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As truck stop restaurants reopen, will drivers pull up a seat?

Fewer menu options and social distancing represent the new normal for travel plazas

The new look of the TravelCenters of America's Country Pride restaurant in Spartanburg, South Carolina. (Photo: TravelCenters of America)

As the human and economic toll of the COVID-19 pandemic mounts, America is adapting to   changes at dine-in restaurants, including travel plazas dotting the nation’s highways.

“You’d never in the regular course of business, without something like COVID, shut down your restaurants and then try to reopen them in a different way,” said Jon Pertchik, CEO of TravelCenters of America (NASDAQ: TA). “It’s given us an opportunity, if you want to look for a silver lining, to really test ourselves.”

With more than 265 travel plazas in 44 states and Canada, all subject to different local and state guidelines for reopening, TA is operating at 25% to 50% occupancy, with tables separated by 6 feet or more and every other booth available for seating. Disinfecting and cleaning regimens are in place.

Fewer menu options

The biggest change might be reduced menu offerings.

“We’re limiting our menu choices and I think that’s a good discipline going forward,” Pertchik told FreightWaves in an interview. “We have menus at our Country Pride and Iron Skillet [restaurants] that have something like 67 and 72 or 77 items. A lot of the items just never sell, and we need to have the prep. We need to have the storage.”

The same kind of merchandising discipline Pertchik is instilling in TA convenience stores carries over to the restaurants: Offer what people buy the most and jettison the rest.

“The number of choices are so different. It’s 32 and 40 or something close to that versus almost double that,” he said. “It’s driven by what has historically been in demand. I’m hopeful that we’re still able to fully serve our guests and make them happy but do so in a way that’s much more efficient.”

Seating map

Dining is a $1 billion annual business for the Pilot Co., which owns more than 630 restaurants inside its truck stops. Dining rooms in several states have reopened with limited capacity. Many remain closed. One Pilot in its hometown of Knoxville, Tennessee, has a dining room that seats 20, a third of pre-COVID 19 capacity, according to the Knoxville News Sentinel.

“I think there will be less dine-in, so we’ve got to shift our business that way,” CEO Jimmy Haslam told the newspaper.

Love’s Travel Stops & Country Stores began reopening dining rooms May 13 in states where allowed.

“Our efforts have been conducted in accordance with guidelines and orders issued for restaurants in the 41 states where we operate, including social distancing and occupancy limits,” spokeswoman Caitlin Campbell wrote in an email. “Thankfully, for Love’s, these occupancy limits have not resulted in the elimination of any jobs at our locations.”

TravelCenters saw dine-in restaurant business plummet 91% in April when most states were in full lockdown, Pertchik said. It laid off 2,900 employees whom it hopes to eventually bring back. 

TA is taking creative measures to find more dine-in seating space. One approach is to take over little-used seating in its quick-service restaurants.

“These massive sit-down areas aren’t getting used much of the time,” Pertchik said. “[By] using some of those spaces to allow more full-service restaurant capacity, we open that up to some extent, as we’re working within municipal and state guidelines.”

Outdoor seating is another option TA is pursuing. It has plazas on both sides of Interstate 5 near Tejon Ranch, California.

“They’re two of our biggest properties. And each not only has outdoor physical space, they already have park bench types of seating. And some covering over them. So, those are no-brainers.”

Driver ambivalence

But will drivers embrace a “new normal?”

“I‘m pretty much not in agreement with wearing a mask,” said Linda Caffee, who team drives with her husband, Bob, as leased owner-operators. “When you go in [to a restaurant], you have to wear a mask. Then they take you to a table and you take the mask off. How does that make sense? I don’t need that stress.”

The Caffees use an Instant Pot to cook most of their meals in their truck.

“It is the most wonderful gadget known to man,” Linda Caffee said of the pressure cooker. “We’ve saved money by doing it, and I think we’ve had healthier meals.

“If I go into a restaurant, it’s going to be something special,” she said. “It’s going to be a nice restaurant. It’s not going to be Denny’s or IHOP.”

Angus Transportation fleet owner Jimmy Nevarez sometimes misses dine-in restaurants, which remain closed along his regular routes in California and Nevada.

“When I do utilize travel plazas, it is definitely a welcome relief. It’s a chance to sit down, unwind and just take a load off while you have a meal in an arena other than the inside of your cab,” he said.

Restrictions and social distancing may prevent drivers from returning, he said.

“I’d welcome more food service and sit-down, but we have learned being in lockdown for about two months now how to live without it,” Nevarez said.

With a refrigerator and toaster oven in his truck, Vince Crisani brings most of his food from home. But he does miss one aspect of travel plaza restaurants.

“I used to use the restaurant as a mobile office space,” he said. “You have a horizontal work space and that’s been taken away from us.”

Food truck competition

Travel plaza restaurants also face at least temporary competition from food trucks allowed to set up at state-run rest stops during the COVID-19 pandemic.

“If this hadn’t been in the middle of a pandemic, we would have opposed it, but we know that we needed those drivers to get from Point A to Point B and get their needs met,” said Lisa Mullings, CEO of NATSO, the trade group that represents travel plaza owners. 

“We just want to make sure when the emergency is over, the food trucks are removed because it does hurt our members,” she told FreightWaves.

TA does not see food trucks at rest stops as a problem.

“We’re known for full-service truck stops,” Perchik said. “It’s about the amenities. It’s about the services. It’s about the scale. It’s a one-stop shop for a trucker who’s away from home. We have so many ways to make ourselves stronger than a rest stop without any amenities or services, so I don’t see it as a real threat to this company.”

For his part, Nevarez would love to see food trucks at California rest stops, but that’s unlikely because they are located far from other commerce.

“You’ll find some of the best tacos in the world on some of these trucks,” Nevarez said, “The problem on the business end for the truck stops is they’re not getting a cut of that.”

Click for more FreightWaves articles by Alan Adler

Alan Adler

Alan Adler is an award-winning journalist who worked for The Associated Press and the Detroit Free Press. He also spent two decades in domestic and international media relations and executive communications with General Motors.