The Saratoga Sun -

Conoco a go-go

The Country Store celebrates 30 years in business with The Patti Fiasco band, dancing, food, drinks and more

 


The Country Store in Saratoga celebrated its 30th anniversary in business over the weekend with a party for customers, free food, free giveaways and a lot of other fun. The business itself, and person that runs it, is a testament to the vibrant community of Saratoga and the Valley in general, and another indicator of how the town draws people back year after year.

The owner, Kathleen Martin, is a fifth-generation Valley resident. For years, her family owned a ranch near Cow Creek, but after her grandfather died and her dad returned home from college to take over the family ranch. Eventually he sold because of an increasing sensitivity to hay fever and allergies. He and his family moved into town and looked to build businesses.

“When he bought it, it was a red and white cinderblock building,” Martin said. “It was branded as a Diamond Shamrock and had some pop, candy and motor oil for sale inside.”

Inside was also a lift used by mechanics for service. Martin, whose dad let her start to run the station when she was still a teen in the mid-70s, used to have her friends from school come over the shop and she’d let them ride the lift. The fun continued until the compressor that ran it burned out.

“The lift is still there,” Martin explained. “It’s under the candy aisle.”

Martin eventually left for college, where she studied business in 1976. After school, she worked in Denver and Los Angeles for a while before she decided to return home to her Valley, as she put it.

Newly married, she and her husband were considering moving to Missouri, the home state of her husband. But Martin’s mother hatched a scheme to keep her daughter close: she pressed Martin’s dad to sell the couple the Country Store, as it had come to be known.

In her absence, her father had leased out the building to Dick Foster of Laramie, who owned another convenience store there which was also called the Country Store. “That’s how the Country Store got its name,” Martin said.

Martin bought and took over the business in 1987. The problem was like many other businesses, the gas station market had changed drastically since her days of running the Diamond Shamrock and giving lift rides to her friends. By the mid-80s, most gas station profits weren’t being made by selling gasoline, diesel, motor oil, fuses and occasional tuneups. The bulk of the money was being made selling snacks, drinks and higher margin convenience items.

The business, again like many others in the 80s, had been invaded by corporate conglomerates that, thanks to volume sales discounts, could afford to sell items at a profit than many small mom-and-pop shops could buy them wholesale.

“I had a business degree, but I didn’t know what I was doing,” Martin said of the time when she took over the Country Store. She hired a consultant from Salt Lake City. “He told us we just needed to copy 7-11,” Martin said. The corporate convenience store giant Southland Corporation had opened a 7-11 across the street, in the building now occupied by Kum & Go.

“So, I went over there all the time and just spied on them,” Martin said. She also used to pace back and forth at night in her home—from which she could see the 7-11—and would take notes on the number of cars in their parking lot versus the numbers in her own store’s lot, trying to find patterns in traffic.

Her early attempts at business intelligence worked. Today, the Country Store is still in business and is a staple of locals and tourists alike. 7-11 is gone.

But it was still a tough slog. New regulations on underground fuel tanks came out and those above a certain age had to be replaced. The Country Store’s tanks were too old and had to go. But the cost to replace them was more than she had paid for the business, Martin said.

“That’s what killed a lot of mom-and-pop gas stations and convenience stores,” she said. Fortunately, Rawlins National Bank had faith in Martin and her business plan and made the funds needed available to her so she could replace the old tanks.

Martin also does a lot of other things differently than her corporate competitors, saying her goal is to pay her workers as much as she can afford. Treating her employees well is important, she said, along with the idea of just having fun and working together as a team.

Being a part of the community is also important, as her store is more than just a convenience store for tourists passing through; for community members, it’s a place where regulars often go to meet, hang out and discuss the business of the day.

Catering to those customers is what sets her store apart, Martin said. Early on, she seized on the importance of community groups and started coffee clubs, with members receiving ceramic mugs.

“I learn a lot listening to the groups that come in and chat,” Martin said.

Ultimately, the Country Store’s 30 years of success might have been unexpected in the face of massive changes to the industry, corporate juggernauts rolling in to take over markets and well-intentioned regulations that place undue burdens on small-business owners. But it persisted, and a big factor in that is the community in which it’s located, Martin said.

“It’s all been about the people of the Platte Valley,” she said. “Tourists are great, but being a native of the Valley, people here supported me through tough times and kept me sane.

“And they’re my friends,” she said, voice cracking with emotion.

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