Home away from home

| October 05, 2001

Carolyn Moon remembers traveling with her late husband, Bill, in the early 1960s, as he tried to interest truck stop owners in the future.

Bill Moon, in charge of Amoco’s truck stops across seven states, knew times were changing. Limited-access highways were being built, and Amoco, like other fuel companies, realized it would have to build fewer and bigger truck stops, providing more services at a single location than had been the norm on the two-lanes. Moon’s task was to talk mom-and-pop truck stops into moving closer to these newfangled interstates.

His arguments sometimes fell on deaf ears, particularly among the folks who just wanted to keep operating “the old, first-generation truck stop, where the husband ran the register and the wife changed the bedding,” Carolyn Moon says. One owner told Bill, “Well, if you don’t build out on the new road, people will have to come into town here, won’t they?”

“A lot of people were very slow on that,” Moon says. “The ones who made the move to the new roads were the true visionaries.”

Bill Moon believed so much in the modern interstate truck stop that he decided to run one himself. Today the Moons’ Iowa 80 in Walcott, home of the Walcott Truckers’ Jamboree, is one of the country’s premier truck stops, and Iowa 80 Chairman Carolyn Moon, like so many successful truck stop owners, is living the future that her husband envisioned.

According to the National Association of Travel Plazas & Truckstops, or NATSO, the typical truck stop employs 85 people, has annual sales of $7.8 million and pumps a million gallons of diesel a month. Sixty percent of NATSO members are chain facilities, up from 40 percent in 1994.

Today’s mall-like travel plazas are a far cry from the humble truck stop norm of yesteryear, says Richard Myers, minority leader in the Iowa House of Representatives, who owned the Hawk I Truck Stop outside Iowa City for more than 30 years. “Truck stops used to be real greasy spoons – dirty, disreputable places,” Myers says.

The interstate highway system, most of which was built in the 1960s and 1970s, changed truck stops forever, he says. The founding of NATSO in 1960 also helped change truck stops for the better, as did Overdrive, in its incessant railing against the worst truck stops, Myers says.

Services undreamed of 40 years ago, such as ATMs and fax machines, electronic load boards, Internet service and automated truck washes, are now common. Traditional services such as food, fuel and lodging have taken on sophisticated new forms: fast-food franchises, delis and food courts; fleet cards and automated payments; full-service hotels with Jacuzzis and weight rooms. Some truck stops offer movie theaters, medical clinics and country music nightclubs. And only 60 percent of truck stop restaurants still have Truckers Only sections, as RVers and four-wheelers have become important customers at the businesses increasingly known as travel plazas.

“There’s not a truck stop chain out there today that doesn’t go after the automobile travelers’ business. You just have to,” says Fred Jubitz, president of the newly renamed Jubitz Travel Center in Portland, Ore., who points out that millions of Americans, not just truckers, now drive long distances regularly. “Truckers are still the core, but if you’re not attracting automobile business, you’re not going to stay in business.”

Bo and Janet Gifford of Fowler, Kan., who hit the road as owner-operators 17 years ago, have seen a lot of changes in truck stops and are glad of them. “When we got started,” Bo Gifford says, “most of the truck stops were kind of – well, I won’t say unsavory, but certainly not the family-oriented places like the travel plazas we have today. They were places that catered to the guy who just wanted a cup of coffee and a hooker and otherwise wanted to be left alone. Today, they’re doing a good job of self-policing. They’ve cleaned up their act.” Weekly church services and on-site chaplains, increasingly common at truck stops, have been “a definite plus for the industry,” Gifford says.

Women truckers and husband-wife teams have been good for truck stops, Moon says. “There were no women to begin with. When they did come in, the women were far more critical of cleanliness, food quality and safety. That’s been one of the things that helped update the trucker image and the truck stop image.” The results at truck stops nationwide include floodlights in the parking lot, 24-hour safety patrols and first-rate restaurants, Moon says.

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