How Convenient, Episode 23: Hometown Heroes, A Closer Look at Convenience and Community

Community is central to convenience retail—if you don’t believe us, here’s your chance to hear it from a leading c-store chain.
Special guests from Thorntons, a leading c-store chain, join Greg Crow on this week’s episode of How Convenient—Hometown Heroes: A Closer Look at Convenience and Community. Sarah Prorok and Alex Kupper share how they’re leveraging their loyalty program, partnerships and promotions to engage their community in celebration of their 50th anniversary this summer.
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Greg Crow: In this episode, we hear from a leading convenience store Chain.
Welcome to How Convenient, a new podcast about the essential role convenience stores play in the busy lives of consumers. Our hope is to equip innovative C-store store leaders, as they seek to earn lasting shopper loyalty. In each episode, we'll briefly share an update on C-store sales trends and what we're learning from billions of in store purchase transactions. Today's episode was reported on July the 12th. I'm Greg Crow with Koupon. With me today is Sarah Prorok and Alex Kupper from Thortons. If you're new to the industry, Thornton’s is an award-winning independent convenience and fuel center retailer with over 200 locations across six states. Sarah and Alex, tell us about yourself.

Sarah Prorok: Sure. I'll go first. My name's Sarah Prorock. I've been with Thortons since 2002, and have enjoyed a variety of roles at Thortons, including operations, training marketing, currently the director of marketing program management. So, I have all of the marketing services, including print loyalty, digital price book, a little bit of everything.

Alex Kupper: And I am Alex Kupper. I've been with Thortons for five and a half quick years. All of those years have been in category management so managing vendor to retail relations across multiple categories, [inaudible 01:27] beverage and tobacco, has worked in the carwash arena and that profit center along with some video gaming and lottery. So, a wide portfolio of categories managed into our stores and for the retail community.

Greg Crow: Fantastic. So thrilled for this opportunity, and this is going be a lot of fun. So, we launched How Convenient, partly in response to just seeing how the industry was responding to the pandemic last year. And Thortons is such a powerful brand and retail. You guys inspire us so I'm excited to learn from both of you today. The business of convenience has really seen many challenges since COVID. We had a drop of trips starting in the mornings, certainly a lot of operational challenges from the supply side, as well as staffing and the ever-present need that we all have to reach consumers in a time of great change. And I think a year on the business of C-stores in general, is certainly much healthier than it was at the beginning, but there's still many challenges and I think many opportunities that we see to grow consumer reach and basket share. And so, I'm just curious if each of you would just speak to what are some of the key takeaways that you have from the last year?

Sarah Prorok: I would say personally, one of the things that was evident very early on, it's always been important to us at Thortons to focus on safety and cleanliness for our team, as well as our guests. It's always been one of our key priorities, but it became evident early in general, the public and our team is scared. Scared to go out, scared to be at work, scared to shop and so it was more important than ever to share that commitment and share that information with our team, what we were doing for them to protect them as well as with our guests and be consistent with that message and just with that imagery and just being able to communicate that we're a safe place to shop. We were one of the first retailers and definitely in the convenience store space to bring grip hero to the U.S. and it's a single use anti-static glove that you can use when you pump your fuel to protect your hands at the pump and that's just one example of several, but very committed early to make sure that our guests knew that they could trust us as a safe place to visit when they did get out.

Alex Kupper: And just to add to that. A few more pieces just from the business side of things and how we've seen the business shape and where we're [inaudible 03:47] things and trying to get back to normal or whatever normal is going to be, really a ton of it has to do with just confidence. Yes, confidence, our team members, confidence and returning to that really from a convenience standpoint, it's so fast, you're always learning, but I feel like through the pandemic, everything got pulled back to a halt and you just are essentially running a basic business day to day, making sure that you're managing your shifts and your inventory so on and so forth. It's done and we're still struggling to get that business back, to get a foot moving forward, don't just stand still. Reach back out, try new things, really start promoting that life of, okay, this is how things used to be so that guests have confidence to come in the stores.

