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The Sheetz Masterpiece: The Convenience Store as Art and the Art of Convenience [The Ryan Dixon Line]

How Morgan Spurlock’s POM Wonderful Presents the Greatest Movie Ever Sold shows the world the glory of Sheetz.

During the 1940’s, Walt Disney spent weekends sitting on creaky benches watching his daughters play at shoddy, destitute amusement parks. Those endless hours suffering in communal boredom with other parents was the inadvertent shot that sparked a revolution. As Disney would later tell it:

“What this country really needs is an amusement park that families can take their children to. They’ve gotten so honky tonk with a lot of questionable characters running around, and they’re not safe. They’re not well kept. I want to have a place that’s as clean as anything could ever be, and all the people in it are first-class citizens, and treated like guests.”

Opened in 1955, Disneyland is the 20th Century’s singular cultural achievement. Walt Disney’s vision of a fully immersive world (the amusement park transformed into a theme park writ large) had the same Olympian influence on entertainment and the arts as Richard Wagner’s 19th Century theatrical innovations like designing theaters in the Greek amphitheater style so all seats faced the stage (imagine that!), lowering the house lights and covering the pit orchestra so that the music would seemingly rise from the recesses of the audience’s imagination.

But what seemed radical then is now taken for granted. Many of the newer Disney attractions have been greeted with ho-hum indifference. A 3D Imax experience is just another variation of Wagner’s Gesamtkunstwerk.

The envelope needs to be pushed. The edge needs to bleed. And they have. Just in a very different industry. Over the past twenty years, cultural innovation has been given a new name:


Like nazi, pederast, and futures investor, convenience store is a term widely and rightfully derided, conjuring images of lukewarm hot dogs shriveling upon rolling racks, bloated behind-the-counter faces bedazzled with cold sores and homeless hosts big-gulping second-hand soda. As a desired destination, “visiting a convenience store” can be found somewhere between concentration camp internment and front row folding chairs at the National Dog Fighting Championship.

While Dante wasn’t referring to your local 7-Eleven, the inscription carved upon the gates of hell in Inferno probably sums it up best: “Lasciate ogne speranza, voi ch’intrate.”

“Abandon all hope, ye who enter here.”

For those tired of suffering in the ninth Circle of K, Sheetz is the salvation. It is a convenience store like Citizen Kane is a movie, Moby-Dick a novel, the Pittsburgh Steelers a mere football team. One doesn’t compare Sheetz against other convenience stores. One judges Sheetz as a work of art.

Founded by Bob Sheetz in 1952 — the first store was in the central Pennsylvania city of Altoona – and now a robust franchise with over 390 locations in six states stretching from Ohio to North Carolina, Sheetz, Inc. has eclipsed steel and coal to become (Warning: hyperbole crossing ahead) the single greatest export in the history of Pennsylvania.

And the Sheetz brand is about to go through a major growth spurt with the release of Morgan Spurlock’s sponsorship documentary POM Wonderful Presents The Greatest Movie Ever Sold. In that film, Spurlock, a West Virginia native and longtime Sheetz fan, convinces the company to sign on as one of the production’s sponsors. (As an additional bit of brilliant multi-platform cross-promotion, Altoona has recently sold its naming rights to the movie for the next two months.)

It might surprise some that the man who brought McDonald’s to its knees in Super Size Me has decided to praise this (still family owned) business. But in our age of populist rage, Sheetz is the wet dream of free market corporatists. It’s the shining convenience store upon a hill, an example of how doing what’s best for profits can also be what’s best for the people.

And the people repay Sheetz with a loyalty that verges on the cult-like. No other convenience store in the country can count as customers those who, upon returning to their hometowns (like dozens of my friends and myself), make sure that their first meal’s last letter starts with a “z”.

Disneyland would never have succeeded without the animated classics. Wagner couldn’t have built his Bayreuth Festival Theatre without The Ring Cycle. And at the heart of Sheetz’s success is the MTO. While these three letters (standing for “made-to-order”) once solely represented the process of how subs were made, the MTO has now grown to encompass the means of production for a cornucopia of 24/7 culinary delights ranging from juicy, delectable burgerz, freshly tossed saladz, hot dogz (2 for 99 cents), meltz, wrapz, sodaz (with optional cherry and vanilla flavoring), coffee (free on major holidays) and a smoothie bar.

Sheetz not only revolutionized the type of food found in convenience stores, but the way we ordered it. Upon entering, patrons are free from having to place their lunch, dinner or Taco Bell-trademarked fourth-meal orders into the oft-unwashed hands of apathetic teens or unable-to-retire senior citizens. Instead, Sheetz patrons are greeted by a wall of kiosks with an interface design of such sleek and sturdy simplicity as to make the iPad feel as clunky as an IBM 5100.

In areas of the country where Sheetz reigns supreme, the MTO phenomenon has so transformed the eating habits of the populace that major restaurant chains are continually forced to create Holy Grail fast food deals (like McDonald’s three double cheeseburgers for a dollar or Subway’s fifty-cent footlong) in order to compete.

Of course, Darth Pollan and his cabal of farm fresh fascists would have you believe that there is no difference between Sheetz and a Burger King or Wendy’s. “A pre-made burger is nothing more than a protein filled pesticide,” they will tell you. And yes, eating at Sheetz isn’t as healthy as chowing down on kale steak sautéed in cod liver oil over a bed of wheat grass, but like In-N-Out Burger, Sheetz strives to provide, in equal measure, the highest quality at the most affordable price. More often than not, it succeedz. In spadez. (Sorry, I just couldn’t help myself.)

And so, if you’re ever traveling through the eastern edges of America’s heartland and find yourself depressed by the overabundance of abandoned buildings, arid farm fields and Antediluvian political beliefs, there’s only one way to ensure a pleasant trip: visit Sheetz, the El Bulli of convenience stores.

Photo credit (all): Meghan Griffith (my sister)

Looking for the perfect book to read while eating your MTO? There’s no better choice than my graphic novel, Hell House: The Awakening. Don’t have time to read a whole book while you eat? Then follow me on Twitter @ryanbdixon.