At Innsbrook's Marketcafé, diners fill up on everything from wraps and paninis to Texaco Power Plus.
The new Marketcafé on Nuckols Road in Innsbrook looks like your typical, late-'90s upscale restaurant. The sand-colored brick facade is accented with glass-block clerestory windows, striped awnings and a standing-seam metal roof colored forest green. The slate patio is dotted with round tables sporting umbrellas in the same tasteful color. Late-model Acuras and SUVs fill the parking lot. During lunch hour, stressed-out executives, cube dwellers and construction worker from surrounding subdivisions wolf down smoothies, wraps and Caesar salads. But there's one big difference between this establishment and other restaurants the gas pumps.
That's right, in addition to filling your stomach with panini and microbrews, here at the Marketcafé the Texaco Marketcafé you can fill up your car with gas. Open since July 3, it is quickly becoming the social hub of the sprawling Innsbrook area. As strange as the pairing of an upscale convenience store, gourmet bistro and gas pumps may seem, from all appearances, the concept appears to be working. On a recent Thursday at about noon, nearly all of its 220 seats were filled with worker bees scarfing down their lunch. On Wednesday evenings, before and after the Innsbrook After Hours concerts, yuppies congregate on the patio with baskets of peel 'n' eat shrimp and buckets of long-neck beers.
The first of its kind in the country, the Marketcafé is the prototype for a new kind of gas station, one where the emphasis is on the food and other upscale amenities, and the attached gas pumps and car wash are just added conveniences. Of course, owner Roy Van Doorn prefers to call it a "refueling" station, further enhancing the hyperupscale image.
It's a place for the well-educated, upper middle-class customer who expects and demands the best: a walk-in beer cooler with more than 150 microbrewed and imported beers; carefully chosen wines from Virginia and abroad; pints of Ben & Jerry's ice cream; Ghiradelli chocolates.
Of course, you can still buy pork rinds, condoms and scouring pads, only here they are neatly displayed on attractive blonde-wood shelves. "When we looked at our design, we asked, 'What do convenience stores do?'" Van Doorn says. "We will absolutely do the opposite."
Van Doorn and his partner, Bill Morrow, who own the Pavilion restaurant in Lynchburg, have plotted every minute detail of the Marketcafé for the past two years, down to the container of imported French sea salt on every table. They chose Innsbrook, with its army of captive office workers and subdivision dwellers, as the site for the prototype of a concept they hope to take national.
While a restaurant inside a gas station is nothing new, the concept of a gourmet restaurant is. "We have hundreds of sites with restaurants, but they are more typically [fast food]," says Hugh Cooley, general manager for Texaco's mid-Atlantic region. "This is clearly the first, what I would call 'upscale' fast food. The niche they fit seems to be what the consumer is screaming for right now."
Cooley says he has been impressed with the success of Marketcafé and thinks it is "an example of how we want to market in the future. ... One of the bigger challenges we have in our business is to get people not to think of a quick-serve restaurant as a service station that sells food, but as a restaurant that sells gas.
Although the gas is what might initially bring customers in, it also what keeps some customers away. Jennifer Toone, a Capital One employee and a Marketcafé regular, says that she was initially reluctant to try it for just that reason. "Food and gas fumes don't really go together," she says. "But the food is so good. And even if you're outside, you don't smell the gas fumes."
Cooley sees Marketcafé as a natural step in the evolution of the gas station. "In the '30s, my grandfather owned a service station that was a country convenience store with a gas pump out front," he says. In the '80s, with the advent of self-serve gasoline, people began building gasoline-only facilities. These were successful for a while, but it wasn't long before convenience stores were added.
The Marketcafé is both an answer to and a product of today's fast-paced society. "We all live in a multitasking world," Van Doorn says, "When we go to lunch, we just don't eat. We pick up dry cleaning, go to the bank, get the car washed, get gas, go to the ATM machine, plus eat. Our lunch hour is not just about lunch."
With the exception of a dry-cleaning service, the Marketcafé serves all these needs. And when it comes to lunch or breakfast and dinner it provides far more than the standard fast-food fare. Sure, there is a Bullets franchise on premises but all burgers are made to order. There's also a Freshens smoothie bar, a Coffee Beanery gourmet coffee bar, fresh-baked baguettes and pastries and the Marketcafé's own fare, created by Chef Ken Barber, formerly of the Tides Inn in Irvington.
Barber, a classically trained chef who apprenticed in Europe and studied at the prestigious Culinary Institute of America, has gone from being able to tell people he worked at one of the top resorts in Virginia to saying that he is a chef at a gas station. Michael Stevens, Barber's sous-chef at the Tides Inn, followed him to the Texaco.
Barber says he took the job because of the "challenge" presented by the Marketcafé. "It's a new concept," he says. "It's whatever we make it. ... It used to be that you got either fast food, or good food. The two concepts have never been married."
The menu changes daily and includes choices from a hot pastrami sandwich and chicken salad wrap to roasted red pepper and mozzarella on focaccia with basil mayonnaise. All cost about $6.
In addition to eat-in meals, plans for take-home gourmet meals are in the works, and a catering service has just started up, headed by Barber's wife, Joyce, formerly of the Hope and Glory Inn in Irvington. Sunday brunch is already a big success with the after-church crowd, and Barber hopes to eventually do wine-tasting dinners. "We'll put white tablecloths on the tables," he says. "This place lends itself to everything."
Doug Hendrick, a Henrico County police officer, is a regular at the Marketcafé. He stops in to pick up a quick breakfast before he starts his shift and on a recent evening brought his wife and two young children in for a family dinner.
As he munches on a roast beef panini, he answers questions about the Marketcafé as if he were programmed by its owners to give the correct responses.
What does he think about eating dinner in a gas station? "It's convenient," he says, "and from here, I don't even know [the pumps] are there."
How's the food? "Great. It's refreshing to get a good, quick meal."
Van Doorn stands by, smiling. Clearly, he has found his target customer. And his target customer has found the Marketcafé. "It's relaxing," Hendrick adds, "It beats the heck out of
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