Truckers aren't the only businesses suffering from horrendous hikes in fuel prices. Independent truckstops are being hard hit by escalating diesel prices and many have been forced to either close their doors or pushed beyond the ability to do business as usual.
On a recent trip through Tennessee, Georgia, Florida, North Carolina, and South Carolina, Tom Stanford, Heavy Duty Trucking's resident truckstop expert, observed a number of recent truckstop "closures:" truckstops that are open without selling diesel fuel. Stanford observed no less than three in each state he visited and as many as seven in Georgia.
"Being open without diesel has never been a business model for truckstops," Stanford says. "In my many years of observing and reporting about truckstops, I have never witnessed what is happening now."
Independent truckstops, as a group, have been "at bat" with two strikes against them for most of this decade.
Strike One: they are paying much higher prices for fuel than the multi-billion dollar truckstop chains.
Strike Two: The independents are paying fuel purchase transaction fees to ComData, and others, at a percentage of the fuel price while the large chains pay a negotiated flat fee. Fees to the mega truckstop chains can be as much as 10 cents a gallon less than an independent.
Now, many independents have struck out due to escalating fuel prices and reduced credit lines which hit them simultaneously.
Truckers are all aware of the pain of paying $1,000 plus to fill a truck's tanks. It's nothing compared to what independent truckstops face to fill their tanks.
At the 49er Truck Plaza in Sacramento California, a load of diesel fuel (7,500 gallons) in January '05 cost about $10,000. Today, that same load of fuel is $33,000. That is just the raw fuel cost, not including the approximately 80 cents a gallon freight cost and taxes.
Fortunately, the 49er is well run and well financed. However, many of the truckstops in the U.S. do not have the management skills, the financial stability and the geographic location to compete in this super competitive market place.
In late June, the Buckeye Lake Truck Stop, a local institution for more than 35 years in Buckeye Lake, Ohio, closed its doors. The garage will remain open, but all other services, including fuel sales, were shut down.
"You just can't make money at this any more, that's all," Charlie Moore, manager, told the Buckeye Lake Beacon. He said many factors contributed to the closure, not the least of which are soaring fuel prices and a recent smoking ban. Everything hit him at once.
Moore's career began at the Sunset Truck Stop on US 40 near Zanesville at Mt. Sterling Hill. When I-70 was built in 1973, Moore moved his operation to Buckeye Lake, where there was very little competition at the time.
That changed as major truckstops bloomed at the I-70 and Ohio 37 intersection little more than a mile to the west. Buckeye Lake Truck Stop, however, was able to persevere against the daunting competition of major chains, primarily because of exceptional personal service to customers.
Why does the closure of these small, independent truckstops matter? Because the trucker is the big loser. The small independent truckstops (and some nice big ones also) still provide many "home-cooked" meals, friendly and caring employees, individual customer attention and a deserved break from "look-a-like" fueling chains that only meet the trucker's basic needs.
Buckeye Lake Truck Stop was noted for its extraordinary service to truckers. Susan Miller, a 14-year employee at the truckstop said Moore would often volunteer fuel and mechanical repairs to truckers to get them back on the road. "We'll never turn anyone away. We try to help them out," she said.
There's already a huge shortage of truck parking spaces nationwide. The loss of these independent truckstops will make the already tough life on the road for long-haul truck drivers even more difficult.
E-mail Deb Whistler at [email protected], or write P.O. Box W, Newport Beach, CA 92658.