By Al Hebert
Peto Sellers has been a land developer for most his working life, but south Louisiana winters are wet and work can slow down. During one such winter, Sellers decided that owning and running a convenience store would keep him busy during those cold, soggy months.
"As a kid, I worked in a butcher shop. I liked food and cooking and the store business," said Sellers. So in 2000 he opened the first Peto€™s, north of Lake Charles in the community of Moss Bluff, with the goal of offering real convenience.
"We have a full-service butcher market, a convenience store and deli, everything under one roof," explained Sellers. "This is a neighborhood store €" one couple came here every day and ate the same thing for 10 years."
The convenience store has the usual items, but it€™s the wine selection for which Peto is most proud. "We have what you won€™t find in grocery stores; this is the kind of wine served in fine restaurants," he said.
Cowboy Meets Cajun
Moss Bluff is less than an hour from the Texas state line, and as a result, there is a definite cowboy vibe in this area of the Bayou State. The university in the parish is the home of the McNeese Cowboys. It€™s no surprise that this local "cowboy palate" influences how traditional Cajun recipes are prepared in this neck of the Louisiana woods.
In the heart of Cajun Country, popular dishes such as boudin and sausage contain pork and also rich cuts of organ meat that lend a distinct flavor to the food. However, some people will never acquire a taste for these more unique cuts of meat.
"Boudin is simply pork rice dressing in sausage casing. [By leaving] out the organ meat, this appeals to a broader customer base," Sellers explained. "We use Louisiana rice, fresh green onions, Boston Butt boneless pork roast, our own blend of seasoning and sell 1,800 pounds of it each week."
Peto€™s success in Moss Bluff encouraged Sellers to open another location; this time, a truck stop on I-10 at Exit 59. "Our truck stop is, to the mile, exactly between New Orleans and Houston. It€™s easy on and easy off," he said of the store€™s bigger footprint, which also houses a casino.
"In Louisiana, truck stops can have up to 50 video poker machines. The number of machines is based on the volume of gas and diesel sold," said Sellers. The majority of Peto€™s profitable casino business is derived from local customers who come in to try their luck, but the restaurant attracts both travelers and locals.
And at all times, the customers€™ experience is important. "Keep it clean and presentable" is the number one rule. "Restrooms get messed up quickly, so we stay on top of it. We have two full-time porters working two shifts a day to keep bathrooms and showers, for the truckers, nice and clean," said Sellers, who added that the facilities are steam-cleaned twice a month. "Having a clean, friendly, well-lit environment makes customers feel comfortable. If you€™re in a bathroom that€™s dark and dank, you€™re looking around to see if someone€™s about to stab you. You€™re not comfortable."
If travelers know a place is clean and they feel comfortable, they will return. "When they come back through, they buy gum, cigarettes, boudin balls or dine in the restaurant," said Sellers.
Boudin Balls and Cracklins
Residents of the tiny farming community also come to the truck stop for some of the best food in the area. Attention to the smallest culinary detail has built customer loyalty and encouraged repeat business.
Local resident Glenn Miller has breakfast at Peto€™s every Thursday morning. "They put skirts on my eggs and you can€™t find that in just any cafe," he said. "An egg is cooked on a good, seasoned griddle until the bottom is brown and crispy, forming a 'skirt€™ on the outside," Miller explained. The key is not overcooking it so the yoke is still sunny-side up consistency.
"At the truck stop, we sell less boudin and more food items that travelers can eat while driving down the Interstate, like cracklins and boudin balls," said Sellers. Boudin balls are typically made with uncased dressing, rolled into a ball, battered and deep-fried, while Peto€™s cracklins are thin cut pork bellies that are deep-fried until crispy.
How popular could this Cajun pork chip be? "At both locations combined we cook 3,000 pounds of pork bellies each week," he said.
Sellers spends time refining his food offer to help drive in-store traffic. "I€™ve had people buy gas and never come into the store. I have to do what I can to get people inside."
Peto keeps things interesting by expanding the menu. "We€™re always jacking around with food to make something new the customer will like. We€™ve tried frying everything under the sun. Our boudin is used to stuff chickens or peppers. We barbecue on Sundays now; we alternate pork steak and chicken. It€™s a hit, people love it after church," he said.
He has experimented with crawfish and cornbread boudin, and customers responded positively. "Some of these things happen by accident. We€™re always doing something new. Some ideas don€™t work out, but a lot do," Sellers said, smiling.
Al Hebert, the Gas Station Gourmet, explores America€™s hidden culinary treasure-gas station cuisine. Hebert shares these stories and a recipe or two at GasStationGourmet.com.