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Employed is a weekly reporting series focused on the new Northwoods.The landscape of living, playing, and working in the Northwoods is changing. Where we work, where we shop, where we reside, and how we support our families looks different than it did even a decade ago. It continues to shift as industry, tourism, retail, services, and natural resources shift.Entrepreneurship, broadband, work-from-home, and COVID-19 are all part of that mix. What makes you wonder, or what story ideas do you have for Employed? Submit them below.

Kwik Trip Craze: the Wisconsin Company’s Rapid Northwoods Expansion

Ben Meyer/WXPR

On Tuesday afternoon, Matt Ellingson walked out of the Kwik Trip on Rhinelander’s east side with a few bottles of water and a snack from the store’s roller grill.

Yet again, he’s intentionally bypassed a restaurant or fast food joint to get something to eat at Kwik Trip.

“That’s exactly what I did today,” he said with a laugh. “I got a Tornado.”

Ellingson feels he knows what to expect at every Kwik Trip location.

“They’ve got good food, good prices, and the people are very friendly,” he said.

Rhinelander’s Kathyrn Knutson had chicken, potato rounds, and a few molasses cookies in her bag.

She admits she’s a Kwik Trip regular.

“I love their food. I love the convenience. For a gas station, you wouldn’t believe the things that you find in there. Everything you need is here. It’s like a one stop shop,” she said. “Get your food. Get your fuel. Treats. Ice cream. Everything. Off you go.”

Knutson may feel like she’s a frequent customer.

But she’s nothing compared to some of the people store manager Heidi Diekmann sees.

“We definitely have our regulars,” Diekmann said. “We have the regular lottery person or every-two-hour swipe-my-card person.”

That’s right. Diekmann sees people who stop every few hours in order to earn extra reward points.

Credit Ben Meyer/WXPR
The checkout registers at Kwik Trip are nearly never without customers.

In the midst of the Rhinelander store’s constant bustle, it’s worth remembering that, six or seven years ago, no Wisconsin Kwik Trip stores were located north of Merrill.

But since then, the popular gas station and convenience store chain has established its presence all over the Northwoods. It now has locations in Tomahawk, Rhinelander, Minocqua, Arbor Vitae, and Eagle River, just to name a few.

And it has plenty of customers, like those every-two-hour swipers, whose loyalty to Kwik Trip is nearly obsessive.

Credit Ben Meyer/WXPR
Customers cross paths at a quick trip entrance.

Since Kwik Trip’s first store opened in Eau Claire in 1965, the chain has grown to more than 700 stores in Wisconsin, Minnesota, Iowa, and Illinois.

Credit LinkedIn
John McHugh, Kwik Trip's director of public relations.

“What we’ve found is that a Kwik Trip is needed in almost every community because people are looking for commodities and fresh food at prices that are reasonable,” said corporate public relations director John McHugh. “We’ve had huge success almost anywhere we’ve gone.”

Until a few years ago, though, Kwik Trip’s map had a major hole, with no stores in the Northwoods.

Then, the company took a calculated risk.

“Specifically in the Northwoods, here’s part of what drove that expansion. We have a lot of our guests that live in southern Wisconsin – Milwaukee or Madison. Then, they have cabins or cottages up north. They’d say, ‘hey, we go up north and we miss our Kwik Trip.’ So we thought, well, let’s see if it works,” McHugh said.

The gamble paid off, and Kwik Trip stores in the Northwoods became popular immediately.

“Our brand now has become so strong that people will say they drive past two or three other gas stations to get to a Kwik Trip,” said McHugh.

Credit Ben Meyer/WXPR
A Kwik Trip location looms beyond the Hodag Pump and Pantry in Rhinelander. When the Kwik Trip opened, the legacy convenience store saw business drop.

Of course, that’s bad news for those other gas stations.

Kwik Trip placed its second Rhinelander store next door to the long-established Hodag Pump and Pantry on Stevens Street in 2015.

A manager there said business, as you might expect, dropped noticeably.

But what is it about Kwik Trip that makes it so popular?

Customers say it’s cleanliness, good food, and a welcoming atmosphere.

Employees like manager Heidi Diekmann say it’s a great place to work.

“I couldn’t be happier working for a better company. They are just extremely amazing people,” she said. “The owners are just fabulous.”

Kwik Trip consistently ranks as a top-five workplace in Wisconsin, and 40 percent of company profits go back to employees in the form of bonuses.

“When you’re shopping at your local store in Rhinelander, and you go, geez, where does the profit go when I shop at a Kwik Trip? It’s going to your neighbor that’s working the register or your mother-in-law that’s maybe doing the food product demonstrating,” McHugh said. “The profits all come back to our people.”

Credit Ben Meyer/WXPR
Heidi Diekmann, left, a manager at the first Rhinelander Kwik Trip.

Kwik Trip opens more than 50 new stores per year, and its continued expansion is constrained only by geography.

Eighty percent of Kwik Trip products are made at the company’s La Crosse headquarters and are shipped fresh daily to each store, meaning a 300-mile radius from La Crosse is about the limit.

That leaves one more enticing door open.

“We get a lot of people that travel here from Michigan and ask, ‘when are you going to open one up there?’” said Diekmann.

Apparently, John McHugh has answered that question more than once.

His response came without hesitation.

“That is part of the plan. In the next couple years, you will see Kwik Trip expanding into the Upper Peninsula,” he said.

Ben worked as the Special Topics Correspondent at WXPR from September 2019 until November 2021. He now contributes occasionally to WXPR. During his full-time employment, his main focus was reporting on environment and natural resources issues in northern Wisconsin and Michigan's Upper Peninsula as part of The Stream, a weekly series.
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