By Al Hebert
Folks around West Texas laughed when Bill Polk bought the small store across the street from a high volume national chain convenience store. There seemed no way for the little retail location to be successful against that level of competition. But Polk, a former marine, simply continued his advance.
Thirty years later, the Czech Stop is a busy convenience store with 105 employees. And the fierce competition? It shut its doors about two decades ago.
Barbara Schissler was the sole employee in 1983. At that time, the store’s food selection included a sausage kolache and a handful of fruit and poppy seed pastries. Today, Schissler is president and CEO and the store sells more than 100,000 meat and fruit kolaches each week along with sandwiches, breads and pies.
"We worked hard, and many nights Bill put a pillow on a big shelf in the back and slept there. Back then we’d close at 11 pm and by the time we’d close it seemed it was time to open up again. We soon began to stay open 24 hours and haven’t locked the doors since," said Schissler.
The volume of customers is impressive considering the only advertising done by Czech Stop is two billboards —one in the northbound lane and one in the southbound lane of I-35, which runs between Dallas and San Antonio.
To keep traffic at the pumps moving, a parking lot across the street was purchased to handle the overflow of store customers. "We added more restrooms because people were waiting to go, then they were waiting to be served. Lines were long and their car was outside and that made things congested, so we made adjustments to ensure the customer has a good experience."
Part of that good experience derives from kolaches, a Czech pastry made of yeast dough filled with sausage, ham, cheese or fruit. The pastries are easy to ideas to go eat on the go and popular in this region of the Lone Star State where many residents are descendants of Czechoslovakians who immigrated here in the 19th century.
Schissler admitted, "You can get what we sell in other places in town, but our [kolaches] are the best. I tell employees, 'We’re selling the same food, but people stop here because of our service and the food.’"
Fresh ideas are as important as fresh food. "Through the years customers have suggested things like adding sauerkraut or cream cheese or spicy things like jalapeno [to the kolaches]. We found what people wanted to buy and stuck with it," said Schissler.
"We’re a mom and pop, so we can try new things," she continued. "If it sells we keep it, if not we stop." Once Schissler stopped in a nearby convenience store and found it served a peanut butter and jelly sandwich, which the clerk said sold like crazy. The Czech Stop introduced a PB&J on Memorial Day Weekend when there would be an influx of young people. "I had a special bread made and it was a good-looking sandwich," said Schissler, "We tried it. It didn’t sell so we stopped selling it after three weeks."
Even though some products haven’t met expectations, employees are encouraged to come up with ideas —and many end up as good sellers. Things like the chocolate-covered snickerdoodles and Czech Stop Jelly were staff suggestions. "We were discarding the leftover juice from the fruit filling we prepare and a staff member suggested we make jelly," said Schissler. It turned out to be a cost-effective addition to the inventory.
"People are surprised when they find how many people we employ," Schissler said. "We have three shifts in the front and back. Our production staff bakes 24 hours a day so the product comes out warm for the customers no matter what time they come in," she said, adding, "We’ve always baked our own bread and even caterers buy it."
Czech Stop employees work hard, and employees working the counter often don’t get a break. Long before lunch, the parking lot is full and lines form inside the store. By 10 am, the rush is on. A lot is expected of the employees, but they are paid well with perks including covered parking —a huge nicety when the intense triple-digit Texas heat turns car interiors into ovens.
"The staff has to smile, show some personality and have fun with the customers. The customer comes first. If one customer is waiting, that’s a line," said Schissler, who runs a tight ship.
These days, Bill Polk has scaled back his role and is enjoying the fruit of his years of labor, and Schissler is still on the lookout for new products for the customers. "We’re working on a pulled-pork kolache, we just have to find the right blend of meat for it to work."
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.