Kwik Trip nears deal to buy truck stop; Watts Cookin’ closing SundayPublished 10:39am Thursday, March 13, 2014
Austin is about to bid farewell to one business, while welcoming a chain to its third location in town.
A Kwik Trip official confirmed the La Crosse, Wis.-based company reached a purchase agreement to buy the Austin Auto Truck Plaza and Watts Cookin’, pending the termination of a supply agreement and a few closing details.
Hans Zietlow, director of real estate at Kwik Trip, expects the deal to be finalized by late March or mid-April, and Kwik Trip will take over the truck stop the following day. The company plans to start construction on a $5-million, 6,000- to 7,000-square-foot truck stop in July. The current truck stop will remain open during construction, as the new truck stop would be in a different location on the property.
“It’ll never go out of business,” Zietlow said.
Watts Cookin’ owner Kermit Watts will close the adjoining restaurant he has owned since 1988 for the final time at 2 p.m. Sunday. The business will be open 9 a.m. to 2 p.m. until then.
Watts, 70, said it will be the first time in more than 65 years that a member of his family hasn’t run a restaurant in Mower County.
His parents bought Lansing Corners in 1947 and kept it through 1979, and his brother and dad ran Bob’s Drive-In from 1958 to 1962. He, his brother and dad ran the Plaza Restaurant from 1962 to 1975, his brother ran The Travel Inn in LeRoy from about 1972 through 2003, and he owned the Peppermill Restaurant in Austin from 1984 to 1989.
He bought Watts Cookin’ in 1988, ran it for several years with a business partner, and became sole owner in 1998. The diner/truck stop has seen many changes over the years, most recently in March 2013 with new truck stop showers, bathrooms and laundry area, and in June 2012 with a remodel of its dining room and bar area.
“There’s some sadness in thinking that I’m leaving,” said Watts, who noted he has helped with his family’s restaurants since he was a child.
However, Watts added there’s some relief, too, knowing he doesn’t have payroll and labor obligations.
In December, Watts announced plans to close his 24-hours-per-day, 365-days-per-year business for the first and last time at the end of the month, unless he could work out an agreement with a buyer.
Watts Cookin’ and Austin Auto Truck Plaza currently employ about 45 people. The Kwik Trip will employ 30 to 40 workers, and Zietlow hopes many of the current workers apply with Kwik Trip.
Kwik Trip will keep its two other locations in Austin, but Zietlow said the third location will be different.
“It’ll be the new state of the art facility like we have in Rochester,” he said.
According to Zietlow, the facility will be similar to the one opened in Albert Lea last November, but a little larger and nicer.
The site appealed to Kwik Trip because it offered a location with diesel right along Interstate 90. The new station will sell compressed natural gas, or CNG, which the company sees as the fuel of the future, Zietlow said. While CNG can be used as an alternative to gasoline or diesel, only a small percentage of vehicles on the U.S. market run on CNG. The Austin truck stop would be one of only 19 Kwik Trips that sell CNG, according to its website, although that includes one in Rochester, Owatonna and Mankato, and the new Kwik Trip in Albert Lea will sell it this spring.
Kwik Trip, which would own about 5 additional acres, hopes to lease space to build a sit-down restaurant and a hotel. A restaurant could occupy two acres and a hotel could take three acres, but there are no deals in the works right now, according to Zietlow.
Kwik Trip, founded in 1965 in Eau Claire, Wis., has more than 10,000 employees and about 450 locations in Iowa, Minnesota and Wisconsin, including about 110 in Minnesota, according to its website.
—Adam Harringa contributed to this report.