Stewart's reports strong 2008

ELIZABETHTOWN - While many companies struggled to keep their profit margins in tact last year, the North Country's most prevalent convenience store chain is reporting continued growth.

Stewart's Shops reported sales of $1.3 billion throughout its 326-shop chain in 2008. That amounts to a 5 percent increase in shop sales and a 7 percent increase in shop operating profit from the previous year.

"While many companies have gravitated to higher prices, we have been able to maintain our product value and sales because of the efficiency of our integrated dairy, ice cream plant, warehouse and distribution system that services our shops with three quarters of what they sell," said Stewart's Shops president Gary Dake.

Dake also credited the strong year to the chain's focus on food items like milk, ice cream and coffee. Such products are not as widely sold in many convenience stores, which rely primarily on cigarettes, beer and gasoline, all of which saw declining sales in 2008.

As a result of their continued success, Stewart's expects to build several shops in the coming year and will renovate and rebuild even more existing shops.

"The rebuilt shops are usually larger and more comfortable for customers, allowing us to expand categories like our beverages and food to go business," said Tom Mailey, marketing manager for Stewart's Shops.

On average, each store employs between seven and 12 full- and part-time workers, with the highest numbers during the summer months.

"It is a pleasure to look our partners in the eye and tell them there are no layoffs and we are continuing to expand," said Dake, "especially since they own a third of the company."

Despite the company's continued expansion, Stewart's Shops is maintaining its committment to the towns and villages they serve.

"Last year we donated over $2 million in 30 counties," said Mailey. "This year we have increased our contributions budget to $2.25 million."

In 2008, the company contributed over $560,000 as part of a Holiday Match program that raised $1.1 million for local children's charities. A similar matching program gave several hundred dollars toward a new children's playground in Elizabethtown last summer.

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