ECRM Q&A: Kevin Smartt, CEO of Texas Born & NACS Chairman 5/26/2021
Texas Born (TXB), a family of customer service-oriented convenience stores and quick food operations with more than 47 locations across Texas and Oklahoma, puts its customers first and continually strives for ways to meet consumer wants and needs. Formerly known as Kwik Chek, the company announced its rebrand to Texas Born to emphasize the Texas roots and values that the brand was built upon – authenticity, hospitality and integrity.
The Spicewood, Texas-based convenience store chain serves more than 4,000 items, including fresh-made food, cold drinks and grab-and-go snacks, and recently partnered with RangeMe to enhance its product discovery efforts. It will also be participating in ECRM's Global Market: Food & Beverage next month.
I recently had the opportunity to speak with TXB CEO Kevin Smartt -- who is also the National Association of Convenience Stores Chairman for 2020 to 2021 -- to discuss the recent rebranding of the company from Kick Check, and his vision for the chain moving forward.
ECRM: Can you give us some background on what drove the decision to rebrand the company to Texas Born?
Smartt: Obviously, we're excited about it. We think it represents authentically who we are. I'm born and raised in Texas. The partner who I started the company with was born and raised in Texas. We operate in a lot of small rural towns around Texas, as well as bigger towns, and our values align with communities and customers doing the right thing. When you walk into our stores and you see our storyboards, there's a direct connection with that. We try to recognize the communities in the stores that we're building. So, being in Texas, and when you're Texas-born that it's a message that resonates with our communities.
ECRM: Can you tell us a little bit more about what that means personally to you? And what does that mean for the assortment and the broader company values?
Smartt: When we had this idea probably three or four years ago, we were using Texas Born as a marketing campaign, and we visualized going out and finding craftsmen and artists around the state that we could sell local products from in the stores. Half of America shops at convenience stores every day. And I say that to illustrate that when we're in small towns and communities, we really are an integral part of those towns and people's lives. The products we sell are all about fresh food; we're doing fresh tacos, we cook the meat fresh in front of you. We do fresh chicken in the store. We batter it, marinade it, cook it fresh in front of you. We have salad, sandwiches, and we sell fresh fruit. We even have a produce table.
We're taking the store a little bit more into a market concept, with a lot of meals to take home and cook that you might get in a grocery store. We don't want to become a grocery store, but we definitely want to be more than what a traditional convenience store is today. And I'm not disparaging against convenience stores that have the Kwik in the name, but we just felt we were another me too on the street with Kwik Chek, and we wanted something that really talked about our passion for the state and for our customers and we thought that the name did it.
And we think by trying to carry fresh products, local products, as well as national products that consumers enjoy and look for, it would really make this more of a destination than just a fuel stop on your way home.
ECRM: How does that transcend across your private label program?
Smartt: I would say – and some people may not agree with this – but our fresh food is our private label program. All of our packaging, everything that comes out of the store has TXB on it. We're also doing a lot of traditional items that you might see, but we're trying to make sure whatever we do that there's a quality and or uniqueness to them. We're doing our own waters. We have a high pH balanced water. We have our own beef jerky line, a very high quality, Texas beef jerky line. We're coming out this month with ready-to-drink teas with very Texas-centric flavors like Fredericksburg peach tea, Texas pecan tea, and then, of course, the traditional sweet, unsweet tea. And then we'll continue that line in snack items, we're working on that currently. And the tacos that we cook fresh in the store, you'll also be able to buy that meat packaged up with a TXB label on it, to take home and cook. It's already seasoned ready to go so you can eat it fresh in the store or you can take it home and cook it.
ECRM: What other areas will you be leaning into in the future?
Smartt: We have a very heavy vision for technology. We have our own app. You can pay for your fuel in your car without getting out of your car. You can go in the store, you can buy everything in the store, walk up and pay for it completely without touching anything. We're testing mobile checkout so you can come in, pick up everything in the store, if you're one of our loyalty members, scan it on your phone and walk out the door because we know who you are and we know what you've scanned. We're messaging to our consumers about the brand, the private label products, and trying to make it as convenient for them as possible.
ECRM: What can suppliers do to better serve you at Texas Born and support your most important initiatives?
Smartt: I'd say first of all, maybe try not to think of us as a convenience store because when you do that initially there's boundaries put on what you think a traditional convenience store could sell. So think of us differently, maybe like a small market and with an expanded footprint, because our smallest new store will be 6,000 square feet and some of them will be up to 7,000 square feet. So we have the space to have an assortment of products. And it could be anything from like I said, cosmetics, to apparel, to take home meals, to health and beauty items. So I think the opportunities are abundant for us in this business especially for TXB. The challenge when we get into sourcing products is being able to get that display a little bit smaller or the end cap a little bit smaller than a grocery store or a mass or drug store would carry.
