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Room, With a View

by Jim Park

The arid hills that surround the north and south forks of the Thomson River Valley aren't technically a desert, but they're among the driest regions in the entire province of British Columbia. But as most seasoned travelers know, come winter, Kamloops still gets its share of the white stuff. And as those seasoned travelers also know, the Kamloops Travel Center is the haven of choice when the sky turns grim.

Perched on a man-made plateau located at exit 366 off of the Coquihalla Highway, and nestled midway between the Monashee and Lillooet mountain ranges, "Canada's Truck Stop" can easily lay claim to one of the most scenic locations this country has to offer.

The Kamloops Travel Center sits just a few miles from the junction of 'The Coke' and highways 1 and 97, putting it at a major crossroads in B.C.'s interior. Traffic to and from Prince George and Williams Lake as well as the Vancouver-Calgary traffic all pass close enough to the place to make it the perfect spot to grab dinner and a few gallons of fuel.

Last year, it ranked fifth in the entire Petro-Canada chain for the volume of fuel pumped. And figures from the restaurant suggest that it's a pretty popular spot to chow down. Last year, they served 1.5 million gallons of coffee, nearly 200,000 eggs and over 170,000 bowls of soup. One of the members of the country singing group, Farmer's Daughter, once said in an interview that the best bowl of soup to be had anywhere in Canada could be found at the Verse Restaurant in the Kamloops Travel Center. There's a solid plug!

But what's the best item on the menu? Why not ask the cooks: day-shift cook Rajinder Johal says she'll go for a pork chop or a steak any time, with soup of course. She's been there 14 years and still looks forward to her lunch break.

Her partner in crime, Violet Grof, says she prefers the chicken stir fry, but admits she prepares an awful lot of potato skins for the folks who pay the bills. Regardless of your culinary preferences, you're bound to find something to tickle your tastebuds in Kamloops. After all, 27,000 customers can't be wrong. And that was just during the month of December last year. Pity the dishwasher.

If you've spent any time at all at the Kamloops Travel Center, you're bound to have seen Carrie and Herb George stalking the halls. They're a pair of owner-operators who have taken on the responsibility of managing their own business. They take the risks, sometimes suffer the consequences of a bad call, and hopefully come out a bit ahead at the end of the month. Their business isn't sitting parked out on lot while they're inside enjoying themselves: their business is the parking lot, along with the restaurant, the convenience store and the fuel bar.

Community Spirit

The Georges lease the facility from Petro-Canada and run it the way they see fit (in keeping with the official standards, naturally), hoping to profit from their 40-plus combined years of experience in restaurant and retail fuel sales.

The couple was part of the original management squad when Petro-Canada first opened the Kamloops facility in 1982. Herb left to pursue other interests in 1984, and Carrie transferred out to another location in 1989. They returned together in early 1998 to take over management of the place, and officially launched their lease arrangement with Petro-Canada on June 28 of that year.

During the time the Georges have lived and worked in Kamloops, they've managed to make the Travel Center into more than just a place for tourists and truckers. Herb estimates that just 15% of his volume is local business, but he continues to pump a lot back into the community. They sponsor an annual charity golf tournament for a local children's hospice called Canuck Place, and they're forever getting involved in other local activities.

They employ more than 100 people during the busy summer months, and only slightly fewer during the winter. Many are students in for just the summer, but there are plenty of full-timers as well, like cooks Johal and Grof.

"My staff are really the most important element of the business," Herb says. "The building isn't what makes us successful. It's the staff."

Aside from running a profitable business, Herb says he now feels quite a responsibility to the people who have made the enterprise successful. "They've become a part of my family," he says. "It's nice to have been a part of their lives, too."

You could say that after two decades in the business, the Georges know what their customers want. They probably do, but a year ago, British Columbia's Workers Compensation Board decided to impose a ban on smoking in all workplaces in the province, meaning that the George's customers had to butt out.

"The majority of our truck driving clientele smoke," he says. "And when the ban went into effect, we no longer saw the guys lingering after a meal to enjoy a rest from the road. They took to eating and running."

That, Herb says, took quite a bite out of his restaurant sales but drove up sales at the deli counter. "It's fine to grab a sandwich when you're in a hurry, but I like to see these folks eating properly," he said. "It's tough out on the road and it's nice to be able to relax a little and enjoy a meal."

The smoking ban was struck down only three months after it went into effect, but the Georges expect the B.C. WCB to take another shot at it in 2001.

The smoking issue serves to illustrate how a business like the Kamloops Travel Center depends on having customers walking the floor during their stay. Carrie George calls it a well diversified facility.

"We've got everything a customer could want: the restaurant, a good travel/convenience store, a games room, a driver's lounge and showers," she says. "Each element of the facility is supposed to fill a need when another offering might not appeal to a customer. If they don't want a sit-down meal, they've got the deli counter; and vice versa."

The smoking ban chased away a lot of paying customers and upset the balance that Carrie and Herb had designed into the operation.

Major Facelift Coming

One might say that after serving the community for nearly 20 years, the Kamloops Travel Center has become something of an institution. It was the first major commercial development that far south of town, and many other industry-related businesses have grown around it. But the facility is getting a little long in the tooth. Herb told us that Petro-Canada is about to undertake a major renovation and refit of the premises. By summer of 2001, there'll be a brand spanking new complex sitting on the plateau at exit 366.

Among the planned changes, Herb says Petro-Canada will be installing a scale, more fuel islands, more and larger shower facilities, a business lounge for truckers with Internet access and a few free standing Internet kiosks as well. The kitchen and restaurant are in for an overhaul, as are the store, the Deli counter, the washrooms and the TV lounge. In short, the whole place will be turned upside down in the next few months to make way for the new flagship in the Petro-Canada Travel Center chain.

And don't worry about finding a place to park during the renovations. It'll be business as usual during the process. They'll be doing it one step at a time to minimize the disruption. Herb has even arranged to have a shower trailer brought on site while the new ones are under construction.

"It'll be a little cramped, but we'll make it as pleasant as possible," he says. "It's only going to hurt for a little while."

The renovations are slated to begin on Valentines Day, February 14, 2001, and should be complete by April or May. Even allowing for a few snags, the busy summer months shouldn't be affected by the clouds of dust and chunks of plaster.

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