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March 10, 2008

California Dream
Franchisee opens biggest – and maybe friendliest – ampm in the country.

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, Page XX.)
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 up.

Competitive Spirit
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 the street.
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 and environment."
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 guest priorities.
"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 maintained.
To resolve guest complaints, Mazarei wants employees to "BEAT the Heat:" Be a good listener, empathize, acknowledge the problem, and take action.
"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."





For more information please contact: Ali Mazarei
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