When Aniston Ainsworth, 6, walks into the RaceTrac on Collins Street at Park Road, she makes a beeline for the frozen yogurt stand, grabbing a cup and checking out the flavors. It's her third time here, and she knows exactly what she wants.
She pulls the birthday cake lever, filling her cup with loops and coils as her mother, Alisha, goes for Thin Mint.
"I thought it was really an odd concept at first," Alisha said of the decked-out frozen yogurt stand within the gas station. "But being in Plant City, it's really convenient because we don't have a lot of higher-end anything. It's really nice."
Years ago, a gas station distinguished itself with better rates at the pumps and a row of candy bars and gum at the counter. But busier lifestyles and a recovering economy led to a burgeoning trend of gas stations that pack more of a punch.
People are already salivating over the custom-order hoagies that the new Wawa on Bloomingdale Road will bring to the area this fall, while customers in Riverview are enjoying a monthlong promotion of free drinks and buy-one-get-one deals at the new Thorntons on Progress Village Boulevard just west of U.S. 301. And in Plant City, the frozen yogurt bar at the RaceTrac has quickly become a hot spot for kids after school.
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Uniforms and school polos form a line in front of the frozen yogurt dispensers as kids taste-test flavors ranging from pistachio to strawberry banana.
One boy tries to convince his parents to allow him more toppings, but his mother strongly holds the line. Frozen yogurt might be healthier than ice cream, but it's still a lot of sugar. Another slurps cookies 'n' cream goodness from a sample cup, giving himself a yogurt mustache as his mom helps his sister add sprinkles to her mix.
RaceTrac isn't the only gas station thinking big and looking to sell more than just fuel.
Thorntons made its way to Tampa from Kentucky, branching out from the Midwest for the first time to open stores in Florida — its sixth state of operation. While some residents here might not be familiar with the chain, chief operating officer Tony Harris said it's all about facilitating on-the-go lifestyles with personal service.
"We're trying to create what we call a pleasantly different experience, just something you don't expect when you stop at a gasoline station/convenience store," Harris said.
The chain offers coffee made with Arabica beans ground in store and about 15 flavorings and toppings along with fresh whipped cream. A variety of sandwiches, salads and doughnuts are also prepared daily from high-quality ingredients, Harris said.
Harris said Thorntons, which will open a second store on State Road 60 at Lithia Pinecrest Road this year, chose to expand in Tampa Bay because of the area's economic growth and solid infrastructure. But the folks behind Thorntons weren't the only ones to recognize those key attributes.
"At the time, we felt like there was a bit of a void of competition there," Harris said. "However, that has quickly changed."
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Both RaceTrac and Wawa are opening stores in east Hillsborough. Wawa recently launched five stores in five weeks in the bay area, and RaceTrac unveiled a 6,000-square-foot store type full of perks like the frozen yogurt stand. Each chain hopes to carve a niche and establish ties with the new communities.
Building a brand isn't new for Wawa. The high-end gas station has a fervent following. Fans drove to Orlando from Tampa last year just to sample those mouth-watering hoagies. College students have been known to fall to their knees in front of a new store, thankful for a piece of home nearby. One 90-year-old woman took a turkey to Wawa workers one Thanksgiving because she wanted them to know they were part of what she was thankful for that year.
"Our brand loyalty and passion, as we call it, is something that we treasure," Wawa spokeswoman Lori Bruce said. "We have people coming into our stores and saying, 'I've been waiting 10 years for you to open here.' It's a connection to home for them."
Restaurant-quality food service and store associates who make a connection with customers set Wawa apart, Bruce said. The chain serves everything from lobster bisque and frothy cappuccinos to the customized hoagies with more than 100 variations.
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Thorntons takes a different approach, Harris said.
"Fast and easy are the things that we like the customer to experience for the service perspective," he said. "We're much more focused on grab and go, fast and easy such as a made-to-order offerings, so we think maybe we're attracting a slightly different customer."
The goal at Thorntons is to get people back on the road quickly with little disruption to their daily commute, Harris said.
The food is still prepared fresh daily, but doesn't require someone to stand in front of a screen and build an order. Even the gas pumps are designed to pump faster, he said.
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RaceTrac, which has been in Florida for nearly 35 years, is working to combat the out-of-town competitors by opening stations nearby, like the one under construction just down the road from the new Thorntons.
"For us, we want to make it more of an experience rather than just going to a convenience store," spokesman Amanda Rodriguez said. "We want you to come in and stay a while, grab lunch, sit and work on your computer if you need to or grab some frozen yogurt. It's become more of an experience than a one-stop place."
RaceTrac's 6,000-square-foot model includes Wi-Fi inside and outside and more lighting to help customers feel safer and more welcome. And the frozen yogurt in Plant City has customers lining up to fill their cups as well as their gas tanks.
"I think it's super cool because all I'd expect them to have here is slushies," said Aidan Heidt, 8, of Seffner.
His dad, Gabriel, is an economics teacher at Plant City High School. Anything that adds jobs in a community is a good thing, he said. One of his students from last year works there 40 hours a week with benefits. But he's not sure it's a good thing for a gas station to have so many options for people to buy unnecessarily.
"It allows people to act impulsively in a way that could be detrimental if they don't have the money for it," he said. "I hate to say it's predatory, because that's the nature of economics. All you're trying to do is keep people away from your competitors, and this is probably pretty successful at that."
Caitlin Johnston can be reached at email@example.com or (813) 661-2443.