New Berlin, Wis.--Chances are that your average working mom in this pleasant, upper-middle-class suburb doesn't spend much time hanging out in bistros or martini bars. But thanks to the inviting, casually elegant decor of the Open Pantry convenience store here, she can sample that sort of ambiance each time she darts in to buy a gallon of milk, a cup of coffee or a candy bar.
The store, which opened early this year and has become a prototype for the chain, features a streamlined, Frank Lloyd Wright-inspired red brick exterior. Inside teal blue eaves provide an appealing complement to walls that are sponge painted in warm shades of blue, orange, yellow and green. The expansive coffee bar boasts real wood cabinetry; the flooring is slate. The piece de resistance is a striking stone fireplace surrounded by red leather armchairs and wooden tables and chairs. The store has a wi-fi connection and two computer terminals that allow for easy, complimentary Internet access.
Call it the coffee house of convenience stores. It's all part of a bold retailing experiment launched by Pleasant Prairie, Wis.-based Open Pantry Food Marts, a privately held company with 33 corporately owned stores and four franchise stores. Open Pantry was founded in 1966, and for most of its history operated in traditional c-store mode, supplying residents of Southeastern Wisconsin with the convenience-store staples of beer, cigarettes and snacks.
A couple of years ago, however, Open Pantry president, Robert Buhler, who had acquired the business from his father in 1996, decided that the time had come to try something different. Enter convenience retailing veteran Jim Fiene, who had spent 17 years with Louisville, Ky.-based Thornton Oil Co. and joined the Open Pantry team in 2003 as senior vice president of sales and operations.
A new vision
"When I came on board with Open Pantry, it really was a fresh slate," says Fiene. "So Robert and I spent a lot of time together (some of it in upscale …