11 Made to Order Facts About Sheetz
For people in a swath of the country, Sheetz is an unwritten item on the itinerary of any journey of more than 40 miles. The red-roofed gas station/fast food joint/convenience store/bottomless beverage well fulfills so many needs that it is an irresistible—nay, inevitable—stop on many people's road trips. Areas of Ohio, West Virginia, Virginia, Maryland, and North Carolina are in the Sheetz belt, but the heart of its empire is Western and Central Pennsylvania, where a Sheetz is stationed at almost every highway exit and the Sheetz parking lot serves as an after-hours town square. Here are 11 facts you might not know about this 600-store-strong chain of super-pit stops. Unless otherwise noted, all information about the company's history comes from Made to Order: The Sheetz Story by Kenneth Womack.
1. Sheetz grew out of a business that sold excess milk.
Sheetz’s corporate headquarters is in Altoona, Pennsylvania, which, like Sheetz itself, rose to semi-prominence as a stop; beginning in the 19th century, several railways connected in Altoona. In 1907, J.E. Harshbarger, the son of farming family in nearby Bellwood, Pennsylvania, noticed that local dairy farmers often threw out excess milk. So he created a network of dairy suppliers, delivering milk via horse and buggy to Altoona, which then boasted a population of 55,000 residents. In 1941, Harshbarger's son-in-law and business successor Jerry Sheetz sensed that home delivery of milk was on the decline and opened a network of five Sheetz Dairy Stores in the city.
2. Sheetz is a family business.
The business that would become Sheetz was essentially founded in 1952, when Jerry Sheetz's son Bob purchased one of his father’s dairy stores. In 1961, Bob's brother Steve Sheetz joined him. Since then, the company has remained in control of the Sheetz family and is now governed by an Executive Family Leadership Council of 11 Sheetzes spanning three generations.
3. "Made to Order" sandwiches saved Sheetz in the 1980s.
Bob and Steve Sheetz opened their second store, which was first called Sheetz Kwik Shopper, in 1963. They continued opening stores and began selling groceries and installing deli counters. By 1972, they had expanded to 10 stores and they installed the first gas pumps in 1973. By 1983, they had 100 stores that essentially operated as gas stations, which were open 24/7.
But the company was stumbling financially because of the hefty price it paid for groceries; Sheetz could not compete with the prices of supermarket chains that bought in bulk. Fast food was on the upswing in the '80s, as dual-income households had less capacity for shopping and cooking—so Sheetz tried a few in-house concepts. One was the Sandwich Saloon, with western-style swinging doors separating the food service segment within the stores. The next was Charlie Chicken, a foray into the fried chicken market.
Just as Sheetz was planning to spend $25,000 per location to install chicken fryers and enshrine its mustached chicken mascot in window displays throughout the chain, Earl Springer, manager of a Sheetz in Williamsport, Maryland, had a better idea. He implored the Sheetzes to implement “made to order” submarine sandwich stations. Customers could fill out cards, specifying exactly what they wanted on their sandwich. The cost to create a sandwich-making station was $1100 (a cost that explains how Subways were multiplying across the U.S. at the time). A stodgy Steve Sheetz gave Springer exactly $1100 to try to make it work.
And it did. Thanks in part to an advertising campaign on a local country music station, customers swarmed in for the sandwiches, and the company put the stations at every location. The stations were marketed with the “I Want My M.T.O.” campaign, echoing the (at the time) ubiquitous “I Want My MTV.” M.T.O. became a Sheetz hallmark. Selecting from seven kinds of cheese, demanding a pretzel bun, and never having to pick tomatoes off their sandwiches themselves seem like constitutional rights in Sheetz country. Its menu of M.T.O. items now includes (with variance by location) nachos, hot dogs, burgers, tacos, and wraps.
4. Sheetz fries some weird things.
While the M.T.O. menu is at the heart of the Sheetz dining experience, the chain keeps its attentive customer base on its toes by introducing specialty items, and many of them are fried: fried cheese curds, fried Oreos, and the much-loved fried macaroni and cheese balls.
5. Sheetz was one of the first companies to implement touch-screen ordering.
Sheetz worked with a niche technology company to create touchscreen computers to replace cards and tiny pencils as a means of dictating their M.T.O. items. In 1994, they installed the first touchscreen computer in an Altoona store and then made them standard across the chain.
6. There is an intense rivalry, at least among customers, between Sheetz and another Pennsylvania convenience store chain.
Although Sheetz blankets most of Pennsylvania, its presence peters out in the Philadelphia area. This is the unassailable turf of Wawa, a 700-location gas station/convenience chain with eerie parallels to Sheetz: Founded mid-century, it’s a family-owned business whose hallmark is made-to-order fast food items and it has a cult following locally. The two compete head-on only in a few territories, according to a map drawn up by an actual NASA cartographer.
