Dorothy Goldstein had just visited her late husband at the cemetery. Now she and her son were hungry for a nice lunch. So, on a beautiful autumn afternoon, they headed for a gas station.
At the Exxon station in downtown Olney, they stepped up to the counter of Corned Beef King, where they’d dined before. To their left: a beef jerky display. To their right: keno on TV. All around them: the delish aroma of a New York deli.
Goldstein, a retiree in Dolce & Gabbana glasses, ordered pastrami. Her son got the Angry Turkey Racheal. They ate at a high table with an exquisite view of the gas pumps.
“It’s a big, juicy, delicious sandwich,” Goldstein said after finishing the first half and pondering the second. “I need a toothpick.”
Gas stations have not historically inspired confidence as palate pleasers. Day-old (or longer) doughnuts or hot dogs rolling (and rolling) on a spinner grill come to mind. But across the Washington region, there are at least a dozen eateries serving delectable, sometimes organic, fare near the pump. There’s Korean bibimbap in Wheaton, authentic Mexican in Jessup, Thai in Leesburg and Latin American in the District. Corned Beef King cooks its meat for 11 hours.
Gas station cuisine is partly being driven by popular food truck operators — Corned Beef King started as a truck in 2011 — seeking permanent locations for the evolution of their brands and to meet strict regulatory requirements to have a licensed base of operations. Other eateries are looking to gas stations for low start-up costs, guaranteed foot traffic and a little bit of kitsch.
The chefs and dreamers have found willing partners in gas station owners. Some have volunteered to cover the cost of building kitchens to tap new sources of revenue — from rent and increased foot traffic — as the margins on gas sales shrink even further and retailers such as Best Buy encroach on their quick-bite turf by stocking soda and snacks at the register.
Jeff Lenard, vice president for strategic initiatives at the National Association of Convenience Stores, is planning to highlight the region’s flourishing gas station food scene at his group’s annual trade show next month. He’s seeking to inspire a wave of innovation at the nation’s 149,000 gas stations and convenience stores, which generate 160 million transactions a day — plenty of opportunity to sling chorizo tacos.
Lenard quotes Chevy Chase in the 1983 movie “Vacation” as a sign of the changing times. The actor delivered this memorable line: “I’m so hungry I could eat a sandwich from a gas station.”
“That was very funny back then,” Lenard said, “but I’m not sure how many people would be in on the joke now. We think food is the future of gas stations. People now know they can get a great meal from a truck, and it has expanded the horizons where people no longer expect a good meal can only be found at a place with a tablecloth.”
Goldstein ate her pastrami on rye while the loud, spiky-haired sandwich king — his name is Jon Rossler and he looks like Guy Fieri from the Food Network show “Diners, Drive-ins and Dives” — operated his food truck in Rockville. Rossler started the truck after a falling-out with his father at their Falls Church deli business. The corned beef is a family recipe. The gas station owner stripped out the service garage to make room for the restaurant.
“I like it here,” Goldstein said, packing up her leftovers. “It’s clean — a lot cleaner than other delis. I’m a widow. I wouldn’t go on a date here, but it’s nice.”
There is a long history between the road and food. Truck stops. Rest stops. Drive-ins. Stuckey’s has sold gazillions of pecan log rolls to travelers. A fellow named Colonel Sanders got his start selling fried chicken at his service station in Corbin, Ky. Things turned out well for him.
Today, there are hundreds, perhaps thousands, of gas stations across the country serving a variety of food not sold in a vacuum-sealed bag, from Sheetz’s fresh sandwiches to ribs at Oklahoma Joe’s in Kansas City, Kan., to pork belly sandwiches, highlighted not long ago by Gourmet magazine, at a North Carolina filling station.
Al Hebert, a medical journalist who blogs at GasStationGourmet.com about his eating adventures, once ate Cornish hen prepared by a classically trained chef in a Chevron station.
“The average person just fills up their tank, pays with a credit card and drives off,” Hebert said. “But if you just walk a few feet from the pump to the store, you might discover one of the best eating experiences of your life.”
In the Washington area, the discoveries are often quintessentially ethnic, no doubt owing to the region’s booming immigrant population, especially outside the Capital Beltway.
J.P. and Anna Goree opened Seoul Food DC, an offshoot of their popular food truck, in June, serving bibimbap bowls and other Korean specialties at an Exxon station in Wheaton. J.P. grew up in Wisconsin; Anna grew up in Korea. They met working at Whole Foods, where he was a meat cutter and she was pastry chef. They were approached by the station’s owner, Hank Kim, who went to the same college as Anna.
Most gas stations see about 1,100 customers a day, according to the National Association of Convenience Stores. The largest revenue driver is gas, accounting for 72 percent of cash flow but only 35 percent of profit. Gas station owners need to squeeze more money from their space to thrive, and foodies are a totally untapped well of income and appetites.
“I need more traffic in the store to sell more things,” Kim said. “They bring more traffic to me, and I bring more traffic to them.”
The Gorees invested thousands of dollars in the restaurant, instead of the hundreds of thousands it would have taken for a standalone place. They have no debt. The tables and chairs are from Ikea. They buy local food. The flowers on the tables are from the farmer’s market. A Yelp reviewer wrote, “Atmosphere is actually quite nice for a gas station.”
Marla Bilonick, who works with small businesses at the Latino Economic Development Center, dropped by for lunch the other day — her first time eating in a gas station.
“It definitely adds a certain amount of intrigue,” she said, halfway through her bibimbap bowl with beef. “But it’s insanely delicious.” Putting on her small-business hat, Bilonick said, “When you work with limited resources, sometimes it comes out better than when you have unlimited resources.”
But most gas station chefs are dreaming bigger, hoping to use the quirky locations to build their brands for franchising inside other gas stations or opening a flagship restaurant, sans gas pumps.
David Trachtenberg, the proprietor of Greatest American Hot Dogs, started with a food truck roaming Montgomery County offering dozens of different hot dogs. The grind of loading and unloading and finding new locations wore him out, so he parked it permanently at a BP station on Rockville Pike. He hopes to move inside soon and then open dozens of other locations, perhaps becoming the Five Guys of hot dogs.
“I literally see these things in gas stations all over the country,” Trachtenberg said.
One popular gas station eatery is already expanding out of its original home at a Howard County Shell station: R&R Taqueria. Its owner, Rodrigo Albarran, a commercial pilot, opened the restaurant in Elkridge in 2009 after he was furloughed. He grew up helping cook with his father and translating for him in jobs at TGI Fridays and Outback Steakhouse. In The Washington Post’s 2011 Fall Dining Guide, food critic Tom Sietsema called R&R’s tacos “every bit as swell as those in Mexico City, the owner’s birthplace.” The restaurant has been featured on “Diners, Drive-ins and Dives.”
Albarran opened another outpost in the White Marsh Mall food court in 2011, and in April, he moved into a full sit-down restaurant northeast of Baltimore in Perry Hall, serving the same menu as the gas station. His focus, he said, has always been on his food, not where he’s serving it.
“In Mexico City, we used to go out and stand on a corner with dogs all around and eat the most delicious meals,” he said. “It’s not the location; it’s the food. If you serve good food, people will find you no matter where you are.”