In The Express Lane - CSNews

Company News  •   February 12, 2019

In The Express Lane
Midwest regional chain Family Express is growing its brand its own way

By Don Longo

Family Express Corp., one of the convenience store industry’s finest regional chains of c-stores and fueling centers, is embarking on the most ambitious growth plan in its 40-year history. The plan included opening five new stores in 2018 and calls for entering a new market in suburban Indianapolis, enlarging its 165,000-square-foot central distribution center and investing in new technology to bring seamless customer engagement to all of its stores.

The Valparaiso, Ind.-based chain of 74 convenience stores — still led by its founder Gus Olympidis — flies under the radar in most discussions of best-in-class convenience chains, but the vertically integrated retailer is a market leader in northwest Indiana, known for its uniquely friendly employees who embrace the company’s “living brand” culture of exceptional customer service. The “living brand” concept has paid off in lower workforce turnover and higher-than-average industry profits for the family-run retailer.

Convenience Store News recently had the opportunity to tour Family Express’ headquarters, central distribution center and a handful of stores in the Valparaiso market with the chain’s outgoing and confident president and CEO.

“We don’t measure success by the number of stores we open,” Olympidis told CSNews as he showed off the company’s modern headquarters, replete with two training centers and a fully outfitted fitness center for employees. “We want to be the best convenience store retailer. We will never be the largest.

Our business model has delivered record earnings throughout the last recession and beyond.” While watching a class of store managers attending an advanced financial class, Olympidis explained that “living brand” is a key component of Family Express’ employee training.

“You become a ‘living brand organization when your workforce becomes so uniquely powerful as a motivator to customers that they choose your store over that of a competitor,” he said.

Olympidis compares his company to La Crosse, Wis.-based Kwik Trip Inc., but on a smaller scale. Like Kwik Trip, Family Express owns its own warehouse and trucking fleet, and makes private label a big part of its business. Private label milk, waters, energy drinks and more help create differentiation in the market, according to Olympidis.

“Six out of our top 10 candy SKUs are our own brand,” he noted. Family Express also has its own on-premise central bakery that produces 30,000 items per day, including fresh-baked doughnuts, muffins and cookies for its stores. In fact, the entire central distribution facility is bursting at the seams due to the chain’s growth. An enlarged warehouse facility will more than double the bakery’s capacity, while improving both product and sanitation; provide more freezer space for the chain’s Cravin’s Market Fresh prepared food products; and increase the number of truck loading docks from four to 10. The expansion is expected to be completed by May 2019 and will increase the facility to 180,000 square feet.

Becoming an Institution

Olympidis immigrated to the United States from Greece as a teenager, met his wife Beth, and settled in Valparaiso, a city of about 30,000 located 20 miles southeast of Gary, Ind. His first store opened Dec. 25, 1975 on the west side of “Valpo,” as the city is often called.

His three sons are all in the business. Dimitri currently runs Family Express’ central enterprises, which includes the distribution center, bakery and POP production facility. Alex heads up company operations and human resources. Spiro is responsible for fuel procurement.

Family Express has become a major figure in the political and charitable activities of Indiana. The retailer also has been a strong advocate for the convenience store industry, pointing out how some manufacturers’ channel pricing policies often disadvantage convenience store retailers while favoring similarly sized retailers like dollar stores and drugstores. Olympidis’ stores were originally branded “Time Low,” but that nondescript name was changed in 1987 to Family Express. In 1998, the chain launched its proprietary Java Wave brand coffee, as well as its own branded fuel. In 2010, its state-of-the-art Corporate Office and Learning Center opened in Valpo.

Over the years, the stores’ upscale colonial architecture and enhanced landscaping became familiar throughout northwest Indiana as the chain grew. Today, the company also operates a number of “theme” stores. These stores are imaged to celebrate the local “education brand” of a community, such as the University of Notre Dame, Purdue University and Valparaiso High School.

These celebratory theme stores, according to Olympidis, help embed Family Express more completely into the local community. (A soon-to-open store in Carmel, Ind., will feature a unique Art Deco architecture as mandated by the community.)

The chain’s current 5,500-square-foot prototype store prominently features Family Express’ proprietary Cravin’s To Order foodservice restaurants — a kitchen selling fresh made-to-order pizza, boneless wings, pretzels, breakfast bowls and breakfast sandwiches.

Ordering is made simple via electronic kiosks. Family Express stores featuring Cravin’s To Order prepared food generate approximately 18 percent of their in-store sales from food.

New stores also include interior and exterior seating and a pet wash. Additionally, new Ryko car wash technology allows customers to purchase a car wash code that is digitally redeemable at any Family Express car wash.

Getting Ahead of the Competition

Back at headquarters in the retailer’s laboratory store, Olympidis demonstrated to CSNews a new next-generation bean-to-cup, Euro-coffee expresso machine from Franke. This machine is currently being tested at three Family Express stores.

As mentioned earlier, Family Express is also partnering with several technology providers to bring seamless customer engagement to all corner of its stores. The new technology will enable such customer-friendly activities as oneclick ordering, curbside delivery and no-wait checkout.

Partners in this new ecosystem include Paytronix for loyalty, Olo for the online ordering platform, Big Club Digital for website development, and National Carwash Solutions to tie in all elements of Family Express’ business to create a holistic experience for customers.

Going forward, Olympidis believes the biggest challenge for midsized convenience store chains like Family Express is removing “friction” of any kind from the retailer’s operations, and the decline of major product categories.

The best thing that could happen in 2019 to boost sales and profits for c-store retailers is “getting ahead of the competition in facilitating the ‘last mile’ of delivery,” he said. CSN