If you ever find yourself in Wright, WY, and happen by Hank’s Reno Junction Travel Plaza, be in good spirits and make sure the camera’s working on your smartphone.
The place is as much a tourist attraction as it is a gas station, convenience store, restaurant and bar. And jocular owner Hank Pridgeon would have it no other way.
“We like to have fun,” he told American Trucker, and it’s obvious they do, from the saddled 10-ft. green dinosaur out front to the bar stools painted with horse butts and bikini bottoms.
“We’re a Sinclair-branded truck stop,” Pridgeon said of the oil company famous for its green Brontosaurus, one of which all its stations get to showcase. “Ours has a saddle, so you can’t hardly look out there any day without some tourist sitting on it getting their picture taken. We encourage that, where most places wouldn’t want to do it because of the liability.”
Pridgeon would look just fine behind the wheel of a Class 8, with his graying goatee and genial, laid-back personality. Joking with employees and customers nonstop is his way, but he does happen to be the owner of the multimillion-dollar operation.
For close to 30 years, the spread included the restaurant (Hank’s Roadside Bar & Grill) and store (now Dino Mart). A couple of years ago, Pridgeon added the pumps, making it a true truck stop.
Starting with a gas station and expanding the business is how it’s usually done, but Pridgeon revels in being different than most.
“I’m an unusual operator, non-traditional,” he affirmed. “We like our customers to have fun, and we join them. The convenience store is nontraditional. The trend now is big, wide-open aisles. My store’s merchandise goes from floor to ceiling.”
It all works, because business is booming, a fact Pridgeon credits to supreme customer service. He and 43 employees are known for going the extra mile for everyone.
In fact, Pridgeon was invited to speak at the National Association of Truck Stop Owners convention last year.
“I did a presentation on exceptional customer service, because one of their vice presidents had been out here for an onsite visit and evidently he was impressed with the way we treat people,” he said. “We’ve always been kind of a destination for truck drivers, but we’re finding more and more that our over-the-road truckers are planning their trips so when they have downtime, their trucks are parked in my lot and they can hang out with us for a couple of days. That’s fun because we’ve gotten to know a lot of them and their families and their histories. They say our competition treats them like outsiders, and here they feel like it’s home.
“I have people stop me all the time saying we have the best employees, that they greet us, they’re interested in us, and when they tell us to come back soon, they mean it.
“Truckers and bikers are the most loyal customers ever. If you treat ’em right, they’re not only gonna come back but are gonna tell friends they should stop here. It’s like having an extended family.”
Pridgeon, 54 (“in the body of a 29-year-old”), operates as well as owns. He is one of four managers at the Travel Plaza, setting the tone for everyone else.
“I’ve got three great managers, and I work the same schedule as they do,” he said. “We’re open 24 hours, so we rotate on 12-hour shifts. Two weeks of days, two weeks of graveyards. I do my two weeks of graveyards every month just like the others.”
There was no trying to figure out life professionally for Pridgeon while growing up in Moorecroft, WY. He always knew he wanted to be in the foodservice business. Upon graduating high school in 1982, he was able to get a bank loan and started a catering business. In 1987 he opened a steakhouse and lounge in Wright, then from 1993-’95 built the Travel Plaza. A $2 million remodel in 2015 included adding the convenience store and Sinclair station.
Pridgeon explained that it was pure luck, and maybe a little greed, that led him to expand his operation to what it has become.
“In 2014 I put my property up for sale because I was thinking of retiring,” he admitted. “The only people who looked at it were truck-stop chains. But none of them wanted to pay the figure that I’d come up with. So, I eventually pulled it off the market and started researching going into the truck-stop business, and it’s absolutely the best thing I’ve ever done, profit-wise and people-wise.”
A business consultant was hired to study the area and competition and provide an analysis of potential gains and losses. Solid profits were predicted. “His figures were a little bit off, but we’re getting closer and closer every day,” said Pridgeon.
As usual with real estate, residential or commercial, one factor counts most—location, location, location.
