Editor's note: This tour of small businesses across the country highlights the imagination, diversity, and resilience of American enterprise.
Come for the cheap gas and tacos. Stay for the livestock and karaoke.
This is a typical Saturday night at Fuel City in Dallas. Two police officers direct traffic as cars line up for unleaded gas at $2.39 a gallon. All three taco windows are mobbed, as are the carts peddling elote en vaso (corn in a cup). Customers wander into the karaoke trailer (complete with disco ball) to belt out Tejana favorites, country classics, and oldies. Out back, longhorn cattle snooze on the ground. The zebra remains standing.
"Our slogan is 'Where dreams come true,'" says Fuel City founder John Benda. "Maybe that's a little corny. But that's what I want this place to be."
The Dallas Visitor's Bureau promotes this city with the tagline "Big Things Happen Here." Certainly the rest of the country associates Dallas with size. Big steaks. Big highways. Big belt buckles.
And, of course, big-thinking entrepreneurs. John Benda's gas station--he calls it a travel center--occupies eight acres and earns north of $30 million a year. By contrast, most stations currently for sale in Texas sit on an acre or less, according to a search of real-estate site LoopNet. Nationwide, gas stations with adjacent convenience stores typically rack up about $2 million in annual sales.
A second Fuel City in Lufkin, Texas, occupies 11 acres; and a third, opening this year in the Dallas suburb of Mesquite, sprawls over a whopping 17. Benda recently acquired the land for a fourth Fuel City, in Fort Worth. "I can build two pretty good-sized ones for the price," he says. "But I can build one huge one. So I am going to build one huge one."
But Benda's vision is far more complex and interesting than just building a big gas station. (Fuel City actually is not the largest station in Texas.) "I wanted to build a ranch in downtown Dallas," he says. "I wanted people to see what this place was like before it was a city. So I brought in my longhorns and donkeys. I put in an oil derrick and a 90-year-old windmill."
And he positioned Fuel City as an entertainment mecca, with food that frequently makes best-of-Dallas lists, a car wash that features a view of the animals, and a swimming pool. As the local publication D Magazine put it, "calling Fuel City a gas station is like saying The Grapes of Wrath is a story about a car trip."
A vacant lot and a dream
Benda's background is as eclectic as his business. He was an entrepreneurial 10-year-old, retrieving golf balls from the lake at the country club his father owned, bagging them, and selling them back to the duffers. In the 1970s he attended several colleges--graduating from none of them--before embarking on a career that included life insurance agent, matchbox-advertising salesman, youth minister, and president of a disposable-lighter company.
In 1980 he acquired a smoke shop in downtown Dallas for $75,000 and turned it into a convenience store called Friendly's. After a few years he sold that store for a small profit and opened another one. Then he did it again. And again.
Benda first tweaked the convenience store format in 1990. That's when a culinarily inclined police officer asked if he could cook and sell tacos in front of the business. Benda agreed in return for $200 a week. The man did brisk sales for several years until the health department cracked down on outdoor food vendors. Benda responded by bringing the taco chef inside and building a walk-up window. "It's kind of a cardinal sin in the convenience store business to sell something through a window, because you want them to come in and buy other stuff," says Benda. "But I did that, and it was successful."
In 1998, Benda was serving on a jury at the criminal court on Riverside Boulevard. Driving around on his lunch break he spied a stretch of vacant land where Interstates 30 and 35 intersect. It was a dispiriting place: waist-high in weeds, a strip of liquor stores the only nearby commerce.
"I looked at it," says Benda. "And I thought, 'What a great place to build a ranch.'"
No fan of the gradual build, Benda spent more than $4 million to realize his dream in nearly its entirety. (He added the car wash five years ago.) In addition to installing basics like a septic system and a traffic light, he invested in slate floors ("I thought churches have them, so I can, too"); buffalo statues; and copious animals of both the taxidermied and live, exotic varieties. He spent all his savings, took out a second mortgage on his house, and somehow secured a bank loan.
"In my life I have taken risk after risk," says Benda. "But Fuel City the big one."
Feeding tanks, eyes, and stomachs
Like most folks in his industry, Benda competes aggressively on the price of gas. The Dallas store, which can accommodate 26 cars and trucks at one time, generated headlines in September when it posted signs for $1.99 a gallon--about 30 cents below market price. ("We had six policemen directing traffic and a two-mile long line," he says.) Benda also added natural gas to woo fleets, and he has gone after area trucking firms and produce companies whose vehicles ply the adjacent highways.
"He is an absolute marketing genius," says Marcus Wood, a retired real-estate agent who has closely followed Fuel City since selling Benda the land 16 years ago. "He actually advertised on cable television. Who else in that business would think to advertise on television?"
Then again, who else in that business offers as much as Benda? Fuel City is at least as famous for tacos as for cheap gas. The sister-in-law of that original taco chef manages 25 people who turn out the Mexican street food 24 hours a day in a 200-square foot kitchen. She has expanded to the other Fuel Citys as well. Corn in a cup, with such toppings as cheese, mayonnaise, and hot sauce, has made The Dallas Observer's list of 100 favorite dishes and is now sold late into the night from two carts.
Western music plays continuously in the store, except on Fridays and Saturdays when it's karaoke from 3 p.m. to 10 p.m. Customers eat on the patio and then mosey over to feed the animals, which include a zebra and a camel. "I have some of the biggest longhorns alive: 98 inches from tip to tip," says Benda, who raises the beasts at his ranch in Eureka, Texas. When the cattle go into decline they still have a place at Fuel City: mounted on a wall along with wild boar, deer, and buffalo.
Not everything at Fuel City has worked out. A hot dog cart generated little enthusiasm. After 8 p.m. no one came to the 24-hour car wash. For years Benda paid women in bathing suits to lounge by the pool, until his daughters convinced him to quit it. "It was a little edgy or sizzly to have girls sit out there, but it was not done in distaste," says Benda. "I just wanted anything I could to have reasons for people to come by my store."
Come they do. Benda doesn't know how many people visit the Dallas Fuel City every day, but he reckons it's thousands. He is particularly gratified by the demographics he's observed. "It's about a third Hispanic, a third African-American, and a third Anglo," he says. "We've become the melting pot for Dallas culture."