Green | Greener Living

How Sheetz Partnered With Tesla and Brought EV Charging to Rural America

A summer road trip in an electric car, fueled by the convenience store chain that has aggressively moved into the charging market.

Tesla charger at Sheetz gas station.
Sheetz, the Pennsylvania-based chain of convenience stores, bills itself as a “mecca for people on the go.” Photographer: Nate Smallwood/Bloomberg

The summer travel season has been marked by a resurgent global pandemic, flight delays, staffing shortages, $5-a-gallon gasoline in many parts of the U.S. and extreme weather. Despite all this, my teenage son and I were determined to take an American-history and democracy-focused road trip from Washington, D.C. through Virginia, Maryland, Pennsylvania and West Virginia that we’ve been trying to do for a few years. Not just any road trip: We would drive nearly 1,000 miles. We decided to rent a Tesla, which would reduce our fuel costs. But the next question, for us and so many American EV drivers, was: Where will we charge up, particularly in more rural parts of the country? For us and other EV travelers in the Mid-Atlantic, we were in luck: Sheetz.

Sheetz, the Pennsylvania-based chain of convenience stores, bills itself as a “mecca for people on the go.” It’s open around the clock, every day of the year, and sells all the fuel you could possibly need for a summer excursion: coffee and soda; Tastykakes and Necco Wafers; hot dogs and cheesy bacon tater bombs; made-to-order smoothies with the option of adding Red Bull. And, of course, gas. Today, 645 Sheetz stations operate across six states: Maryland, North Carolina, Pennsylvania, Ohio, Virginia and West Virginia.

But over the last decade, Sheetz has worked to be more than a convenience store that sells gas. Nearly 14% of Sheetz locations offer electric vehicle charging through partnerships with Tesla Inc., Electrify America and EVgo. Tesla sells the most electric vehicles in the US, and Tesla-branded fast chargers known as Superchargers make up the vast majority—over 70%—of the EV chargers located at Sheetz. Similarly, charging sessions by Tesla owners vastly dwarf those by customers driving other electric cars.

Sheetz gas station pump with Tesla branded electric vehicle charger seen in the background.
With high gas prices this summer, the cost of charging an electric vehicle can feel like a pleasant surprise. Photographer: Nate Smallwood/Bloomberg

“We’ve been very early adopters of EV charging,” says Trevor Walter, the vice president of petroleum supply management for Sheetz, during an interview. “We installed our first EV chargers in Pennsylvania in 2012.”

In June, my son and I flew from California to Washington, DC to begin our trip. We rented a Tesla Model Y from Hertz at the airport and headed south to Monticello, President Thomas Jefferson’s plantation. Our hotel in Charlottesville, Virginia offered free charging overnight—a perk that many higher end hotels now have. From there we headed back north through Maryland to Pennsylvania, where we took a 10-mile bicycle tour of the Gettysburg Battlefield, visited Sheetz headquarters and marveled at architect Frank Lloyd Wright’s Fallingwater. We spent time with dear friends in West Virginia, and stopped in Harpers Ferry to see the wax museum dedicated to abolitionist John Brown on our way back to DC and a late night walk to the Lincoln Memorial.

Illustration: 731; Dana Hull (10); Jasper Dibble (2); Getty (1); Sheetz (1)

We stopped to charge the Tesla just five times over the nearly 1,000 miles: three times at Sheetz and twice at other Tesla Superchargers. Electricity was far cheaper than gas. At the Sheetz in Breezewood, Pennsylvania, we spent $9 to top off our battery but $10.76 on a frappuccino, licorice and other snacks. The majority of Sheetz’s profit margin comes from food, drinks, snacks and tobacco products. 

“Convenience stores see EV charging as an opportunity,” says John Gartner, a senior director at the Center for Sustainable Energy in Colorado. “With EV charging, there’s longer ‘dwell times’ where people are spending more time in the store, and their chance to make money on things like food and drinks that have very high margins is greatly increased.”

Three Teslas at a Sheetz charging station in Pennsylvania
This year Sheetz surpassed 1 million charging sessions. Photographer: Nate Smallwood/Bloomberg

There aren’t any Sheetz in California, so I didn’t fully realize that Sheetz is a thing, beloved in western Pennsylvania and beyond. They’ve got a whole shtick: desperate for an iced tea one muggy day, I was dismayed to find a sign that some items were “out of shtock.” There were always other Tesla drivers charging up their cars any time we stopped at Sheetz.

On the surface, Tesla and Sheetz are a continent and culture apart. Tesla went public in 2010, is led by the wealthiest person on the planet and is the world’s most valuable automaker. Sheetz has been a private, family-owned regional business for seven decades. Its corporate headquarters—which includes offices and its distribution center—are nestled in rural Claysburg, Pennsylvania, in the Allegheny Mountains. But Sheetz perceived early on that how Americans move—and fuel their vehicles—is undergoing a shift.

Trevor Walter
Trevor Walter Photographer: Nate Smallwood/Bloomberg

“We work very closely with Tesla to install Tesla-branded chargers at our locations,” says Walter. “We work hand in hand with Tesla. Our real estate department works with their real estate department. We have bi-weekly calls with them.”