Oh, that's new. That's not just a new product. This is something new Thortons has done and unique to the shopping experience. We have things queued up and we're working on things, but it's still a hard process to get across to the store that it's time to move forward in this new, normal, whatever you want to call it closer back to normal. I don't know, terrible English there, but I'm trying to get the business back to where it was the chief goal and the challenge at the moment.

Greg Crow: Yeah, absolutely. I think all of us, I think experienced the last year in different ways. Certainly, I think everyone's experienced it maybe in powerful ways, but in different ways and I think you talked about there, the notion of making sure early in the crisis in particular, Sarah, you talked about making sure that you're speaking to consumers on the basis of safety and cleanliness. And Alex, you talked about this idea of helping both consumers and helping associates understand what the new normal looks like. It's certainly not going to be like our old normal, but there is a lot of new habits that consumers I think have created over the last year. And some of them seem to be sticking and some of them aren't, but retailers have incredible opportunities. It's great to hear that you guys are really pushing there and focusing on listening to consumer needs. One of the reasons I wanted to have you guys on, and it's just to talk about the values that you have at Thorntons and one of the ways I think that you live this out is with your focus on community. I think it's fair to say that most convenience stores have a focus on community, but you guys really go the extra mile. And so, I'd love to hear a little bit about your investment in West Louisville and what's next for that?

Sarah Prorok: Well, I'd like to step that back just a little bit, we launched a hunger initiative in early 2020 across our entire network and partnership with Feeding America. And it was terrible timing, but it had taken a long time to get to that point to be ready to launch. So, if you can imagine launching a hunger initiative at a time where everyone's staying home, not going out when resources are being pulled back, it was actually more needed than ever. And so, we've continued to push through with that. I'm very proud to be a part of that and get that off the ground. And Alex partnered with me to have a cup program with that where 20 cents from every 24-ounce cup coffee sold was donated to our local hunger relief partners and I believe we have somewhere around 20 different partners that we donate to monetarily as well as with physical products across our network. And then in addition to that, I'm very excited, what you were referring to in our West Louisville market would be our urban store downtown, where all of the profits from that store are being reinvested in partnership with the Louisville urban league into the back end of that community. And I'll let Alex share a little bit more about the athletes in the center and what all is happening at that store, but it's beautiful story in a great location and we're really happy to be a part of that as well as reinvesting into that neighborhood.

Alex Kupper: Yeah. So, the West Louisville, urban league partnerships spawned off of just a general conversation at one at Greater Louisville, Inc I believe that's one of the leadership communities here in Louisville, our CEO and [inaudible 07:29] over the urban league got together, really just put an incubator and process a few others, Norton Healthcare being a large one. So, the facility itself, the learning and wellness center is just state of the art, incredible where we are very fortunate to be tied into it because it does put off such an exuberance of newness. I mean, state-of-the-art technology top to bottom and from a C-store side, based on where we worked with vendor partners, which we're very, very appreciative, we're using it as more of like an incubator on how to manage an urban store. I mean, not that's very unique for us, it’s a first for us non-fuel but what we sell, how we sell it, how is it presented to the guest it's just a really, when I talked about extending, it's an extension for our brand to get out of our comfort zone to see what else is out there, what kind of team members can we produce talent wise from that community? Because we know that we've always used the Westside of Louisville, we have stores there now, but we've already, I believe promoted three or individuals out of that store into our other network of stores to work their way up the value chain. So, it's already showing great legs. It's an indoor track facility. So, we're waiting for the indoor season. It's 95 degrees outside, it's not indoor weather. For some, it may be, but indoor track events, this fall and winter will be really exciting with that space.

Sarah Prorok: I would also add, we have the opportunity of that store. Our CEO signed a racial equity pledge with the greater Louisville Inc that Alex was referring to. And as part of that, it's a commitment to working with minority owned businesses in the area. And so, what we've done, our first business that we've brought in is the Georgia Sweet Potato Pie Company. And so, they're a locally owned business. I found the back a few months ago and we're able to bring in their products, sell their products, help get their products into that neighborhood, into that community, we're actually doing a book drive for them here at our office now. And I love that they provide books to children in their community, out of one of their other retail storefronts. And so, Alex and I are pursuing another vendor currently to maybe bring in some coffee. So, either way, it's just a great opportunity to continue to expand our network, pursue some nontraditional vendor partners that are minority owned and give them that opportunity to get into that store and into our network and help them grow their business and their footprint as well.

