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March 10, 2008
Franchisee opens biggest – and maybe friendliest – ampm in
By Barbara Grondin Francella
As the operator of the largest ARCO ampm store in North America, Ali Mazarei
is interested in offering customers more than one of the most technologically
advanced stores in the industry. He wants to provide customers, employees
and vendors with a "distraction free environment."
For customers, that means outstanding service and quality products –
from convenience items and fast food, to a state-of-the-art, full-service
car wash and lube service, Coinstar check-cashing and bill-paying service,
and self-destructing DVDs for $1 -- housed in a 11,000-square-foot store.
"We may be big, but what really sets us apart is our service. Our
first philosophy is: We don’t have customers, we have guests,"
said Mazarei, a first-time ampm franchisee, who, with the help of some
business partners, opened the Travel Zone store Feb. 4 in Perris, Calif.,
on the I-2195 corridor. (Mazarei previously owned a number of gas stations.)
"We don’t want to distract our customers from what they want
to do – whether it's buy gas, buy a soda, use the bathroom –
and leave," he said. "From the time the customer pulls up to
the station, there can be no distraction. The store can't be dirty. It
has to be well lit. The price point has to be correct. There can't be
out of stocks. There can't be an out of order sign on their favorite fountain
drink. If a gas nozzle is broken – that's a distraction."
Mazarei takes the philosophy seriously. His 75 associates are empowered
to make customers happy. "If a guest says something is priced at
the shelf $1.99, but it rings up $2.99, the associate can override it.
If a guest complains his car is still dirty after a car wash, wash it
again for free. If there is a delay, offer him a free cup of coffee while
he is waiting.
"No one is going to get into trouble for making a guest happy,"
he continued. "If one person is unhappy, he'll tell five people,
and they'll tell three other people. If you [anger] one guest, I calculated
you've lost 78.6 people."
The first point-of-purchase sign Mazarei hung in the store invites customers
to call him if anything about their shopping experience dissatisfies them
-- and lists his personal phone number.
"The only complaint I've gotten so far is the pay-at-the-pump network
puts a $50 hold on each credit transaction," he noted. "Guests
didn't appreciate that, but there was nothing I could do to change it."
Any store employee who mistakenly refers to a guest as a "customer"
must put $1 in a jar kept in the store. At the end of the month, the top
three performing associates split the pot.
Indeed, Mazarei tracks, by computer, every employee's performance in key
areas, including upselling (based on how many of promotional items are
sold on their shift), friendliness (based on customer feedback about employees),
and other expectations for each hourly employee, such as frequency of
out-of-stocks on top-selling items, transaction times and mystery shopper
scores. (For more on Mazarei's employee training program, see sidebar,
During first employee orientation, Mazarei had every employee talk to
each other for three hours. Their assignment: Get everyone else's phone
number, address, family member names and other personal information. At
the end of that time, employees were awarded prizes based on their ability
to answer questions such as, "What kind of car does John drives and
what are his kids names?"
"At first, everyone thought it was a joke. But by the end, they realized
what I was trying to do. I told them, 'Now you are a family. You can count
on each other. If one of you can't make it to work, you will know someone
else to call and ask him to fill in for you." Now, everyone is part
of a team."
Indeed, Mazarei aims to provide a distraction-free environment for his
employees, too. "I give them respect. No question is a stupid question.
I train everyone to take my job. The more they know, the less I have to
do, is how I see it. I tell them this should be a stepping stone for them.
Go to school and learn something new every day. They could become entrepreneurs."
Even before it's official grand opening April 3rd , the Travel Zone drew
truckers, travelers and locals with its 38 fueling dispensers and mega
c-store. "In the truck stop world, success depends on word of mouth,
and we are getting good word of mouth," Mazarei said, adding he expects
to see 5,000 customers a day, ring up $45 million per year in gross taxable
revenue and employ more than 175 people when the site is fully built up.
The operator is aiming to offer truckers CFN and other fueling networks,
as well as state-of-the art CAT scales. The store also carries trucker-oriented
merchandise, including gift cards, calling cards, cell phones, TVs, audio
books and DB radios.
