Home away from home

| October 05, 2001

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.”

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