Greg Crow: Yeah, it's such an amazing story, I think is the word beautiful. It is. I think in a time of great change, we're all looking for ways to tether around meaning and it's fantastic that you guys are making an investment in the community and finding a way to partner with businesses that wouldn't traditionally have access and distribution. And so, I'm looking forward to seeing the store now that they let me fly again and it'll be great to see you guys up there. We wanted to talk a little bit about food. It's been a challenging year for food, certainly. One of the first categories that began to struggle early in the crisis and Sarah mentioned the concern around hygiene, there was certainly a lot of confusion around what was safe and what was not safe. And so, the morning trips were early area where we suffered, particularly as a lot of folks either were laid off or they weren't commuting in their traditional patterns.

We talked about in a recent episode, as we look across the retailers that we work with food is definitely coming back. It's not necessarily the same mix that we saw pre crisis, but in general, sales are up versus both 2020 and 2019 so we are starting to see some recovery there as trips have increased in some. I'd love for you guys, maybe just to speak a little bit about food, we all know it's a high margin opportunity, it's a great opportunity to build the retailer brand with consumers and also a great opportunity just to engage consumers from a loyalty perspective. So, I'd love to just hear more about where you guys are at, in terms of food.

Sarah Prorok: Well, I'm sure I'm not the only one who either ordered more frequently or maybe tried online ordering for the first time. So, we'll start there and while we don't have an online ordering platform, it's definitely been on our roadmap and it's something we've been pursuing heavily, so definitely more to come on that. But in terms of engaging our guests and bringing them back, I would say leveraging our loyalty platform is first and foremost and upfront. So, whether it's through a national donut day or national hotdog day, or just different offers to engage different segments of our guests, we're definitely working on that and actively whether it's using lapsed offers or different offers for different types of guests, we want our guests back in our food business back as quickly as we were able to do that. Alex, on the receiving end of a lot of those regulatory restrictions that varied by state and by ordinance and by locality, depending on what we were allowed to do and where and so on, we definitely had to work through that together, various pieces and restrictions and things. But I would say leveraging technology has been critical to take advantage of opportunities when we could to get people back in the business. And then Alex, I'm sure you have some more thoughts on that.

Alex Kupper: Absolutely, in food service in general, because dispense beverages were in the arena that Sarah's speaking to and part of the restrictions and the confusion, I mean, really overall, when you look at it from a high-level guest’s perspective, if you're telling something, something isn't good for you, you have to build the confidence back that it is now good for you. It is safer, cleaner, satisfactory for you to check that box, I'm going to get a drink. I'm going to get a roller grill item, whatever it would be. So now how we manage forward and knowing what we've learned, understand that we've always been really good at pivoting to the business from an hourly perspective. We're a big morning store, we have data and technology to shift to the production in the morning. If it's later, we extended later and so on and so forth.

But when it comes to just overall the long-term vision, it's just trying to balance yourself with being way too innovative and way too out in front to being known for something, have a core, which we have a good mix of items that guests frequently come to our stores and visit our stores to get fueled up. And when you look at, from a competition standpoint, choose us over a McDonald's or any other QSR. So, finding that balance that we can differentiate ourselves, but we're not way out to where we're extending into just crazy items. And that goes for beverages as well. We don't need a billion, different types of soda, we need a solid lineup with a little bit of innovation on some of the new products and we're off and running. As long as we're clean, fast and friendly, guest will come to our stores.

Sarah Prorok: And I would add just one thing that commute stores in my perspective have as an advantage over anyone else right now is the whole staffing issue. We're suffering, everyone is suffering, we know that, but I can't tell you how many times I've gotten out of the drive-through line in the last month. Whether it's Panera or Wendy, is there anywhere else that I tend to frequent when I need to stop while I'm on the go, I can get in and out of this ordinance store in five minutes or less with what I need, because it's ready to grab and go. And I appreciate that anytime I can grab my fountain drink and I can grab my hot dog or whatever it is I need and get on the road. I don't have 15 or 20 minutes to wait at these fast casual places that aren't staffed and can't handle the volume right now.

