Next time you need to fill up your car’s tank, how about a pint of quinoa to go with those gallons of gas?
It may sound odd — gas station convenience stores aren’t exactly synonymous with organic food — but the Waltham-based chain Alltown believes it’s onto something. The company, which has about 70 locations throughout New England, has just opened a new concept store, Alltown Fresh.
The gas station/store, off exit 5 along Route 3 in Plymouth, looks more like a condensed version of a Whole Foods than a typical fuel stop shop. You won’t find any suspicious-looking hot dogs rotating on greasy rollers, or oversize plastic cups of sugary slush. Much of the food is made fresh — including grain bowls, salads, avocado toast, sandwiches, and smoothies — and is ordered by touchscreen. Above the kitchen area, a sign reads: “Organic, Natural, Gluten Free, Vegan, Vegetarian, Locally Sourced.”
Yes, you can find the usual processed snack foods, lottery tickets, and other standard roadside fare, but they aren’t granted prime display space. That goes to products such as breads from the Plymouth bakery Hearth, coffee from Connecticut that’s brewed by the cup on demand, and three flavors of kombucha from Vermont — on tap.
The store also sells homeopathic medicines, chia seeds, nuts in bulk, plant-based protein, premium pet food, wine, craft beer, and lattes.
Healthy, artisan-style convenience doesn’t come cheap — a kimchi bowl is $10, for example, and the natural cold remedies are marked up from what you’d find on Amazon — but Alltown Fresh almost defies categorization. On a recent morning, more than one customer seemed slightly disoriented upon entering, as if they were thinking, “Am I in the wrong place?”
Eric Slifka , chief executive of Alltown parent Global Partners, believes it’s exactly the right place. Slifka said he saw room in the market for a convenience outlet that offered quality food and other products for people on the go.
“We hear a lot from our customers that they want to be able to get healthy food for themselves and their [family] in a quick, efficient way,” he said. “What better way to do that than provide those on the road with the ability to stop in on these great locations?”
There are already plans in place to open several more Alltown Fresh stores within the next few years, though the company hasn’t released a timetable.
Slifka describes Alltown Fresh as a “convenience marketplace.” Sporting cafe seating spaces and gas pumps, it sits somewhere in the gray area between a convenience store at a highway rest stop, a locally sourced restaurant, and a natural foods outlet. Competitors, he said, include the fast casual restaurant chain Panera and Whole Foods. Prices at Alltown Fresh are competitive with those places, according to Slifka. A big difference, however, is that many Alltown Fresh customers probably will first stop for gas and then discover there’s more to it. The question is: Will they come back to do more than fuel up their vehicles?
Alltown is one of several companies trying to introduce a new type of retail experience to a grocery sector already undergoing massive changes. In 2017, e-commerce giant Amazon purchased Whole Foods, upping the ante in what industry analysts call “the grocery wars.” Some grocers have gone under since then, and online grocery shopping is on the rise.
Quincy-based supermarket chain Stop & Shop is even planning to deploy “driverless grocery vehicles” that can be summoned via an app, although whether they would comply with state law is in doubt.
Sterling Hawkins, a cofounder of retail consultant Center for Advancing Retail & Technology, said providing customers with healthier options is becoming a priority for grocers. What Alltown Fresh is attempting, he said, makes sense.
“A trend that we’re seeing across the board is really around health and wellness,” Hawkins said. “I think the move to create . . . a healthy convenience store is right on.”
A 2013 survey conducted by the Boston Consulting Group found consumers were increasingly looking for convenience stores to provide higher quality food and coffee.
Tony Portera, a partner and managing director at BCG, said customers are willing to pay a premium for food “they can both feel good about serving their family and get quickly.”
“People are time pressed,” Portera said.
Both Hawkins and Portera agree that there’s room in the market for a convenience store willing to try something new, and Alltown Fresh seems poised to capitalize on that fact.
“You’ve always got to be leaning in and changing and gauging what’s next and gauging how to deliver the best experience for your guests,” Slifka, the Global Partners chief executive, said. “The goal is always to be improving and investing in different ways your guests want your experiences to be delivered.”