It’s a gas: Fuel City bringing its tacos and cheap fuel to Fort Worth

For at least two years, John Benda has dreamed of building a ranch near downtown Fort Worth.

Not a ranch in the traditional sense — although there will be longhorns, donkeys and other livestock on the property — but another in his fast-growing chain of Fuel City convenience stores like the one in Dallas famous for its cheap gas, tasty tacos and weekend karaoke nights.

Benda recently put 8.5 acres under contract close to the city’s near north side for a $10 million project that will include 30 fueling stations — 24 for gas, 6 for diesel — an 8,000-square-foot store, a state-of-the-art car wash, a deli and the ever-popular 24-hours-a-day, 7-days-a-week taco stand. It also will have a covered patio.

“It’s more than just selling gas and selling tacos, it’s about fun and making the place look good,” said Benda, who hopes to open by next summer. He wants people to stop by, fill up with gas, get the car washed and grab something good to eat while they’re at it. “I want to make a good customer experience.”

“When people drive by I want them to go, ‘Wow! That’s a cool place!’ Even when they don’t go in,” he said.

Benda hopes to open the Fort Worth store next summer. He already has a Fuel City in Lufkin and another one set to open in Mesquite in September. He’s also looking to build a fifth store near Joe Pool Lake.

Benda’s gas stations — he prefers you describe them as travel centers, destination spots and tourist attractions — are just another example of how the retail gas market has changed.

Over the past five years, the gross margins for gasoline have averaged about 19 cents a gallon, but after factoring in expenses, the average profit per gallon for a gas station is about a nickel, according to a National Association of Convenience Store report.

Retailers, fearful of scaring off customers by boosting prices at the pump, now look to lure them under their fueling canopies with competitive gas prices and then get them to step into their stores where they will buy other items with more traditional profit margins, the NACS reports.

QuikTrip, Racetrak and 7-Eleven have all expanded their in-store offerings, chucking the old “stock it, sell it and move-on” approach and replacing it with fresh-made sandwiches, pizzas and fountain drinks, said Jeff Lenard, vice president for strategic industry initiatives at NACS.

The Fuel City experience

But Benda says none of his competitors can top the experience at a Fuel City.

His stores typically sit on multiple acres to accommodate the attractions he includes. The one in Lufkin is on 11 acres while the Mesquite project takes up about 17 acres. His first store, which sits in the shadow of Dallas skyline, is on 7.5 acres. He calls it the “ranch in downtown Dallas.”

The western-themed stores are branded with a circular cooler for six-packs of pop and beer as well as a massive tiled tub featuring single cans and bottles of the most popular soft drinks buried in ice. The clerks wear T-shirts with slogans like “I love the sale of tacos in the morning,” and “Say no to drugs. Say yes to tacos,” reflecting Benda’s sense of humor and zest for life.

Competitive gas prices are a hallmark. On Friday morning, a gallon of regular was selling for $2.65, while many of the gas stations in the Dallas area were selling for $2.79, according to Stuffed in freezers at the back of the store is another Fuel City staple — low-cost bags of ice. An 8-pound bag is 69 cents.

But 64-year-old Benda’s personal influence and Barnum-and-Bailey-style salesmanship is most evident with the menagerie of domestic and exotic animals walking around the pens out back of some if his stores. In Dallas, he has four longhorns, four donkeys, a zebra named Zorro and a camel called Hercules. The Mesquite store also will have livestock, while Lufkin doesn’t have any.

“These are the luckiest animals in Texas. We feed them the best food,” he said. “We never send them to slaughter, we let them live out their lives. I’m their nurse and their hospital.”

“A melting pot”

Eating good food and getting a good value is also important to motorists who don’t just want to top off their tanks, but fill up their stomachs.

At the Fort Worth area store, Benda plans to sell the same tacos from the same kitchen that have earned a loyal fan base in Dallas. In 2006, Texas Monthly rated its tacos the best, particularly the picadillo — a double-layer, small-corn tortilla stuffed with ground beef and bits of potato seasoned with garlic and black pepper.

The tacos are sold at a competitive price of $1.75 each with tax. So it’s possible to get two freshly-made tacos and a drink and spend less that $5.

Some customers, like Shawna Medina from southwest Arlington, will drive long distances to have them for lunch. She was waiting with her mom in the heat this week in Dallas to get a taco fix.

“I don’t eat street food, but I will come here to eat,” Medina said. “I’ll drive over here and buy a big bag of them and take them home.”

Fun is the word Benda uses constantly in talking about the experiences he’s had at the Dallas store over the last 15 years — his karaoke on Friday and Saturday nights is so popular that he hires off-duty Dallas cops to direct traffic. He’s also thrilled by the fact that the Dallas store has become a “melting pot” with a clientele that is about a third Hispanic, a third white and a third African-American.

“It’s a lot of fun. People come and it gets crowded and people sit around and visit,” Benda said. “People just love to eat.”

Benda is not sure he can recreate all that fun in Fort Worth, but he sure will try. He’s already dreaming of the critters he’ll have in Fort Worth besides the typical longhorns and donkeys; possibly there will be a Belted Galloway, nicknamed Oreo cows because of the white stripe in the middle of their black hides. Why not? The stores’ slogan is “Where dreams come true.”

“If you build, I think they will come,” Benda said.

Max Baker, 817-390-7714

Twitter: @MaxbakerBB