Alex Kupper: Don't want to get on a tangent with that. I've done it [inaudible 15:04] as a personally, I've talked to other colleagues of mine in the industry, focused on what that balance from QSR and what QSRs are doing, limiting their lobby access, and keeping everybody in that line and they're just banking on, not a lot of Sarah's analysis out there that jump out of line, because they're tired of it. To get through Chick-fil-A or well Chick-fil-A is a different subject altogether, they manage their business at a much higher level, but any one of these Panera's, I'm not going to wait 15 minutes. That's not convenient at all. So how the convenience store can step up against them that labor market's going to be tight for a long time so make sure we have a business that can manage against. Come inside, we're clean, we're fast, we're friendly, get you out the door a third of the time it takes you to get through Starbucks or whatever line you're trying to push yourself through. So, it'd be interesting.

Greg Crow: No, that's great. I'm glad you guys call that out. I think that's something that we see. My wife and I recently went on a vacation and I think all but one of the restaurants we ate at said, hey, we're understaffed right now so it's going to take longer. And so, I think consumers will put up with that to a point, and we've got a huge opportunity with our channel to reach consumers so ultimately it is about both convenience and value and consumers aren't going to relax their expectations for very long. We're going to have to find ways to do that and I think we're really set up well for that. So, Alex, you mentioned in your intro that tobacco's one of the categories that you're focused on and tobacco is certainly a strong suit, I think in general for retailers and our channel. And in past episodes, we've talked about manufacturer, price increases, larger baskets, the evolving regulatory environment, and then just some product innovation in areas. So, I'd love to hear a little bit from you about how you think about the country.

Alex Kupper: So, when you look at tobacco from high level Thortons or industry, whatever the largest driver, and it will continue to be the largest driver, no matter how fast it declines in the combustible space. So, trying to manage through, like you said, those price increases shift in programming, really, it's all over the board on strategy I feel, like from the two larger manufacturers of the combustible space, which what they're trying to do from a brand standpoint and a pricing and discounting position, clearly, they're trying to make more money for them because they're feeling pressure as well, latching over unprecedented volume attainment. So, trying to manage through those consumption rates going leveling out because folks are back moving again. There's not a surplus of disposable income that the government was infusing this time last year. All that being considered that's when I previously said, it's time to step forward and start getting back into that rhythm of, we need to sell products, we need to be stock stable, offering great value to consumers.

All those pieces are what we're trying to get folks back and engaged in doing, not just from a guest standpoint, but our team members. You also mentioned there's a ton of innovation. So, it's where from a balancing standpoint, they're trying to shift a consumer, that's purchasing four or $5 items, a 99-cent item. I'm good. That's a trial phase. We're trying to expand the usage and the consumption of a different product all for it. But where does that go from there? Are consumers going to adopt the product or is it going to be some that phases out similar to how vapor did back on the early 2010, 2011 years, big ramps, huge drop-off after you stop your discounting. So, making sure we follow those trends and we can really follow the ball when it comes to, hey, how are we utilizing our space for the next generation of products. We've put a ton of effort and energy and to reset in our back bars, to configure ourselves to list it and work but we have a square footage allotment that would shift in you name the product.

I coach, whatever you want to name, the next big thing kind of thing. So, we'll still lean back and be proud to sell combustibles because at the end of the day, that is a primary driver for C stores and it will be for a long time just because your competition is big bops and big bops. There's no QSRs, at least that I know of those selling cigarettes. On that space, it's a little different from my mindset is trying to shift how I manage that category in that guest relationship versus beverages but at the end of the day, we are trying to do the same thing, be as fast friendly and convenient and clean as possible. And we know that if we do that on a consistent basis, repetitively guests will shop with us more frequently, they'll buy more products and we'll have our share of the marketplace as we need.

Greg Crow: Absolutely. Well, it's definitely a very interesting category to watch. I think there's maybe more change going on and then we've had in the recent years, but to your point, there are some long-term trends that are sustaining. So, I want to wrap up Sarah, if I could ask you to talk a little bit about Thortons 50th anniversary., Can you talk a little about your origin story and just how you're engaging guests around this key milestone?

