Something of a respite for rest stops on the high road

Turnpike rest stops are often not the most pleasant places around. In fact, many travelers approach them with gritted teeth. "I try to avoid them," one motorist says. "I might get a snack or something, but generally the food is awful, the gas overpriced, and the accommodations, well, inadequate."

Rest stops, however, face bigger problems than cleaning up their restrooms. As gas prices escalate, fewer people are traveling, and fewer people are stopping along the nation's highways.

According to Department of Transportation figures, travel on Interstate routes is down an average of 3 percent in 1980, compared with 1978. Ken Welty, a department highway engineer, reports monthly travel declines of up to 8 percent on Interstate highways through New Mexico.

The initial decline in 1979 was probably due to gas prices, according to the department. Travelers just weren't going to pay $1 per gallon. In 1980, when $ 1 per gallon seems cheap, the main reason people aren't taking to the road like they used to is the severe economic situation. "They just can't afford to go anywhere," Mr. Welty says.

All this is reflected in the declining profits rest stop proprietors are experiencing.

David Alexander, a spokesman for the New York State Thruway Authority, says the authority gets 23.11 percent of the gross earnings of its rest stop chain, the Gladieux Corporation. In 1979 that meant $43.87 million, up $1.35 million from 1978. Mr. Alexander expects the 1980 share to be about the same as for 1979, however.

Gladieux, of Toledo, Ohio, is one of the largest suppliers of highway accommodations. It has contracts with Ohio, Indiana, New Jersey, Florida, and, the largest of all with 24 rest stops, New York. Its biggest competitor is Howard Johnson's, which has expressway contracts with a number of states, including Massachusetts.

Patrick Hilley, director of operations for Gladieux in New York, says that economic problems "are affecting us the same as they are everyone else." He says customer traffic has decreased, but was reluctant to give any details.

Gladieux also puts out cutomer comment cards in an effort to make stops more pleasant and increase business. Mr. Hilley says that the biggest request it gets is for better fast food. Mr. Alexander agreed, saying the most important aspect of rest stops is the food they serve.

One of the biggest complaints motorists have against rest stops is the often high prices of the gas they sell. Mr. Hilley is quick to point out, however, that the gas stations are not affiliated with the rest stops, and prices are set by the gas companies. In some cases, the gas stations must pay a fee to the highway authority.

Restrooms are "very clean," he says. "We never get complaints on our restrooms. All our customers are pleased, and surprised by the cleanliness." Some customers would be quite surprised to find cleanliness.

Stuckey's, a restaurant chain catering to the traveling public in 36 states, claims to be "doing its best" to make snacking along the highways a little more pleasant, while turning a profit. Anyone who has ever driven around the Southern United States has seen a Stuckey's, or at least one of its billboard signs -- every store has at least four starting 15 miles ahead -- advertising pecan goodies.

Burns Rockwell, Eastern US director for Stuckey's, says the rest stop chain used to be mainly a candy and pecan store with gas pumps and restrooms. But now it is getting more like a restaurant where people can stop, rest, refuel, and purchase candy and novelties.

Vicki Gilbert, who "works in the restaurant and runs the front of the store sometimes" in McDonough, Ga., says: "We offer more than just pecans. Our snack bar sells sandwiches, soup, [milk] shakes, and we're experimenting with homemade ice cream. So far we've had good sales on it."

Miss Gilbert explains that different stores experiment by selling different foods. Homemade ice cream is being tried out in the McDonough store. If it goes over well there, other stores will start to carry it, too.

Also, many of the stores are remodeling and improving food selections and restrooms. Miss Gilbert says that business has slowed down in recent months -- probably because people can't afford to travel -- so Stuckey's has to offer more than pecan rolls to lure its customers.

Mr. Rockwell is optimistic, though: "With the increase in air fares, we look forward to more drivers again."

Stuckey's coped with the decrease in customers by increasing the amount of sales to each person once he came in the store. Says Mr. Rockwell: "We repositioned impulse items to get people as soon as they walk in the door -- even if they're just using the restrooms. We put the toys table right outside the restrooms so that children would see them right away. This, along with a giveaway contest . . . brought in millions of people."

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