Wednesday, January 19, 2011

Flying Denny's

I am at the Flying-J truck stop
in Fort Pierce, Florida (map). While we are veterans of many a Flying-J, this is the first time I've been at one of their travel plazas that has fully undergone the "conversion" to the new Pilot/Flying-J standard. I am not impressed.

For the benefit of our non-RVing readers, Flying-J is a brand of truck stop that was known for being very RV-friendly. They often had dedicated RV parking stalls in an area separate from the truck parking, usually allowed overnight RV stays, often had a free RV dump station, and offered RVers a small discount on fuel purchases. As with most major truck stop chains, they usually had a large sit-down restaurant offering both a buffet and table service menus, as well as one or two fast-food options within the convenience store. On top of all that, we often found Flying-J to have among the lowest diesel prices in the market.

A couple years ago, Flying-J went bankrupt in a spectacular way, having lost a major gamble on diesel fuel arbitrage. The vultures swooped in, and ultimately the retail travel plaza part of the operation merged with rival Pilot Truck Stops. Two years of legal wrangling followed, as courts decided the legal nuances of the merger, including having to sell off some locations to avoid being a monopoly. Consequently the full details of the merger are only now being implemented.

One of the first bits of fallout from the disaster was that Flying-J lost their competitive edge in diesel pricing. For our first four or five years on the road we could honestly say that we spent several thousand dollars a year with Flying-J; our fuel budget runs just over $10,000 annually, and many of those years Flying-J got 70% or more of our business. However, for at least a year now and maybe longer, we haven't purchased any fuel at Flying-J at all, at least not to speak of -- perhaps we made a purchase or two totaling maybe $500 in that time. We can almost always find diesel for at least $0.10 less, which is $20 or more on a fill-up for us.

Then last year Flying-J decided to start charging for use of the dump stations. Initially this was done with a padlock and a key behind the register, however they are changing over to an automated system that requires a card or a token. A pneumatic cover over the dump unlocks for 30 seconds or so after payment, allowing you to insert your hose. Once the hose is removed, the cover again locks in place. Dumping at Flying-J now costs a relatively steep $10. If you buy enough fuel here they will discount the tokens down to $5, which we consider the going retail rate for dump stations anyway. This location now has the automated system.

In what may ultimately be the final death knell for the chain among professional drivers, one of the final decisions was to outsource the restaurant operations at all Flying-J locations to Denny's. Since we always like to make at least some kind of purchase at these places when spending the night (and fuel was out of the question), I went in to the restaurant last night for dinner.

The most immediately noticeable change is the absence of the buffet, a central feature of the room when it was the "Country Market" restaurant. The former adjacent quick-service pizzeria, "Pepperoni's," is also gone, since Denny's does not utilize a pizza oven. And the service is terrible; it took me several minutes to get seated, and a simple meal consisting of a salad and a couple of wraps took well over half an hour to arrive. I think they are trying to operate the Denny's at the same staffing level that the Country Market utilized, but the bulk of the former business was the buffet, which has a much higher throughput at a much lower staff requirement.

Truckers like their unlimited buffets, and are often under time pressure. I can't imagine they are happy with this change. Now that you can't get a quick buffet meal, or a whole pizza to take back to your truck, your only quick-service options at this Flying-J are Subway sandwiches or the usual mini-mart fare, such as hot dogs. And at this particular spot, there isn't even any place else you could walk to.

At least they still have RV parking here. Although regular readers know that we have no issues parking in back with the trucks, so long as we are not likely to be taking up the last available space -- but Odyssey does not look out of place there. Ironically, I actually had a commercial entertainer coach next to me here in the RV area last night, deadheading with just the driver aboard. First entertainer I have ever seen with a slide-out on the forward lounge. He ran his generator the whole time he was here. On my other side was a little Rialta motor home whose roof did not even come up to the bottom of our windows.

On my way here I stopped in at St. Lucie Battery and Tire, just a half mile or so east of here. They had the right plate for their spin-balancer to accommodate our wheels, and so I had them dismount, flip, remount, and balance the steer tires, a much overdue maintenance item. Today I will head over to Home Depot for some project work, and I will probably end up at the Love's tonight, in keeping with the truck stop theme. As luck would have it, the "Truck Stops" episode of Modern Marvels aired last night, but naturally I've already seen it.


  1. You know, we used to buy a lot of diesel from Flying J with one of their loyalty cards too. It not only gave us a penny off, but it allowed us to use a credit card and get the cash price, which was good for another 6 cents on a good day. But without the favorable fuel price and the buffet ?????

    Just never have been a Denny's fan............

  2. I'm guessing Pilot only bought Flying J to keep it out of competitors' hands. I think they will close them one by one. At least they appear to be doing their best to lose business.


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