ECRM: In your role as NACS Chairman, you’ve stated that technology, people, and food are key success factors for the future of the C-store industry. Can you share some thoughts on each one of these key pillars and why they are important?
Smartt: The pandemic has accelerated some aspects of technology three to five years very quickly. Contactless payment used to be where a lot of people were striving to get into, and now that's almost table stakes. We're looking at home delivery, curbside delivery, and having the technology that it's in-house if we can do it. I think our industry as a whole we've taken on a huge initiative in technology called TruAge, which will be a new way to verify age identity through the phone, and do it in a much more responsible way that will eliminate a lot of the fake IDs that are used. And in an industry that sells the most age-restricted products in the U.S., I think it's something that we've taken a personal responsibility to make that happen and so we're out there doing it. I think we have 153 chains that have committed to bring this on which represents about 25,000 stores in the U.S.
Even though more technology is coming into the scene, people are still the key to providing great service, and cooking good fresh food. We can't overemphasize the need for us to continue to create an environment, a home, a family where everybody wants to work and wants to grow within the system. So we're constantly looking at ways to do that better, not just pay more but give better benefits, give more flex time, have a more fun environment where everybody wants to work.
When we think about food, there's been an immense channel blurring over the last 10 years. It started at one point where you saw some QSRs in convenience store boxes, and then mass and drug started putting in convenience store concepts. We think that we're still buying the best real estate and we're still the closest to our communities. And so the differentiator for us, in the end, is really being able to sell high-quality food. If you look at a lot of really top-tier convenience store companies across the U.S., the Sheetz and Wawa's of the world, they're really premium food operators and they almost think food first before they think convenience store, and that's where we want to be. And so I think when we think about it as an industry, as a chairman of NACS, those are the three pillars I'm constantly talking about because I think it's important that all of our industry, small operators, big operators, understand that and are striving to get there.
ECRM: How will the convenience store industry evolve with the growth of electronic vehicles, and become more “energy agnostic,” as you have mentioned in the past?
Smartt: Our industry, and NACS have always taken the stance that we want to sell legal products the right way, the responsible way. If it's legal we want to be able to sell it. So cannabis, which is being legalized across the country, some people may want to sell it, may not want to sell it, but as an industry we say, "If it's legal we want to be able to sell it." The same goes for energy. We've grown up as an industry with pumps in front of our stores because it's what the consumer wanted and it made sense for the business model. We really are energy agnostic. As things evolve, as the electric vehicle market continues to grow and evolve we want to be a part of it.
So as infrastructure gets built out in the U.S., we want to have a seat at the table to have the ability to compete, to have that infrastructure at our locations. It makes sense. We have a lot of people that come to us. We have the parking lot space, and we have other amenities on the lot which helps them if there's 15 minutes to 30 minutes they have to charge. And we want to be able to sell that electricity just like everybody else. Today, in many of the states, the public utility companies control that, they won't let anybody else sell electricity, so we have a lot of challenges to get that done. And if you're somebody who believes in electric vehicles and you're going to purchase an electric vehicle, you should have a voice and you should be voicing that to your congressmen and senators about having charging stations at your local convenience stores or wherever it is.
ECRM: Where is the industry headed in terms of sustainability, including carbon reduction, waste reduction, and plastic reduction?
Smartt: I know retailers that have had electric charging stations out for five to seven years, so I think convenience stores were an early leader in trying to have many of those out. Many of our stores and the industry has converted over to LED lights already so we have big energy savings there. We do cardboard recycling at a big portion of our stores, and all of our new stores going forward have cardboard recycling. A lot of our industry does water reclamation. You’re also starting to see more paper products, less single-use plastic products. A lot of our food packaging we've converted over out of plastics into paper products.
And then we’re having conversations with our suppliers, much like the investment community, about reducing single-use plastics. That's highly important to us and the products we're carrying. And we're responsible for what we have on our premise and we can only do so much about it, but the products that's coming into the stores from our suppliers is something else. And we have to voice our opinion on that and our want for them to be able to convert over to something that's more sustainable. So we're doing that and they're responding. Everything takes time and money and it takes a while to cycle through it, but we're finding the supplier community to be quite responsive to moving out of single-use plastics.
Watch the full video interview below!