Where do you want to fly?
The fried chicken wasn’t selling, the cash registers weren’t ringing, and the boss was coming.
Earl Springer needed a plan.
What he and his team came up with at a Sheetz store in Williamsport changed the future of that store — and the whole company.
Springer and his crew hit upon made-to-order sandwiches. In the 30-plus years since, “MTO” has become a staple for the mid-Atlantic convenience store chain. It also has helped serve up some industry-leading moves, such as touch-screen technology.
Sheetz, a family-owned company based in Altoona, Pa., has some 600 locations in Pennsylvania, Maryland, Virginia, West Virginia, Ohio and North Carolina. It employs more than 17,000 people and serves 1.5 million customers a day.
Springer, of Martinsburg, W.Va., joined the company in 1983. He holds bachelor’s and master’s degrees in human resource management and is the company’s manager of employee programs. He takes care of things like educational reimbursements and recognition efforts for the company’s 18,000-plus employees. and Sheetz has consistently rated high on “best places to work” lists.
But in 1986, Springer was managing a store in Williamsport and shaking his head over the financial reports.
The store was one of five that was selling fried chicken as a test product. But in the winter months, Springer said, the chicken wasn’t selling. Having to toss out unsold food added insult to the injury.
In late January, Steve Sheetz, president and CEO of the company, was on his way to Williamsport for a store visit. Springer knew the boss wouldn’t like what he saw.
“The (financial) statement was not pretty,” he recalled.
So Springer gathered his staff, which numbered about 15 people, and did some serious thinking.
“All of our stores had delis at the time. and we had slicers,” he said.
“Hagerstown at that time was blessed, and still is, with good sub shops,” he added, mentioning eateries like Hartle’s Subs.
Springer and his crew bought some subs.
“We weighed and measured them,” he said. “We took them apart.”
Springer and his crew decided to set their product apart in two ways. One, their store was open 24/7, which was rare at the time. and two, rather than offering a rigid menu, they would let customers choose what they wanted on their sandwiches.
They also developed an ordering system, using paper and small pencils.
As Springer predicted, when Steve Sheetz arrived in Williamsport, the CEO wasn’t exactly elated with the financial figures.
“He questioned if I was brain dead,” Springer said with a laugh.
Springer outlined the made-to-order idea and said all he needed was an $1,100 sandwich preparation unit. Steve Sheetz decided to make that investment.
“The first week, it wasn’t stellar,” Springer said, because the staff members had to put most of their time into the getting the system up and running. The second week, they put more effort into marketing.
“The next week, sales really took off and they really continued to grow,” Springer recalled.
The company expanded the concept to 11 other stores. Those locations “just rocketed with sales,” he said.
Soon the company expanded the made-to-order concept to all of its stores. and in the early 1990s, Sheetz began using a touch-screen ordering system that gave customers even more control.
“We got a 10-percent bump when we put in the electronic stuff,” Springer said.
Springer credits another Sheetz employee, Jeff Wild, who worked in marketing, for coming up with “MTO.”
“He had this epiphany sitting behind a cable (television) truck in traffic,” Springer said.
Written across the back of that truck were ads for two cable channels: MTV and HBO.
“MTO” is now a registered trademark for Sheetz.
Adam Sheetz, who was recently named vice president of operations for the company, talked about Springer’s innovation when he was in Hagerstown in October 2017. He used it as an example of how companies have to continue to innovate to thrive.
After the presentation, he said, “The vision of Sheetz is to build the company that will put Sheetz as we know it today out of business.”
To that end, he said, the company continually reviews trends. For example, he said, fuel sales are not growing, so Sheetz has made some adjustments. The company has opened a few stores that don’t have fuel pumps, and it has rebuilt others to put more of an emphasis on food.