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Pilot CEO Jimmy Haslam on why dining in at truck stops might never be the same

The Knoxville News-Sentinel logoThe Knoxville News-Sentinel 6/2/2020 Brenna McDermott, Knoxville News Sentinel
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Two months in, what was once crisis management of the coronavirus pandemic has become business as usual for Pilot Company, which owns and operates more than 780 truck stops nationwide. 

For CEO Jimmy Haslam, the time to prepare for the future of the truck stop industry is now.

From fast food to fuel pumps, the pandemic has started to usher in new ways of doing business for Pilot — named the No. 10 largest private company in America by Forbes — and its 28,200 employees. 

"The (2008) financial crisis hurt business, but it didn't change how we did business," Haslam said. "I think this is going to change how we do business." 

Jim Haslam, Jimmy Haslam standing in front of a store: From left, Whitney Haslam Johnson, Jim Haslam and Jimmy Haslam photographed at Pilot’s headquarters in Knoxville on Thursday, January 16, 2020. © Brianna Paciorka/News Sentinel From left, Whitney Haslam Johnson, Jim Haslam and Jimmy Haslam photographed at Pilot’s headquarters in Knoxville on Thursday, January 16, 2020.

For an essential business that is tasked with keeping the trucking industry fueled and fed as it transports needed products across America, the company is changing in more ways than one.

There are the inevitable health and safety precautions that all businesses have taken, but the pandemic has also led to a 20-25% reduction in business, Haslam estimates, as private travel has slowed to a crawl. Pilot supplies more than 11 billion gallons of fuel per year. 

a truck is parked on the side of a road: A Pilot Flying J truck is seen in the parking lot of the Pilot Travel Center on Lovell Road in Knoxville, Thursday, May 7, 2020. © Caitie McMekin/News Sentinel A Pilot Flying J truck is seen in the parking lot of the Pilot Travel Center on Lovell Road in Knoxville, Thursday, May 7, 2020.

For the long term, commercial travel will take a hit, Haslam predicted, as corporations learn that communicating via virtual meetings works just fine. (Haslam gave this exclusive interview to Knox News over video from Pilot headquarters in Knoxville, Tennessee.)

"Now the question for us is, what's that do to the gasoline business? Because when you drive down here, you use some gasoline and if you're doing less of that, how does that impact us? The flip side is that people are flying less to go on vacation — will they drive more? Those are the things that will sort out," Haslam said. 

He anticipates personal travel picking up this summer as beaches reopen and states loosen safer-at-home orders, but said sales likely won't return to normal in 2020. 

The pandemic has expedited the rollout of more touchless technology inside Pilot stops. The company will emphasize use of its app, where truck drivers can reserve showers and use Apple Pay to make purchases.

Pilot also is testing new self-checkout and contactless technologies, including scanners at fuel pumps that will limit the surfaces customers will have to touch.

"Huge emphasis on safety, huge emphasis on speed," Haslam said. "I don't want to say less human contact, because we still want our people to be friendly."

Pilot has always promoted the cleanliness of its restrooms, but that will become an even more important component. In addition to normal cleanings, employees are spending more time sanitizing food surfaces, fuel pumps, restrooms, touchpads and showers. Truck stops are now deep-cleaned each week. 

Some of the most evident responses to the virus have revolved around how Americans are getting food. That's true in Pilot truck stops, too, and many of those changes will continue. 

Dining is a $1 billion business for Pilot, which owns more than 630 restaurants inside its truck stops. Dining rooms in several states have reopened with limited capacity, but many remain closed. 

The Pilot at Lovell Road in Knoxville, Tennessee, has a dining room that once sat 60. It now seats 20. 

It's debatable whether dining rooms will ever return to full capacity, or whether consumers will even want to dine in. Perhaps they'll just prefer the curbside and drive-thru services that have emerged during the pandemic.

Haslam has been talking with partner restaurant CEOs about tailoring business models to health guidelines and new consumer preferences. 

"I think there will be less dine-in, so we've got to shift our business that way," he said.  

And in the convenience stores, self-service options like salad bars will be supplemented  with more packaged options. 

"In our truck stops, you can't go in and fix yourself a hot dog anymore, and I suspect that's probably gone away forever," Haslam said in April.

But the hot dog might not be gone forever. The company announced later it would bring back some self-serve items in June as permitted at select locations nationwide.

Mike West observes National Hot Dog Day with a free frankfurter Thursday, July 23, 2015, at the Pilot Food Mart in Mechanicsville. © News Sentinel Archive Mike West observes National Hot Dog Day with a free frankfurter Thursday, July 23, 2015, at the Pilot Food Mart in Mechanicsville.

Pilot transitioned its corporate and support center teams to working from home beginning March 13. The company is in the midst of a three-phase plan to bring its leadership team, management team and employees back to the office using new health and safety guidelines. 

As Pilot phases employees back into the office, Haslam is encouraging leaders to think outside the box about what corporate life will look like.

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Employees who work in close quarters, such as in call centers, might not all be able to return at once. And some employees who have functioned well at home might never return to office life.

Work from home is just one of the countless changes that Pilot and other U.S. corporations will consider implementing for the long term. Some studies estimate the pandemic could last up to two years.

And by then, maybe consumers will have long lost the desire for a self-serve hot dog from a gas station. 

"I don't know about forever — that's a long time — but I think, indefinitely, that's the world we live in," Haslam said.  

Email Brenna McDermott at brenna.mcdermott@knoxnews.com and follow her on Twitter @_BrennaMcD. If you enjoy Brenna's coverage, support strong local journalism by subscribing for full access to all our content on every platform.

This article originally appeared on Knoxville News Sentinel: Pilot CEO Jimmy Haslam on why dining in at truck stops might never be the same

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