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.

Thirty years ago, the Iowa 80 was already a thriving mini-city amid farmland and a welcome sight for weary truckers.

Gifford recalls parking lots so poorly maintained that trucks “used to get lost in the potholes.” Since the owner often had an interest in the local tow truck business, he had little incentive to fill the holes, Gifford says. He believes young truckers today take an abundance of good truck stops for granted. “Wherever they go, they know there’s a truck stop out there.” Older truckers, though, know what it’s like to spend the night in the cab at an inner-city loading dock because there was no other option, Gifford says.

The very interstates that brought business to truck stops also attracted chain restaurants and motels, so that a trucker today who’s tired and hungry has a lot more choices than he had 40 years ago, Myers says. Truckers are not only more sophisticated drivers but also more sophisticated consumers, he says.

Moon recalls that pay phones were big moneymakers for the Iowa 80 before cell phones came along. Other technological innovations, though, have helped truck stops save money. “Our point of sale is all automated, our telephone system is all automated,” Moon says. In the beginning the only credit card the Iowa 80 accepted was Amoco’s, and the card invoices took several days to process. Now the Iowa 80 accepts more than 30 different cards, including bank, fleet and fuel-company cards, and each transaction is processed electronically and instantly.

Some of the technological innovations that have transformed trucking in the past 40 years were implemented by truck stop operators, who were uniquely placed to see what truckers needed day in and day out. Bill Moon, seeing drivers’ frustration with old coin-operated scales that couldn’t weigh truck and trailer together, founded CAT Scales. The Jubitz family, recognizing that thumbtacked announcements on a corkboard weren’t sufficient anymore, founded the first electronic load posting service, DAT Services. “Our generation grew up in the industry’s infancy, when there are a lot of opportunities if you’re looking for them,” Jubitz says.

Gifford credits the growth of truck stop chains such as TA, Petro and Flying J for helping standardize gas and food prices and the quality of accommodations. “The chains have helped put a stop to a lot of the fuel gouging that some truck stops used to do,” Gifford says. Alleged fuel-price gouging at truck stops was a major issue, for example, in the trucker strikes of 1973-1974. “For years they got away with it because truckers didn’t have a choice, but now they do,” Gifford says.

Nor does he miss the increasingly rare Truckers Only signs at today’s travel plazas. “It’s good to see the interaction between the four-wheelers and the 18-wheelers,” Gifford says. “It’s good for the industry, and it’s good for safety on the road. People understand each other better.”

Even relations among truckers are better at today’s modern truck stops, Gifford says. “There were some truck stops, even in the ’80s, if you were black, you just didn’t go into them. And if you were a bedbugger, you didn’t walk into a flatbedders’ truck stop, either, or vice versa. You weren’t exactly taking your life into your hands, but if you needed help you sure didn’t get it.” Today’s truck stops are a lot less tense, and truckers get along better because the accommodations are much improved and more widely available, Gifford says. “With more decent places and more secure places to park during a long layover, they don’t have to be on edge and hide knives in their boots.”

The truck stop industry is in the midst of its second great wave of modernization, Myers says. The first came in the 1960s, when entrepreneurs such as Bill Moon “brought in showers and good restaurants and better ways of doing business.” The second wave is the advent of the giant travel plaza, and as with the previous wave, Myers says, “the people who don’t modernize are gone.”

In the late 1990s he drew up plans to raze the Hawk I and build a large new truck stop because “I could no longer compete.” But the city wanted the land for a convention center, so “I took the money and got out,” Myers says. He doesn’t blame other longtime truck stop operators for doing the same, especially since land at an interstate exit that originally cost $2,000 an acre might today be worth $400,000 an acre. No wonder truck stop operators faced with shrinking fuel margins and increasing expenses ponder uses for the land other than “letting trucks park on it for free,” Myers says.

Truck stops remain a people business, Myers says. “That’s what I miss, the people. I made a lot of friends among some of the best people in the world – long-haul truck drivers.” It was great to go into the restaurant day or night and visit with regulars whose parents had been regulars years before, Myers says.

Fred Jubitz personally answers each of the 300-plus comment cards he receives from truckers each month. Once a month he goes through the travel center finding truckers who are willing to sit down to a free breakfast and tell him their ideas. “Drivers will tell you what they’re thinking, believe me,” Jubitz says. “And that’s great, because that’s always been our thing, trying to enhance the niche, add to the services we provide.”

For Carolyn Moon, as for her late husband Bill, a truck stop will never be merely a moneymaker. “We really try to be a home away from home, especially for truckers, because it can be a lonely life sometimes,” she says. “People come in who are hungry, and we feed them. People come in who need help, and we help them. People come in who are tired, and they have a place to stay. People come in who are lonely, and we talk to them and are nice to them. Truck stops are just a necessary industry. We do a lot of good.”

The Pure chain played a major role in truck stop evolution.

Pure and simple: Build a better mouse trap — By Guy Kudlemyer

Remember the old Pure sign? For thousands of truckers in the ’50s and ’60s, to find satisfactory truck stop accommodations meant to “Be Sure With PURE.”

Under the leadership of Jerry Sanner, the Pure chain played a major role in raising the truck stop from a mere 24-hour restaurant with a lot of parking to a gleaming drivers’ palace. “Sometimes I have been criticized for making things too plush or fancy,” Sanner wrote, “But these critics have had to eat their words every time.”

By Overdrive’s inaugural year of 1961, Pure Oil operated more than a tenth of the nearly 2,000 truck stops in the United States. Pure’s advertisements of the early ’60s spoke of “The best cup of coffee on the road: PURE’s Blue Ribbon cup of coffee”; “Delicious meals fit for a king”; “air conditioned roomettes”; and services that included barbershops, truckers’ stores and linoleum-tiled lounges.

Pure merged with Union Oil in 1965. Four years later, the company announced it would drop the Pure name, renaming all its present and future truck stops as Union 76 outlets. Today, several mergers and acquisitions later, many of the old Pure locations are part of TravelCenters of America. In the 1990s the Pure brand was revived for a chain of Southeastern gas stations, but the Pure truck stop is only a memory.

Guy Kudlemyer of Thurston, Ore., is an expert in “petroliana.”

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