Huge news today out of Knoxville as Berkshire Hathaway, Warren Buffett’s firm, announces a buy into Pilot Flying J, a chain of travel centers — not travel agencies, another industry nearly driven out of existence by online, but “travel centers,” which is a high-falutin’ word for truck stops.
Pilot and Flying J stores can be found lining the major interstates in the Midwest and throughout the country. The farthest away I’ve encountered one is in Arizona, near the Meteor Crater. The closest ones to Ann Arbor are in Dexter off of I-94, at either side of the Baker Road exit. Yes, there are Pilots on either side of I-94 at the same exit. The northern one was a Speedway fuel station years ago, albeit an oversized one that catered to truckers — Speedway sold their truck-stop business to Pilot a few years before Pilot merged with Flying J.
Today’s travel centers tend to have at least one restaurant attached, sometimes a whole food court. They cultivate brand loyalty among professional drivers with fuel discounts, wifi memberships, and free showers. Their convenience stores are more like mini department stores for the professional driver, selling everything from roller-grill hot dogs, to furniture and entertainment equipment for the little bedroom inside your truck, to cheap toys and local gift merchandise to pick up for your family on the way home.
This seems like a brave time for BH to get into roadside services, as the freight industry begins to experiment with electric and self-driving trucks. So why is Warren Buffett investing in Pilot Flying J? The answer, I suspect, is simpler than you might think.
Buffett chose to acquire Dairy Queen because he loved Dairy Queen, but that’s not the only thing he and I have in common. We also both love Cherry Coca-Cola. Buffett is famous for drinking several cans every day. BH is a Coca-Cola investor and last year, when Coke finally introduced Cherry Coke in China, they put a cartoon of him on the packaging.
I used to drink a lot of fountain Coke. I mean, a lot of fountain Coke. The first time I ever visited a Flying J I bought a giant, ludicrous, 52oz. trucker mug to increase my Coke consumption. It was unsustainable; I have retired it and switched to smaller servings, mostly of of Coke Zero Sugar.
But when I’m out on the interstate, and even sometimes just on the west side of town, I still want a Cherry Coke from a Pilot or a Flying J, because they have the best cherry syrup in the known universe. It is bright red, super sweet with that wild-cherry flavor you usually encounter in second-tier bubble gums, and just a little viscous. They let you put in as much as you want. You could fill the whole cup with cherry syrup, although that would be really gross. It doesn’t have a medicinal aftertaste the way some other chains’ cherry syrup add-ins do (looking at you, Speedway). The right kind of cherry syrup makes all the difference.
Warren, if you ever read this, I am a fraternity brother of your cousin Jimmy and I would love to drink a Cherry Coke with you. We don’t even have to talk shop.