—and also what they don’t know they want. For example, who knew Cajuns would love authentic Indian food?” If you’re not from the community and aren’t sure what people in your local market area love to eat, Hebert recommends asking customers. You can also visit local events like festivals and church bazaars to see what’s popular.
  2. Become a community store.
    “Become a community store—a place where folks feel at home,” Hebert said. “You want customers to look forward to the daily stop at your store. Be ‘their place.’ Your staff will play a key role here.”
  3. Use social media.
    “Social media is so important if you want to compete effectively,” said Hebert. “Post each day. Each day something happens in your store, that is a Facebook or Instagram post. If nothing is happening, post your Customer of the Day.” If you have daily specials, Hebert says to post about those. If you don’t have them, create them. Gamifying menu items can get your followers excited. “Find influencers who will get you new customers,” he added. And: “If you haven’t heard of TikTok, learn about it.”
  4. Keep a clean restroom.
    “Clean restrooms will draw customers in,” said Hebert. “Dirty restrooms are etched in the minds of everyone who sees them. Keep them clean. Keep them updated. Do not become the store that people are afraid to patronize when a bathroom break is needed.”

Also in this issue from NACS Show Daily