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Luring Them In

Facing increasing gas prices and big competition, a tiny gas station lowers its numbers and pushes the cheesecake.


There are trends, Harris says: Going west from Libbie Avenue, "the price of gas is outrageous." From Glenside Drive to Parham Road, "you've got the war," where Sheetz, Hess, Crown and others are trying to out-limbo each other. Once you cross Parham, toward the 'burbs, rates generally rise by 5 to 6 cents.

Ferris wants customers to know he's not to blame. He sometimes places the local gasoline price sheets, which show what he pays for gas wholesale, on the counter by the cash register to point to every time a customer sighs over the bill. "If they have the time," he says, "I sit there and explain it to them."

For all the fuss, the price at the pump's not bringing in a big profit — especially when the price of crude oil skyrockets. On average, convenience stores — or C-stores, as they're known in the business — collect 70 percent of their revenues from gas, but less than 30 percent of their profit, says Jeff Lenard, spokesman for the National Association of Convenience Stores. "Literally, you're making about a penny a gallon."

The real money's made inside, and that's what seems to help Bararri.

Customers don't seem to care if your sign is BP green, Exxon blue or Shell yellow, as long as the numbers on it are a few cents below the other guy's. A study by Lenard's association two years ago showed that 40 percent of customers will switch for a difference of 3 cents a gallon. And, Lenard says, "everybody will switch for 8 cents."

But food can sell fuel. "The store becomes the brand," Lenard explains. "If they trust that you have great sandwiches … or whatever it is about your store that's great, they'll assume that your gas is also of a great quality."

These axioms suggest that a convenience store selling homemade chicken salad sandwiches, fluffy cheesecake, Yellowtail wine and gas cheaper than the guy next door will do all right. So goes the recipe for Bararri.

Located just west of Libbie Avenue on Broad Street, the red-and-blue station catches the eye because of its lack of affiliation with any national oil company. The spiffy script B and vaguely Italian name suggest that a new big brand has moved into town.

In fact, the station is a one-of-a-kind venture, opened in August 2003 by Baugh Auto Body & Truck Repair owner Gerry Baugh. Bararri is a combination of his last name and the Italian sportscar Ferrari. Baugh himself spends the day in perennial perambulation around the corridors and garages of the body shop, so Bararri is run mostly by his 20-year-old daughter, Ashley Baugh, a communications major at Virginia Commonwealth University, and fast-talking manager Ferris.

That Bararri is independently owned is not remarkable in itself. Although locally owned C-store chains like Fas Mart and Lucky's have been sold or split up in recent years, the number of independent stores nationwide is at a record high, Lenard says. Large oil companies have been consolidating and divesting these stores in areas of overlap — where competition is high or the traffic is slow.

What makes Bararri different is its location on busy Broad Street, where the chain competes with a variety of larger gas stations and convenience store chains.

When Baugh decided to open a store on the site he owned next to his body shop, formerly leased to a gas station company, he retrofitted the existing space with a tiny galley kitchen, complete with fryers, grill and hamburger-cooking machine.

Anyone can go to Sheetz and punch the sandwich ingredients into a computer, the Bararri folks point out. But you can't tell the computer "extra-thin onions" or "extra-dark toast." And it's unlikely Sheetz workers will start slathering mayonnaise onto the Italian wrap they know you love the minute they see you get out of your car. Ashley, Bararri's champion sandwich maker, will. This, she says, is how gas customers become lunch regulars. They sell service, the old-fashioned way.

Ferris, 44, is variously store manager, sandwich-maker, troubleshooter, gasoline price investigator and delivery boy. He arrives each morning around 5:30, an hour after the cook begins preparing the day's menu. The store opens at 6 (7 on weekends) and closes at 11 p.m.

The business has only gotten tougher, Ferris says. Credit-card companies charge 3.5 to 4 percent processing fees for all card transactions. So if Ferris pays $1.85 per gallon wholesale, the credit card company charges 7 cents per gallon, and "if I'm not selling that gas for $1.92, every credit card transaction I'm losing money on." Gasoline delivery companies have also begun adding fees for delivery because the rising price of gas makes it more expensive to run their trucks.

Michael J. O'Connor, president and chief executive of the Virginia Petroleum, Convenience and Grocery Association, says he's happy to see an independent venture like Bararri survive. The biggest problem for Virginia's convenience store owners, he says, is the growth of "big-box" gas retailers such as Wal-Mart, Costco and Kroger, which routinely build gas stations into parking lots of newer stores. Often they sell gas below cost, he says, as added bait to lure customers. It's refreshing, O'Connor says, to see Bararri and others reclaim some of that business.

"It doesn't happen very often, to be honest with you," he says.

It starts with simple service, Ferris says.

Take the cheesecake, a customer favorite, which is mixed from scratch and baked on the premises by a Bolivian chef. Ferris presses samples on everyone who seems even a tiny bit tempted, creating converts like the man who stops by at 9:30 every Sunday morning for two slices and three cups of coffee.

And then there's the chicken-salad sandwich. Ferris starts with plain chicken: "We boil it, we slice it, we marinate it, we add our own spices to it, add nuts to it," he says proudly. "Nobody else does it like we do." S

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