Planning a long road trip? Now you can nibble on crudités and shop for home furnishings at a roadside service plaza while you wait for your electric vehicle to recharge.
The truck stops that keep Americans fueled, fed and refreshed along major highways are spending billions overhauling their stores to keep up with changing consumer behavior, particularly the growing popularity of electric vehicles.
Along with the addition of charging stations, these travel centers are being redesigned to accommodate longer stays, with renovated restrooms and showers, quick-serve kitchens, full-service and fast-food restaurants, and dog parks.
The changes continue to transform the modern truck stop, a slice of Americana that took off in the 1960s amid the expansion of the Interstate Highway System. Over the years, truck stops were often perceived as grimy — and occasionally seedy. But today, they are more akin to a mini-Walmart, filled with energy drinks, iced coffee, and healthy snacks like sliced fruit and veggies. Across the aisle, you’re likely to find purses and puzzles, as well as phone chargers and birdhouses.
The changes better position truck stops to serve the growing number of electric vehicles on the road, said Jim Hurless, a managing director in Dallas for CBRE, a real estate services firm.
“Truck stops are trying to get electric car owners to spend as much of that time as possible inside their stores,” he said. “So they’re trying to differentiate themselves by providing amenities that will be more appealing to that consumer.”
The popularity of electric vehicles is surging; some 577,000 were sold in the United States in the first half of 2023, a 47 percent increase from a year earlier, according to Cox Automotive. But many owners are reluctant to take long trips for fear of not finding a charger when needed, a concern known as range anxiety, said Mr. Hurless, who manages the development and advancement of CBRE’s electric vehicle business.
Exactly how the charging networks will come together remains unclear, say truck stop operators, who face numerous challenges, including growing demand, byzantine utility rules that differ from state to state and the need for sufficient power to operate fast chargers, which can provide up to 350 kilowatts versus the 1.8 to 22 kilowatts delivered by standard chargers.
Additionally, peak-demand charges from utilities pose potential surprises for operators, said Aaron Luque, chief executive of EnviroSpark, a designer and installer of electric car charging stations in Atlanta.
“Electric vehicle charging presents a unique set of challenges,” he said. “But what’s encouraging is that traditional fuel providers are coming around.”
To foster development of a cross-country charging network along major highways, Congress in 2021 passed the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act, which included $5 billion to pay for up to 80 percent of the cost of installing fast chargers. Truck stop operators and others are petitioning states for the grants, which are targeting locations along major highway interchanges that are least 50 miles apart.
Pilot, a fuel provider and travel center operator based in Knoxville, Tenn., has so far secured $9.6 million from Ohio and $2.3 million from Pennsylvania in fast-charger funding for a total of 17 locations, said Brad Jenkins, president of PFJ Energy, Pilot’s fuel supply division. The company also has teamed up with General Motors and EVgo, an owner and operator of fast-charging networks in the United States, to expand the infrastructure.
“This is such a new business that you’re not only trying to figure out who will show up, but when will they show up — will it be at a time of peak or low electrical demand?” Mr. Jenkins said. “We’re working with regulators, utilities and states and others to come up with creative solutions to make this work.”
Pilot, which operates more than 870 Pilot and Flying J locations in the United States and Canada, started a $1 billion initiative last year to remodel 400 of its travel centers and upgrade others over three years. The effort is Pilot’s largest investment in store modernization since its founding in 1958.
“We take care of 1.5 million guests per day, and we realize they all have different tastes and that their needs are changing,” said Allison Cornish, vice president of store modernization for Pilot. “We want to be a place for all travelers”
Pilot’s two biggest competitors — Love’s Travel Stops and TravelCenters of America — are also investing heavily in store overhauls. Love’s, a family-owned business in Tulsa, Okla., that was founded in 1964, has built about half of its 640-store network over the last decade and is spending $1 billion to refresh its older stock, said Shane Wharton, president of the chain. In a few cases, that means razing and reconstructing stores. The company is also opening 25 locations this year.
“From a competitive standpoint, we want a consistency of customer experience,” he said. “When our customers see the Love’s brand, they’ll know what to expect.”
Truck stops are committed to adding fast electric vehicle chargers, which means travelers will need a place to hang out for around 30 minutes or longer while their cars charge, said Mr. Hurless, the CBRE executive.
But travel center operators hope to have perfected a pleasant dwell-time experience regardless of the car or truck their customers drive.
“If you’re filling up with gas or diesel, it might take three to five minutes, but charging electric vehicles today might be 30 minutes,” said Mr. Wharton, who expects to receive state grants soon. “By providing those products and services, whether it’s food, Wi-Fi, a dog park or a shower, we think we’re positioned well when compared to a charger in the middle of a parking lot of some big-box retailer.”
The evolution of the travel center parallels trends in the convenience store industry, which has experienced a jump in traffic amid enhanced fresh food, baked goods and coffee options over the past few years. Foot traffic at convenience stores last year was 15.9 percent higher than it was in 2019, outpacing grocery stores, fast food chains, coffee chains, conventional gas stations and other related retail categories, according to Placer.ai, an analytics firm that tracks customer traffic.
The changes at truck stops are attracting investors. Early this year, Warren E. Buffett’s Berkshire Hathaway paid $8.2 billion to increase its ownership of Pilot to 80 percent from 38.6 percent. And the British energy giant BP completed its $1.3 billion acquisition of TravelCenters of America in May.
BP is investing $1 billion in electric vehicle chargers across its U.S. retail businesses, which include Amoco and Thorntons, said Greg Franks, BP’s senior vice president of mobility and convenience for the Americas. The overhaul of travel centers along with the creation of an e-commerce platform is aimed, in part, at strengthening its appeal to passenger traffic, he added.
“We’ve been very clear that our ambition in the U.S. is to grow,” Mr. Franks said.
Truck stops provide billions of gallons of fuel to the market each year, so the addition of electric vehicle chargers is a major transformation for the business. But like natural gas, hydrogen and other alternative fuels that travel centers offer, they’re a new opportunity, said David Fialkov, executive vice president of government affairs at the National Association of Truck Stop Operators, a trade association.
“Truck stops don’t care what type of fuel people put into their cars, just like they don’t care whether people buy Coke or Pepsi or coffee or cake in their stores,” he said. “But they need to be able to make money selling electricity in the same way they do selling gas to build an ongoing, sustainable market.”