36 Lyn Refill Station: The conscious convenience store


Original article from City Pages.

Convenience stores usually come in two varieties: give me my gas, my silo of Coke, and my cigs, real quick like, and let me the hell out of here, or the East Coast bodega: get me my toilet paper, my coffee, and my kitty litter and let me the hell out of here. 

But a former Haagen-Dazs exec has taken his dad's basic convenience store at 36th and Lyndale and is slowly but surely shaking off the ick and replacing it with awesome. 

Lonnie McQuirter is no dummy. He knows all too well that convenience stores are stuck with a stigma, despite the fact that they're the largest sector of retail business in the country, at 153,000 stores nationwide. "But people don't want their kids hanging out at them, and they sure don't want their kids working at them." 

But there are a bunch of kids working at 36 Lyn, and we don't imagine their parents would mind at all. McQuirter says he's been paying a living wage to all of his employees since 2005, and as a result, he attracts great ones.

"We're treated well, and that's motivating, and an incentive to constantly do better," says Beth Cullen, the store manager, nodding to a display of thank-you letters from customers lining the back wall. 

A few things they're doing better: About 20 percent of their product comes from small, local producers like Nessalla Kombucha, Grey Duck Chai, Isabel Street Heat Hot Sauces, LocalFolks Pasta Sauce, and Bliss Granola, to name only a handful. Instead of that skanky pot of scorched gas station coffee, theirs is local powerhouse roaster Peace Coffee, and now that word has gotten out, they go through an air pot of the stuff about every 15 minutes each morning. 

At first glance it's still just a standard convenience store with cigs, gas, soda, Cheetos, and Snickers. But McQuirter is stealthily making changes like strategically placing healthier snacks like Kind Bars, granola, and bananas at the front of the store. 

And now that they're doing so, they say the customer base is starting to demand more local product. 

Which is fine by McQuirter, because he says he has better relationships with his small, local vendors anyway — they're the ones that will go the extra mile, engage with him on a personal level, and ensure happiness all around.

"It's Isabel Street Heat (City Pages' pick for #1 local hot sauce) that comes and gives away free tacos during Open Streets. It's the larger vendors that don't really care about us." The store carries the entire line of Isabel Street Heat sauces, including their innovative probiotic sauces in the refrigerated section. On the flip side, however, some vendors have chosen not to work with him, because of the stigma attached to convenience stores — they don't want their product associated with them. 

The store is located in a food desert, McQuirter says, with no nearby grocery stores, so he takes his charge seriously when it comes to providing healthy repast during times of need. "People can work through their lunch breaks by stopping here," he says, pointing to a row of organic yogurt and Kombucha, "and they know there's a clean restroom that they can feel good about using." And, when there's two feet of snow on the ground and people can't get to the grocery store, they'll be open, providing tenacious south Minneapolitans with bare necessities. "We don't want people subsisting for two days during a snowstorm on King Size Snickers. It makes us feel guilty," McQuirter laughs. 

Their consciousness doesn't end there — 36 Lyn is one of just 21 fast-charging stations for electric cars in the metro, and the entire store is fueled by wind energy, a program offered by Xcel. He says his bills are no more expensive, and sometimes less so than they would be with a traditional energy plan. 

There are big plans for the future too: They plan to continue to phase in smaller, local food purveyors and eventually phase out bigger ones, and they hope for a complete remodel in the next 18 months. He makes mention that WaWa and Green Zebra are two convenience store chains in other U.S. markets that are providing a "better" convenience store product with fresh, local, nutritious food, good coffee, and a stylish environment; even salad bars and kombucha on tap. "But this idea just hasn't hit the Midwest yet." he says. 

Lonnie McQuirter