Kelly Rhinehart, as co-owner and founder of Roady’s, spends time every day pondering where the trucking industry and his truck stops are headed, both in the near future and for the next generation. That encompasses everything from reconsidering restaurant layouts, to changes in freight delivery patterns, to how to handle trucks that run on electricity, and the potential impact of driverless trucks.

But while devoting some time to plan 10 or 20 years ahead will certainly pay off for those who get it right, truck stop operators first have to tend to today and the next quarter. Surprisingly, in these digital and connected days with new apps for everything, the trend in truck stops is decidedly retro. 

A personal touch, it seems, is more important than technology when it comes to keeping truck drivers happy—although technology certainly plays an important role.

“We’re purposefully trying to be what drivers used to like about truck stops. And what they like is old school truck stops,” Rhinehart says. “They like the independence of being in Louisiana and having a ‘gator burger,’ but they also like to go up to Seattle and have the local coffee cake. They’re stopping in truck stops 2.1 times a day, and if it’s the same thing over and over, life gets pretty tedious.”

So for Roady’s locations, about 350 from coast to coast, managers feature the same 88% of offerings as the other stores, but they’re also directed to make that remaining 12% uniquely their own—“what sets you apart.”

“There is no opportunity to be less than world class in service,” he says. “That’s an absolute must.” 

And that refocus on the customer is one of the positives that came out of the recession and trucking downturn from 2008-2010.

“We’re embracing the truck stop. 'Travel centers,' 'travel plazas,' that was all a hot button for several years. What we do recognize today is truck drivers are way more professional. That’s not their carriage or demeanor, but what’s expected by their employers is way different than it used to be,” Rhinehart explains. “Their time demands keep getting increased with all of the administrative things they have to stay on top of. They have computers on board and electronic logs. 

“They don’t have to come into the truck stops to use the phones or rent a computer or even to use WiFi,” he continues. “There are lots of different opportunities for them to be connected with their families, their banks, everything. So we need to meet them where we are.”

Rhinehart tells of a restaurant remodel whose business went down with the upgrade. Turns out, removing counter seats and adding booths wasn’t what truck drivers wanted. 

“It makes you a better driver when you’re talking to a buddy, finding out what he’s doing and telling him what you’re doing,” he continues. “It makes the industry stronger, and those relationships can last.”

Roady’s routinely does parking lot surveys, and they’ve found that a lot of drivers never set foot inside the stores. 

“They get their fuel and they go to the parking lot. But we want those guys,” Rhinehart says. “How can we meet their needs?”

As a result, Roady’s has put employees in the parking lots trying everything from cleaning headlights to delivering a soda and a candy bar.