"I give my business card to every trucker who comes in and tell him
to let me know if there is anything he'd like to see us stock," said
the retailer, who freely admits to shopping major truck stops to see what
they are selling.
"I wanted to build a one-stop shopping center," Mazarei said.
"We're not a mega truck stop, like some others build. We're more
like an ampm on steroids."
Inside the store, foodservice is a major profit center. The store is equipped
with three ovens to produce a large selection of hamburgers, hot dogs,
pizza, burritos, deli sandwiches, cookies and other baked goods. A 24-head
Thirst Oasis fountain is complimented by a 10-foot coffee bar. A self-serve
condiment bar allows patrons to customize their food.
The Artic Zone cooler, 28 doors long, is partnered with the biggest walk-in
beer cave in the county (approximately 20 feet by 30 feet).
The store also houses a 700-square-foot highway patrol and sheriff's substation,
with work desks and a computer. "They come in, have some coffee and
do their paperwork," the retailer said.
Outside, the store is surrounded by artificial turf. "Grass is a
problem here in the desert," Mazarei noted. "I was at the Wynn
Hotel in Vegas and asked them where they got their grass. They told me
it was fake. So, we contacted their supplier and now have perfect manicured
grass, all the time. No irrigation --we just blow it off!"
At the pump, the franchisee is the first in the state to offer the corporate-run
BP Vision network, piloting a satellite-fed weather and traffic updates
and promotional commercials shown at monitors at the pump.
The 11.5-acre site also has three pads for two branded fast food operators
and a full-service restaurant, such as Denny's or IHOP. "I don't
feel they will compete with our foodservice," he said. "It's
a different guest."
Also near completion: A car detailing shop.
Still, as we spoke to Mazarei, three weeks into a soft opening, he was
working out a few bugs, including problems with his diesel – the
pumps were acting up and some wiring needed replacing – and the
fiberglass car wash. "The water pressure was too low," he explained.
"The equipment is too high tech, so I had to buy some extra pumps
to fix it."
Also, plans for wi-fi serve in the store's "lounge" a seating
area are hit a speed bump, as he is working with Verizon to get the system
Although the proud franchisee considers "everyone" his competition,
he's confident his team can out-serve any c-store, gas station, fast feeder,
or car wash in the area. This includes the Unocal-branded Circle K across
According to Mazarei, when one of his associates went across the street
to the store to buy some salt, the operator accused her of coming in to
do price checks and "literally threw her out of the store."
Somewhat upset, Mazarei went over to talk to the man. "I've known
him for a while, since I've been trying to build this store for seven
years, working through permit delays and other hurdles," he said.
"When we opened, I bought his brother some coffee and walked him
through our whole operation. I told him I didn’t do price shopping,
but if I did, I'd ask him first and do it myself, not send an associate.
I told him if he ever wanted to price shop at my store, I'd take out the
pricebook and give him a copy. Because I know we have the best service
Plus, it's safe to say, the competition isn’t gong to have its own
helicopter pad. "My partners don’t like commuting," Mazarei
said. "I ran out of tomatoes for the hot dog condiment bar. I asked
one of my partners to pick some up on the way in. He brought them in on
the helicopter. How that's for service!"
Distraction Free Shopping
New ampm franchisee Ali Mazarei offers employees a very detailed plan
to execute a "distraction-free environment."
"It's based on a unifying idea," he said. "It's built around
"The moment of truth is that moment when a guest sees, hears, or
does something at our store. The first impression guests have of our store
isn't what they see when they first walk in. It's everything they see,
hear, walk around or step over from the moment they park their car until
they make their transaction and depart."
Distractions would include slow service, associates not greeting or welcoming
the guest, or being untidy in appearance. The site is unsafe or dirty.
Product aren't fresh, priced or well-stocked. Restrooms aren't clean or
To resolve guest complaints, Mazarei wants employees to "BEAT the
Heat:" Be a good listener, empathize, acknowledge the problem, and
"I tell our associates they may need to involve the guest to plan
a course of action," he said. "We want them to check with the
guest to see if they are satisfied with the action taken, and then let
me know – document everything."