TORONTO, Ont. - When you're living the life of a trucker, often hauling as much as 53-ft. of trailer in your wake, pulling into a narrow drive-thru for a quick bite isn't exactly an option. In fact, m...
MMM MMM...GOOD: The Mountain City Skillet is one of the many signature items truckers can find at TravelCenters of America's restaurants.
TORONTO, Ont. – When you’re living the life of a trucker, often hauling as much as 53-ft. of trailer in your wake, pulling into a narrow drive-thru for a quick bite isn’t exactly an option. In fact, most restaurants that are easily accessible for the average four-wheeler are all but off limits for most truck drivers. As a result, truckers find themselves mainly bound to truck stops to find their daily sustenance.
It’s a story that Ben Moore, a driver for Bender’s Transport in Moose Jaw, Sask., knows all too well.
“We eat at truck stops because we can park the truck. It’s convenient and that’s the only thing keeping them alive,” he said. “I find more and more the truck stops gouge the truckers. Paying $10.99 for a chicken caesar salad just isn’t reasonable.”
At home, Moore is a master of the soil, growing his own food and raising his own cows, pigs and chickens for butchering. But this trucker with an aptitude for agriculture doesn’t enjoy the same luxury on the road as he does at home.
“On the road, I eat crap ’cause there’s no place for a trucker to go and eat a decent meal.”
Sadly, Moore said, he’d rather eat at a McDonald’s than most truck stops, even though he’s been watching his weight over the past year.
“For the most part, I try to stay to vegetation. All that other stuff is going to kill us eventually,” he said. “Trucking hasn’t done much for my girlish figure. You don’t get much exercise doing long-haul driving.”
David Good, a driver with TST Expedited Services out of Windsor, Ont, spins a similar tale to Moore.
When the 17-year veteran was asked if he had a favourite stop to eat on the road, he thought for awhile but couldn’t come up with one.
“You find it’s basically all the same,” he said. “Usually you just stop whenever you’re hungry. If that’s the only place there, you really don’t have much of a choice.”
Having more menu items to choose from seems to be something truckers across the board are looking for more of. But since big rigs have limited places to park, branching out beyond truck stops isn’t usually an option.
“I wish places to eat had more variety and stopped taking advantage of being the only show in town for the big rigs,” Good said.
TravelCenters of America, a major rest stop chain with 136 company-owned, company-operated locations found in the U.S. and one in Woodstock, Ont., heard this complaint – and listened. The chain, whose dining locations include the Buckhorn, Country Pride and Fork in the Road restaurants, decided to put together a focus group to find out what customers were looking for. While initiating a focus group is a typical marketing strategy for most restaurant chains, TA took it to the next level by heading straight to the source: the truckers themselves.
“The people we were interested in talking to were those who worked for fleets and independent contract drivers,” said Paul Huckleberry, vice-president of restaurant marketing for TA. “What I really tried to do with this organization is make people realize that you’ve got to stop thinking of our customers as truck drivers. You’ve got to think of them as people who use restaurants just like everybody else.”
After doing a screener, where the company seeks out the kind of people they’re looking to talk to, it compiled a group of about 600 people, mostly truck drivers, to give feedback on new menu items for the restaurant. And the focus group members had plenty to say.
“I think the one really defining difference between our customers and other customers, really lies in the frequency in which they use our restaurants. These are people on the road three, four, five days a week which means if they’re using TA, they’re using our restaurant three, four, five days a week,” Huckleberry said. “So one of the big opportunities that we saw as a result of that kind of learning by listening directly to the drivers was ‘Good God, you’ve got to give us more variety.'”
As a result, TA’s core menu expanded to include products that can only be found at TA, like its Mountain City Skillet and Chipolte Bacon Steak Burger.
“We wanted to make sure that our common staple products were as good as they can be, if not better than the competition,” he said.
But not only did they give more choices on their standard menu, they also initiated new regional menus to suit the location of each rest stop.
“To provide variety, we decided to regionalize the country and create products that were signature to that region. The regional component can also be varied as often as we want,” he said.
The continent was divided up into five regions: the Northeast, South, Midwest, Southwest and Northwest. Items like Maine Blueberry Pancakes in the Northeast and Fried Catfish Fillet and Hushpuppies in the South are included on the new regional menus.
According to Huckleberry, so far the feedback has been just what TA had hoped for.
“I want you to write the words ‘W-O-W-exclamation point-exclamation point’ in big letters,” he said with a laugh. “It’s been phenomenal. We’re just getting wave after wave of sweeping positive reviews. Interestingly enough, not just great customer feedback, we’re also getting unsolicited positive feedback from a lot of our team members.”
But all that positive feedback from customers and staff still couldn’t beat hearing it from his own family.
“The thing that is most significant for me is my six-year-old and my 11-year-old who sat at dinner last night and said, ‘Dad, I think Country Pride Restaurant is the best restaurant I’ve ever eaten at.'”
Ultimately, Huckleberry hopes that TA’s new menu will satisfy the needs of road-weary truckers like Moore and Good, and have them come back again and again without getting sick of the same old thing.
“I think that in this business, you need to give people what they’re looking for or sooner or later somebody’s going to take that customer away from you,” he said.
And though the company has been focusing on trying to create a great experience in all aspects of business at TA, Huckleberry hopes that the restaurant will be able to touch people the most.
“I want people to walk in and I want them to feel like this is the next best thing to being at home. How better off to do that, then to give them food that makes them happy. I think that’s really the name of the game in the restaurant business, is to make people feel special with the way you talk to them and treat them and then serve them food that they can’t get anywhere else.”