QnA: Barbara Gehl, Toponas Country General Store
High Country Business Review
Russell and Barbara Gehl live on the way to a lot of places, but in the middle of the wide-open spaces.
The Gehls have owned the Toponas Country General Store since 1996.
Russ was raised in the Midwest and came to Colorado when he got out of the Navy in 1973. Barb is a Colorado native, raised in the North Fork Valley and a graduate of Paonia High School.
“Russ worked at Rocky Flats, and they were downsizing, and we wanted out of the city,” Barbara Gehl wrote in an e-mail. “Once we had sold the business that we had there, we took the opportunity to purchase the store and move to an area where we weren’t overrun with people. We have just enough people coming through at all times of the year to keep us from getting lonely, but at the end of the day, they all go on somewhere else.
“When we first bought the store it was new for us to be in retail, and we wanted to focus on customer service so the first thing we did was expand the hours so the store was open from about 6:30 a.m. to at least 9p.m. During hunting season those hours get expanded, and we have offered the service of issuing licenses whatever time the hunter gets here, which has us getting up and doing licenses at 3 a.m. sometimes.
“We were the first ATM between Steamboat and Vail. We offer free coffee and dish the biggest ice cream cones most people have ever seen. About 90 percent of our business is from the tourists passing through and the hunters in the fall as we do about 50 percent of our business in about 80 days.
“Since upgrading our fuel system, we have developed some very loyal local customers and enjoy being able to serve them. The best part of this business is the people we get to meet, and we have developed some very good friendships with some of the repeat customers.”
Barbara Gehl recently answered some questions about doing business off the beaten path.
Russ hunted up here for a number of years. In 1995 when he was hunting he came down to the store to make a phone call and get propane. He noticed a for sale sign, and as we were looking for a way to get out of the Denver area, he mentioned it to me. At that time I said no because we were in the middle of some other business dealings. Once those were taken care of, we started looking really seriously at the store because we both wanted out of the city and into a more rural area. We liked the lack of population in the area and the access to recreation such as hunting and fishing.
“Where’s the bathroom?” is the most-asked question. Because of our location in basically the middle of nowhere we are the first bathroom stop on the way to Steamboat. The second most asked question is “How many people live in Toponas?” The answer to that is about 30 full-time residents. Another popular set of questions is “How much snow do you get,” “How cold does it get” and the big one ” “Does the wind always blow?”
Due to the fact that construction costs in the Toponas area are not what they are in the Vail Valley, we do not have the financial overhead. Also, located where we are we do not have the volume of business that stations in the valley experience so we operate more as a mom-and-pop business with fewer employees. In our business plan we committed to our customers to keep the prices as low as possible. Credit and debit cards are an additional expense for the business, so a year ago we implemented a 6-cents-per-gallon cash discount. As an extra convenience we provide a cash acceptor on one of the dispensers for those not using credit cards and fueling capability 24 hours a day. Being independent, we are not required to have all of the fancier amenities required by the major fuel companies.
It depends on the time of year. During the winter months, we get a load of fuel about once every 23 days or so and a grocery delivery even less than that.
We might have to make a trip to Sam’s Club or Costco for cigarettes and items like that more often, but not a full delivery. During the summer, fuel comes every 10 to 14 days and then about once a week during hunting season. Grocery deliveries pick up during that time as well, and we get a delivery about every other week.
The same as any other business ” getting the consumer to stop and spend money in our store and having what they are looking for. The gas pumps are a definite draw, as we are the first station off of the interstate from Wolcott and many are running on fumes because they see several little “towns” on the map and think that there are gas stations there.
The biggest challenge is to get them to buy the extras, which have a better profit value than the fuel does. Because of our locale, it is also important to diversify, which is the reason we also rent U-Hauls.
It depends. This year due to some deaths in the families we have been gone a little more than normal but we try to get away occasionally and see family and friends in different parts of the country.
We try to focus our time off to the spring, which is one of the slower times of the year for all businesses in this area. We also have to take off at times for business purposes to go to trade shows. We are finding that it doesn’t hurt to take a day now and then for recreational purposes so we can go fishing and things like that.