A rising star in independent convenience retailing, Qasim Warraich is morphing into a grizzled veteran—all at the age of 31.
The owner of AQS Foods in Port Deposit, Md., Warraich operates four Lion Xpress convenience stores in Maryland plus one truck stop in Pauls Valley, Okla., which he acquired in 2017. And more recently, Warraich purchased five Save A Lot discount grocery stores in the Washington, D.C., area, part of his strategy to grow AQS Foods through continued and expanded service to the community.
The five D.C.-area locations AQS Foods now operates are in Temple Hills, Forestville, Bladensburg, Oxon Hill and Seat Pleasant, Md.
The Save A Lot stores will continue serving the neighborhoods in which they operate, and Warraich will work to customize each store’s assortment to match the tastes and preferences of the neighborhood. He also has plans to completely remodel all five stores within the next year. As owner, Warraich is overseeing continued management of the stores, splitting his time each week across the five locations.
In the c-store business since 2013 following his graduation from Oklahoma State University, Warraich plans on “getting more locations in the future as opportunity knocks on my door, whether it be grocery store, convenience store or car wash.
“As a brown person owner of multiple convenience stores, I have quite a few friends and family relatives in the convenience-store business. Some of them have been doing business for over 30 years and are going strong,” he says. “A lot of them, just like me, started from scratch with only a few thousand dollars to start with and grew from there. I think the convenience-store industry has lots of opportunities for anybody to start their own business and can grow after putting in hard work.”
Steve Dwyer from WGB’s sister publication, CSP, recently talked with Warraich about his small chain and his business growth plans.
Steve Dwyer: How would you describe Lion Xpress convenience stores?
Qasim Warraich: Definitely a neighborhood store. Lots of regulars and familiar faces.
How is business going currently, and what did you experience throughout 2020 during the COVID-19 era.
Business for the most part has remained steady. We did experience a fuel-gallons drop last year due to lockdown and restricted travel bans last summer, but we have slowly gained back most of the gas business. As for inside food and merchandise sales, we grew our sales about 15% to 20% during COVID. We are trying our best to keep those extra gained revenues as we move past COVID.
What are your expectations throughout 2021 from a business and customer engagement standpoint?
We saw a lot of new faces last year, and we expect them to make Lion Xpress part of their daily shopping routine, whether it be food, snacks or drinks.
What food and beverage categories are flourishing, and was the success due to any kind of price/promotion/display initiatives?
We have always run food specials; we rotate them every season, with a $5 lunch (6-inch sub and fountain drink) proving to be really popular. We slice meat and cheese here, which differs us from any other regular convenience-store food [as competitors]. We also started hand-crafted espresso drinks and rolled out whole barista menus that you would see at Dunkin’ or Starbucks. We are seeing more and more people getting used to hand-crafted coffees as part of their morning routine along with choice of breakfast sandwich.
Moving forward, I’m focusing on adding healthy choices, whether it be daily fresh prepared salads or kombucha drinks. People are very calorie-conscious now, and gas stations must change their trends from greasy, hot food on countertop display cases to calorie-conscious healthy salads and hoagies.
How does the chain differentiate itself in your local market from a competitive standpoint?
Our deli is full service. Having a pretty broad menu from breakfast sandwiches to quesadillas definitely makes us stand apart and above the rest. No gas station in Cecil County, [Md.], offers fresh sliced cheese and meat for hoagies like we do. We often see lines going out of the door during lunch hour. I think this is the future, as we kept ourselves away from greasy fried chicken, and I think that decision paid off significantly. Second biggest difference between us and our competition is friendly, customer service; most of my customers are greeted by their name, which makes them feel special.
Do you have a feel-good story to share about how, in 2020 or so far in early 2021, you were able to boost store morale due to an employee-driven program or initiative?
Throughout the pandemic, most all retail employees were scared of this unknown deadly virus, especially working in a busy retail environment. We kept our primary focus on keeping all the surfaces and pumps thoroughly sanitized and handed all employees hefty bonuses to keep them motivated throughout the pandemic.
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