“We’re a bit unique because we’re not on an interstate highway,” said Pridgeon. “We’re on the busiest intersection in the state, because of the energy industry around here. I’ve lived in this town for 35 years, and all we had was one store with four gas dispensers and a couple of diesel dispensers. During the oil boom of 2014, I watched semis lined up to pull in there for fuel. I was like… hmmm. So we tackled the problem.”
Other than the great location, a customer base was also in place.
“We produce a third of the nation’s energy within 20 miles of my front door,” said Pridgeon. “Coal, oil, natural gas. I’m very different than most [truck stop] folks located next to some interstate highway. A lot of our customers are people we see every day, like water haulers in the oil field. They fuel their trucks here every day and eat here every day. If there’s 35 or 40 trucks parked in my lot at night, truckers are sleeping in 20 of them, and we know all of them on a first-name basis.
“We also have guys who, for instance, deliver pipe out here, and they might bring a load of pipe every two weeks,” he added. “They make sure when their electronic logs are getting ready to shut ’em down that they’re in my parking lot. But we don’t talk about trucker issues. I think I know more about their house back in Kentucky and their neighbors and their kids and their grandkids.”
Pridgeon is extremely satisfied he went with Sinclair. He researched various oil companies and chose Sinclair for several reasons, one of which was their dominance in western states.
“It was a great decision,” he affirmed. “Sinclair Oil is big in this part of the world. There’s basically a Sinclair station in every town in Wyoming and Colorado and Utah. They’ve gone above and beyond for me. Being new to this industry I had a lot of questions.”
Asking truckers what they wanted was also key. Pridgeon learned that creature comforts were number one.
“I spent $75,000 on shower rooms and restrooms,” he said. “They are like something you would normally see at the Ritz-Carlton. The shower rooms are about 12 x 15 ft.”
Acknowledging that most truckers sleep in their cabs, Pridgeon nevertheless keeps in his mind that a motel could work on his property.
“We’ve got two motels within walking distance,” he said. “I‘ve explored having one and decided not for now. But I always keep my options open.”
Divorced with three daughters, Pridgeon is happy to have his children all working at the Travel Plaza.
“Heather, 22, is one of my managers,” he said. “She plans on taking over the business. Hannah, 19, is a prep cook, waitress and works at the convenience store, wherever she’s needed. Bonnie, 35, works here but has her own kids and is also a massage therapist. They all grew up in this facility. One picture of Heather is when she was 24 hours old and sleeping in a steam cable compartment in my kitchen while I cooked. I had it turned on warm.”
So, of all the businesses, which is most profitable?
“I’d have to say the convenience store,” Pridgeon noted. “The bar has its moments, but in the foodservice industry, you work a lot of long days to make a nickel on a dollar.”
Again, meeting customer needs equals success.
“We carry fire-resistant clothing,” said Pridgeon. “All the coal miners and oil field workers and those types of people have to wear it. I figured I’m gonna bring some of it in because these rig workers were way too busy to shop around. Now we’re doing two or three reorders of it a week. We’re a destination for people. They know we’ll take care of them while they’re here.”
This happy story almost had a sad ending not all that long ago.
“Wyoming is known for bust and boom,” said Pridgeon. “During the Obama years, when they put all the restrictions on energy, is the closest I ever came to losing my business. A parts store, a hardware store, a lot of businesses didn’t make it through the recession. Trump? He may not be good for everybody, but he’s good for Wyoming.”
Pridgeon has never had to seriously worry about security at the restaurant and Travel Plaza.
“I haven’t had any problems,” he said. “It’s kinda like bouncers in a bar. I tell people I don’t have to hire bouncers because my bartenders are mean enough. We’re in rural Wyoming, where you don’t have to worry about things folks in Chicago and D.C. do.”
The long hours don’t bother Pridgeon because he is doing what he loves with people he loves.
“I get bored real easy, and I always have to have something to do,” he said. “People tell me I’m a workaholic. I do take time with family and friends, but a lot of that involves business because all of my daughters and my ex-wife have been involved in my business too.”
Pridgeon has his finger on the pulse of all aspects of the business. Well, almost all aspects. Asked what he thinks of his quirky Hank’s Reno Junction Travel Plaza website, he quipped, “I don’t know. I’ve never seen it.”