Sarah Prorok: Sure. Well, I haven't quite been with Thortons all of those 50 years, but.

Alex Kupper: Almost half.

Sarah Prorok: [Inaudible 20:10] almost half. Thortons was founded in 1971 in Clarksville, Indiana, and it started a little kiosk building. So, if you can picture that just a small, tiny little check there with a full-service attendant back in the day, I've been told we sold turkeys even. So, over the years, the gas station business has evolved. We've been all over, but today Thortons is proud to operate just over 200 stores or in six states, Ohio, Indiana, Illinois, Tennessee, Kentucky, and Florida. And we have anywhere from the traditional C-store, to stores with expanded kitchens travel centers so we have a wide variety and range of formats there, and we've come a long, long way over the last 50 years, but we're really excited to celebrate our anniversary this summer. And we're doing that in a wide variety of ways.

So, I'll start with the one that I'm doing here in partnership with my friend here, Alex. We have 50 cent Fridays with my refreshing rewards loyalty programs. So, every Friday, all summer long, we're doing dispense beverages for 50 cents with your loyalty card. So, they're getting 50 cent fountains, fizz freezes coffees, and ice cream, which is a great way to celebrate getting back out there, traveling for the weekend, having fun with our guests and our team members, and really just changing that conversation to putting a smile on everybody's faces and getting people back in the habit of getting their drinks and feeling good about the category. That's first, another one that I also love and is in partnership with a lot of our vendor partners would be free fuel for a year.

So, we traditionally do that throughout the year here and there, but this one's bigger and better because why not? It's our anniversary. We're giving 50 winners a month, May, June, July, and August each free fuel for a year. So that's 200 winners if you're counting, are each getting a free fuel for a year from Thortons and they get that by entering through the refreshing rewards app as well as by purchasing participating products. So, we did that. We relaunched our website at the beginning of May. I was really excited to redesign and relaunch our website, just like reflect and update and refresh brand, just showcase the new store layouts, include some information about that urban league partnership with the Western Louisville store and just all the different things showcase and highlight and feature some of our own team members too and talent and tell that story. And then one of my other favorite projects, it's just a small thing, but we created a commemorative coloring book.

The coloring book is available in our stores. It's $2, but all the proceeds from the sales of the coloring book go to those local hunger partners, has different scenes from Thortons scenes throughout the year. So, you've got holiday scenes and summer scenes and different things and it's got some coupons in the back, but that continue to support our hunger partners through that effort, as well as we have that roundup feature at the register, if anyone would rather donate change that way. Those are just some of the ways we're celebrating have more news probably to come this fall, we're getting ready to plan another one up the summer promotion because the year's not over till it's over so some more fun coming with that, but lots of good things around 50th. Did I leave anything out Alex?

Alex Kupper: I think you did it all.

Sarah Prorok: I get really excited about 50th. It feels like a baby I've been working on it all year, so it just keeps coming. I'm sure we'll have more to share with you on that later, Greg.

Greg Crow: Yeah, that's fantastic. I appreciate you walking through that Sarah and these milestones are really important, both for the consumers, helping them understand where you've been and where you're going as well as with associates and giving them a real view for the vision. So, I just have a quick question for both of you. Will you please say the name of the city where Thortons is based?

Sarah Prorok: Louisville.

Alex Kupper: Louisville.

Greg Crow: Okay.

Alex Kupper: I've drawn it out even longer. Louisville.

Sarah Prorok: I had a commercial for an ad last summer when we were doing a getaway giveaway and it was like Lewisville, Louisville.

Greg Crow: Right. So, is it...?

Alex Kupper: Definitely not Louisville.

Greg Crow: Okay, fantastic.

Sarah Prorok: We were kind of teasing that nobody knew how to say it, but.

Greg Crow: Right. So, is it...?

Sarah Prorok: If you kind of do Lou- A- Villle you're all right, but you got to like mush it together. Louisville.

Greg Crow: It should have three syllables. Okay, fantastic. I think I did. Okay at the beginning, but appreciate you guys being patient with me. This is a lot of fun and hope we can do it again. Thank you for listening to How Convenient we do want to hear from you. You can reach us at Don't forget to subscribe, rate us and give us a review and you can find more about us at