Some of the Tesla owners we met at Sheetz lived nearby and were charging their vehicles as they commuted to work, or were on their way home. Others were on road trips of their own.

We met Joe and Chris Scott of Fredericksburg, VA while charging at the Sheetz in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania. Both retired, they bought a Tesla Model 3 in November. Its vanity license plate says “AINT GAS.”

“We figured inflation was coming and that gas prices were going up,” says Joe Scott of their decision to buy a Tesla.

The Scotts were on a summer road trip of their own along Pennsylvania’s Snack Food Trail, stopping at Martin’s, famous for their potato chips; Hershey’s Chocolate World; and the Utz Potato Chip factory tour. Since they bought their Tesla, they have charged at rest areas along I-95, at shopping malls and hotels, and at Royal Farms and Wawa. But they love Sheetz: clean restrooms, delicious food at reasonable prices, safe locations.

“The best thing about Sheetz right now is that they have ice cream for 99 cents,” says Chris Scott.

Customers inside of a Sheetz gas station store.
Sheetz started selling “Made to Order” food in the 1980s, followed by touchscreen ordering systems in the 1990s. Photographer: Nate Smallwood/Bloomberg

The Sheetz story begins in 1952, when Bob Sheetz bought one of his father’s dairy stores in Altoona, Pennsylvania. In 1973, Sheetz added gas stations. The company expanded into Maryland, then West Virginia.  It started selling “Made to Order” food in the 1980s, followed by touchscreen ordering systems in the 1990s. The current CEO is Travis Sheetz, a nephew of Bob.

When Sheetz began experimenting with EV chargers a decade ago, it was the same year Tesla started deliveries of its flagship Model S sedan. No one knew what the EV adoption curve would look like, but Sheetz wanted to be ready.

“In the early days, at some of our first locations in Pennsylvania, we’d have five or maybe 25 charging sessions a month,” says Walter. “You now have a lot more EVs coming onto the market.”

In April, the company surpassed 1 million charging sessions.

The economics of all this are fuzzy. Gasoline is a highly competitive industry: Sheetz has a lot of options when it comes to suppliers, and in turn competes for customers on price. Every gas station in the US has a ginormous sign advertising the cost per gallon that changes daily, and car owners regularly drive out of their way to save a few cents per gallon.

But with electricity, there’s no competition: regulated utilities have a monopoly. Utilities typically bill EV charging station-owners extra fees, known as demand charges, and that makes it challenging if not impossible to turn a profit on charging alone. Sheetz declined to discuss their financial arrangement with Tesla, and Tesla did not respond to inquiries.

Tesla owners who charge at Sheetz are paying Tesla for the charging session via their Tesla app, not Sheetz. But if you’re going to charge your car—which can take about half an hour depending on speeds and how many other cars are using the existing chargers—you might as well use the bathroom, buy drinks and order some food. 

Especially this summer, the cost of charging can feel like a pleasant surprise. When we pulled into the Sheetz in Morgantown, West Virginia, our battery was at 23%. We charged up to 97% and the cost was $18.81.  Electricity costs can vary by region, but tend to be significantly lower than gas. Filling up the tank of a gas-powered SUV can run well over $100 these days. By comparison, we paid $73 total to charge up the car five times over 990 miles. 

President Joe Biden wants to build a nationwide network of 500,000 EV chargers, and a $5 billion effort is underway to fund the deployment of EV chargers along the nation’s highways.

“To support the transition to electric vehicles, we must build a national charging network that makes finding a charge as easy as filling up at a gas station,” tweeted Department of Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg on June 9.

To Sheetz, it feels a bit like reinventing the wheel. Why create brand new infrastructure, when so much already exists? In January, Walter testified before Congress on behalf of the National Association of Convenience Stores at a hearing about EV investments and rural America. Walter made the point that consumers are already in the habit of refueling at stores like Sheetz: the idea of going to a new, one-off charging station with no amenities doesn’t make much sense.

Customers exiting a Sheetz gas station store.
EV charging leads to longer ‘dwell times’ where people are spending more time in the store and purchasing higher margin food and drinks. Photographer: Nate Smallwood/Bloomberg

“We offer well-lit, safe, bright locations that are fully staffed, ideally at all hours of the night,” says Walter. “There is other infrastructure out there, but it’s in what you might call a dead zone for a consumer. It might be behind a mall. You might pull in to charge, but don’t have access to a bathroom.”

As Sheetz expands within the six states where it operates—Columbus, Ohio is seen as a strategic market­—it will continue to grow its EV charging capabilities. The company is “future-proofing” most locations going forward to be able to install EV charging equipment and it’s thinking about getting into the charging business itself, with Sheetz-branded charging.

“We want to help EV customers navigate the road, and have an opportunity to charge,” Walter says. “We’re agnostic in terms of the fuel we sell, whether it be traditional fuels or electricity.”

Edited by Emily Biuso and Dimitra Kessenides

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