Editor's Letter: Bone Deep

Back in October, during the NACS Show, CSP held its annual Retail Leader of the Year event, this time honoring Sam L. Susser of Susser Holdings Corp. We celebrated Susser for his leadership in bringing the company from a largely wholesale-fueling business to the 630-store Stripes chain, pioneering the Laredo Taco Company and an industry-rattling MLP.

During the course of the evening, we learned that the Susser legacy began with an inheritance, when Sam L.’s great-grandparents died and left his then-young grandmother an orphan with two gas stations.

It floored me that two generations ago the company that’s changing the face of convenience retailing consisted of just two modest filling stations, captured for the audience in a fuzzy black-and-white photo. That picture also triggered something personal, reminding me that my own connection to this industry began well before joining CSP 6 years ago.

Despite what I do on a daily basis, I often forget that I have c-stores in my blood. My family once owned and operated a handful of filling stations in Milwaukee. My great-grandfather Ben started the business with his brother Ed, and the stations stayed in the family until my dad was a young man. (Ben was a machine gunner in WWI, and there’s a great family story about Al Capone’s men rolling up to one of the stations in the hopes of recruiting him. He very respectfully declined.)

Most of my dad’s memories come from the station at 9th and Lincoln, which featured a pagoda-style canopy that was in fashion at the time. He and his siblings grew up in the apartment above the station until the family sold the station and moved in 1957. He recalls there was also an old radiator repair shop tucked behind the building—likely so vivid in his memory, he admits, because of the nudie calendars hanging on the walls.

After the station was sold, my grandfather went on to be the auditor for Martin Oil, and my dad was a “pump jockey” and manager at the other stores well into his teens. Today a SuperAmerica station stands at 9th and Lincoln. “I always thought that was pretty cool, kind of a good karma thing,” says my dad, a true teenager of the 1960s.

As I sat through the ceremony honoring Sam L. Susser and saw that faded photograph of the fi rst Susser store, I was flooded with these memories. Sam L. didn’t intend to take over the family business. At the start of college he was on the path to becoming a golf pro, and by the time his dad and uncle called him back home to help out, he was on Wall Street. Eventually he went back to a business that had been in his blood all along.

Whenever I pull out these pictures of Ben’s Filling Station, I marvel at a moment in time that seems so very far away, yet feels so familiar. I imagine three generations of Bens inspecting the forecourt, chatting with customers and vendors, considering new revenue streams such as selling products inside the store.

We all have histories deep within our bones, a cultural imprint as strong as DNA. And when the past can connect with the present, it is a magical thing.