Never count 'em out

| November 01, 2007

By Randy Grider
Editor
rgrider@rrpub.com

In the October 1979 edition of Truckers News, there was a story about the impact deregulation might have on truckstop owners. The article quoted an independent truckstop manager who felt deregulation would force many independent truckers out of business. The chain reaction would lead to the death of many small independent truckstops, whose owners relied on independent truckers as the “bread and butter” of their business.

The fear was that carrier consolidation would leave just a handful of fleets controlling the industry. These mega-fleets would set up their own fueling terminals or enter into exclusive agreements with large chain truckstops, signaling the death knell for independents.

Fast-forward to today. The pros and cons of deregulation are still being debated, but both independent truckers and truckstops are still around. Of course, in the hindsight game it’s totally unfair to paint late 1970s truckstop owners as Chicken Littles. Back then, deregulation was a scary monster about to emerge from the closet.

Researching for the 30th anniversary issue of Truckers News, I’ve found that the demise of different groups, including that of the independent truckstop owner, has been a regular theme over the years. But the passing of time proves that perception and reality are often at odds.

I had a great conversation with DuWayne Bridges, owner of Bridges Travel Plaza in Cusseta, Ala., when I was writing the story on the evolution of truckstops for this month’s special issue. The 61-year-old Bridges, who has been in business for 30 years, spoke at length about the struggles of being an independent truckstop owner.

The biggest change of the past 30 years has been that, for most truckstops, fuel is no longer the top profit center. Margins are much tighter. Truckstops rely on providing other services and amenities to stay afloat.

From these economic dynamics – coupled with the unfair negative public perception of the term truckstop – the “travel plaza” has evolved. (Perlis Truckstop was the original incarnation of Bridges Travel Plaza and ran an ad in Truckers News’ first issue.) The general motoring public has become important to the bottom line.

In the case of rural establishments like Bridges’, located halfway between Atlanta and Montgomery, Ala., community support is also vital to success. Conservative values are the core of Bridges’ business philosophy.

“We don’t sell alcohol or anything risqué in our store,” Bridges says. “In choosing not to do this, there has been tremendous support of the business by the community.”

Bridges knows that community support is only part of the equation. Another is standing out from the competition. “What a lot of people don’t understand is that you’re not just competing with the guy down the street,” Bridges says. “In the truckstop business, you’re competing with the guy 500 miles away. You have to sell uniqueness.”

For Bridges, uniqueness is down-home food in a 200-plus seat, sit-down restaurant (yes, there’s also a Subway for the fast-food lover) and Bridges Boot Outlet and Western Store just across the street (truckers are shuttled to the store on the “bootmobile” golf cart).

For additional flair, Bridges, who is also an Alabama state representative, has added a historic marker at the truckstop that tells visitors about one of the area’s most famous early residents. Pat Garrett, the man who shot and killed Billy the Kid, was born in Cusseta.

While Bridges Travel Center may never be a tourist destination, its owner is doing all he can to make anyone who stops feel welcome. “I get a lot of truckers that tell me they passed up stopping in Atlanta to stop here,” Bridges says. “That’s a huge compliment.”

It’s true. Being an independent in the trucking industry, whether you manage a family-owned truckstop or operate your own rig, is a struggle. But Mark Twain’s famous quote, “The reports of my death have been greatly exaggerated,” well fits the spirit of independents.

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