To Pennsylvanians, Sheetz vs. Wawa is a debate on par with Steelers vs. Eagles or Primanti Brothers sandwiches vs. Philly cheesesteaks. If someone doesn’t own up to defending one as a matter of micro-regional heritage, they might contribute to one of the giant Twitter threads debating cleanliness, drink selection, food quality, and exclusive items. State politicians have chimed in. A filmmaker is trying to fund a documentary about the Sheetz vs. Wawa debate. It’s one of the first chasms between newly made friend groups at Pennsylvania colleges and universities, where students from across the state are scrambled together, and—even if every other belief they hold is challenged and widened in those four years—they tend to graduate with their opinion on the matter unchanged and unchangeable.
However, leaders at the two companies are friendly with one another. “Our families started out as really good friends,” said Ryan Sheetz, director of brand strategy told Thrillist. Steve Sheetz even served on the board of directors at Wawa, and a member of the Wood family, owners of Wawa, on the Sheetz board. “Early on, I think they really helped each other out a lot," Ryan Sheetz said. "The similarities aren’t accidental. We shared a lot of our good ideas with each other."
7. Sheetz adds a z to dazzle-up menu items and earmark its charity efforts.
Jerry Sheetz, who turned his father-in-law’s milk company into the stores that his sons would turn into Sheetz, was born Jerry Sheets. At a dairy industry convention, someone handed him a misspelled nametag that read “Jerry Sheetz.” He put it on and was Jerry Sheetz from then on, even traveling to Harrisburg, the state capitol, to obtain a new birth certificate. His only explanation: “I like it better.”
Today Sheetz a bit inconsistently replaces s’s with z’s on signage and in its social media accounts. Why it sells “burgerz” and hot dogs is apparently a company secret, as is the reason for hawking "fryz" and “totz” but deciding an s is sufficient for French toast sticks and apple fritters.
The company is surgical, however, in branding its philanthropic efforts with a z, including the Sheetz for Kidz holiday toy drives and Kidz Meal Bagz lunch program for children at risk of food scarcity because of the COVID-19 pandemic.
8. Sheetz sells cigarettes as cheaply as it can to keep up foot traffic.
In the early ’90s, Sheetz sold Jacks, its own cigarette brand. At the time, it was experimenting with in-house brands, including the loudly advertised—and then quietly discontinued—cola brand It! (exclamation points theirs).
Jacks cost $1 a pack, when the average cigarette price per pack was $1.40. As fewer people smoked, tobacco companies increased prices to maintain profit margins. Sheetz actually made less from selling a pack of Jacks at $1 than it did a pack of Marlboros or Camels at $1.40 (15 cents versus 45 cents), but the low price on cigarettes kept people coming in, and of course no one ever leaves Sheetz with just what they came for.
“Sandwiches were up, drinks were up, candy bars were up,” Louie Sheetz, brother to Steve and Bob, told the author of Made to Order. “The discounted cigarettes were bringing in foot traffic, and customers were buying other products.”
Cheap cigarettes might be a dark, cancerous secret of Sheetz’s success. Although it discontinued Jacks, the company still sells cigarettes at the lowest price allowed by state law.
9. There is a Sheetz fan podcast
Since October of 2018, two Pittsburghers who go by Alyse and Suds have recorded 30 episodes, many of them longer than an hour, of Freakz in the Sheetz, a podcast dedicated to Sheetz. The two recap visits to the chain. (Suds: “What did you think of the chicken sandwich that you had?” Alyse: “It was good. Like I said, I think the honey mustard could have been better. It was kind of runny.”) They discuss variations between Sheetz locations. (Alyse: “Like the Sheetzes around here, some of them don’t have milkshake machines or slushy machines.”) They try to define Sheetz, existentially, as if it is more than a gas station and not quite a restaurant. (Suds: “When do you think Sheetz will have its first waitress or waiter?” Alyse: “I don’t really foresee that happening.” Suds: “They do have drive-throughs now.” Alyse: “I think the closest thing I have seen to a waiter or waitress is I could swear I saw someone come out of a Sheetz drive-through scenario and bring food outside to someone because they had to wait.”)
10. Sheetz celebrates the holiday season with free coffee.
In the spirit of the season, Sheetz gives away free cups of coffee to customers coming in on Christmas Day, New Year’s Eve, and New Year’s Day. In 2020, as a COVID-19 precaution, it modified the tradition by offering one free cup a week through December and January to loyalty cardholders and app users to prevent crowds.
11. Sheetz is invading Columbus, Ohio.
Although Sheetz fears to breach Wawa strongholds, it is looking to expand its empire westward. Sheetz plans to open more than 50 stores in the Columbus area by the end of 2025, investing $250 million. “We’re not coming in lightly, that’s for sure,” Sheetz president and CEO Travis Sheetz warned.