Charging Ahead: 36 Lyn has turned a single 800-square-foot convenience store into a retail powerhouse


Original article from NACS.

Not even a heavy rainstorm could deter a steady procession of electric cars from converging upon 36 Lyn Refuel Station on Sunday evening, April 12. The Minneapolis-based convenience store was the focal point of a Guinness world record challenge to supply direct-current charging to 100 electric vehicles in a row over a 24-hour period.

While receiving significant local media attention, 36 Lyn’s participation was anything but a PR stunt. Rather, it reflects the store’s deep, social conscience and a principled approach to retailing that touches on every aspect of operations.

Founded in 2005 by Lonnie McQuirter and his father, 36 Lyn was an effort to achieve a more fulfilling and profitable lifestyle for the father-son team. “My father was doing commercial cleaning and I was working in the foodservice industry,” McQuirter said. “Gas prices were going up [in 2005] and my father was under the perception that convenience stores made tons of money. That’s what led us to the c-store business.”

Small Store, Big Impact
Replacing an existing store that had been in business since 1983, the modest 806-square-foot space required the ultimate in operational efficiency in order to succeed. “Because of the size of the store, there was a huge need for SKU rationalization,” McQuirter said. “We couldn’t have items that weren’t selling. We had to maximize sales of our products without being too crowded.”

McQuirter’s strategy included eliminating low-turning products and focusing instead on the top 10 items of each category. At the same time, as the store is located in a food desert, he made a deliberate effort to bring in healthful items, sourced locally whenever possible to help foster a sense of community—and it was the latter that proved the most successful.

“We found that our customers are more interested in local items. They turn much quicker,” McQuirter said. “Even just a mustard or ketchup or especially our organic fair trade coffee … When you carry the national brands, it’s unmemorable to shoppers. For us, we wanted to be special and we carry items that aren’t available in other c-stores.”

The approach seems counterintuitive to what’s practical in a food desert, but McQuirter said the cost for local produce is not what one would think. “A lot of the items cost less even though they’re local [and small batch]. In fact, the fresh produce that we purchase through an organic co-op offers us much lower prices than national brands, about half the price.”

With that kind of a pricing advantage, McQuirter said 36 Lyn goes through a case of bananas every day. “That’s spectacular for a small store.”36 Lyn also offers a premium coffee program featuring award-winning pastries. While it previously served hot dogs and pizza, it plans to expand to offer locally sourced sandwiches, parfaits and salads later this year. “We have to have a solid food program,” McQuirter said, noting the area’s “hyper-competitive market.”

In addition to local and fresh food, 36 Lyn is committed to minimizing its environmental footprint. The store is fueled by wind energy and is one of a handful of local stores that offer fast-charging for EVs.

Of course, even the most progressive retailing efforts fall flat without passionate team members to execute them. That’s why McQuirter made sure to let his most important resources understand their value to the store’s success. “Some of the employees received a 50% increase in wages on day one,” he said. “It signaled that we were new management and bringing a new approach to the business.”

The gesture aligns cleanly with McQuirter’s business philosophy, where human capital is viewed at a premium. “I think convenience stores have for far too long served as mere training grounds for talent that is later poached into other industries. We invest a lot in our people and by paying slightly more and giving them more autonomy, we will retain them longer.”

Small Yet Mighty
McQuirter’s commitment to people extends beyond his team members to colleagues. When he’s not wearing the multiple hats required of a single store operator, he is vocal in state politics, advocating for retailer issues such as sales tax breaks for small businesses. “We may not be doctors, we may not be saving people’s lives, but what we do offer, it matters to people,” he told a local television station earlier this year.

Not bad for an 800-square-foot space that yields nearly 100 feet to its adjacent 900-square-foot car wash. Yet along with eight fueling positions, the business generates impressive sales numbers that place the company’s in-store performance in the top quartile of industry performers, as defined by NACS in its most recent State of the Industry Report.

That kind of productivity and community involvement has garnered attention for 36 Lyn beyond the Twin Cities. As a result of McQuirter’s retailing success and engagement on behalf of other retailers, 36 Lyn was honored earlier this year by the National Retail Federation as one of the association’s “America’s Retail Champions,” one of 50 businesses selected nationwide for the award. And Inc. Magazine designated the company as one of the nation’s 5,000 fastest growing private companies, noting its 59% growth rate and $7.8 million in revenue.

Those are big honors for the store, for which McQuirter has even bigger plans. “We want to hone our business model and renovate things, then we’ll expand. Our business model has done well but you want to make sure you have a big moat around the things that help you compete well,” he said. Once that’s complete, he’ll apply his refined business strategy to new stores.

“I’m a small operator, so our strategy is to do fresh, local products when we can and generate high inventory turns. A lot of people new to the business focus on margin and getting that penny profit on each product. While margin is great, I like to focus on turning products. That means more customers are coming into my store.”

Lonnie McQuirter