We’re in the midst of a golden age for dining while traveling. Well-known chefs like Rick Bayless, Michael Voltaggio, and Mike Isabella have casual concepts in major airports across the country. Respected local restaurateurs have reinvigorated Denver’s Union Station. Shake Shack has invaded both airports and train stations. And yet road-trippers are still mostly stuck with McDonald’s.
National chain restaurants are ubiquitous along American highways. Stop in at any service plaza — a combined gas station, convenience store, and food court typically found on the median or shoulder of a toll road — and there will likely be a mix of chains like Pizza Hut, Cinnabon, Starbucks, Burger King, and, of course, the Golden Arches. You won’t find Federal Donuts on the Pennsylvania Turnpike. David Chang hasn’t opened Fuku on the New York State Thruway. There’s no chef-led revolution in roadside dining.
Yet things are changing at highway service stations. “These are not your grandfather's rest stops,” USA Today declared in 2014, writing that service plazas in states along the Eastern seaboard have undergone renovations to provide Wi-Fi, electric-vehicle charging, and other amenities. Some states have opened small farmers markets and displays hawking local food products. Maryland even added the crabcake-slinging Phillips Seafood, a Baltimore-based chain with several airport locations, to one of its service plazas.
But those are exceptions. For most toll-road drivers, lunch still ultimately amounts to a choice between Popeyes and Roy Rogers. Why is that — and could change be coming down the pike?
Roadside dining hasn’t always been dictated by the chains. McDonald’s was only founded a few months before the first toll-road service plaza — the Pennsylvania Turnpike’s South Midway stop — opened in 1940. It would be another 50 years before Big Macs were available at seemingly every stop.
Service plazas — which are different from other highway dining locales — are rooted in the network of toll roads that preceded the Interstate Highway System. State authorities built the stations so that motorists wouldn’t have to exit and reenter the tollway to obtain gas or food, ultimately paying more for the same trip. A few early freeways also opened service plazas, but even today, it is generally a toll-road phenomenon.
But the service plaza concept didn’t expand along with the American Interstate Highway System, which was authorized in 1956 and constructed westward over the two decades that followed. States instead built modest parks with bathrooms and picnic tables known as safety rest areas. Joanna Dowling, a historian who specializes in safety rest areas, explains that the federal government forbade states from competing with commercial business along federally funded highways. At most, they could provide a vending machine with soda and snacks.
Service plazas on the toll roads that predated these new highways, though, were grandfathered into the system. These can be mainly found along the East Coast and are less common throughout the rest of the country: They’re a type of rest stop, not the archetype.
During those early decades, service stations weren’t anything like the shopping mall food courts of today. Typically, they were just diners attached to a gas station. Howard Johnson’s ran the Pennsylvania Turnpike service plazas (then called “lunchrooms”) until the early 1980s. Other states had mom-and-pop-style diners. “That was basically the standard treatment,” says Michael Camarano, a American Automobile Association cartographer who started with the company 43 years ago as a road reporter.
Fast food didn’t come to most service plazas until the late ’80s and ’90s. By then, Camarano explains, it was what American motorists had come to expect from the road. Interstate highways that did not have service plazas (which is to say, most of them) had few food options in their earliest days. Since the highways were deliberately planned to bypass towns, you’d have to drive at least a mile off the highway to find food. “But it wasn’t long before everybody discovered the allure of the exit,” Camarano says. Chains like McDonald’s and Hardee’s began opening restaurants near highway exits in the ’70s and ’80s. Service plazas were their next conquest.
You know what you’re in for at a service plaza in Connecticut. Every single plaza along Interstate 95 has a Subway and Dunkin’ Donuts inside. McDonald’s has restaurants in eight of those 10 stations, too. These chains can also be found inside the service plazas along Route 15, the historic Merritt Parkway. They are the core tenants of Project Service LLC, the concessionaire that operates Connecticut’s service plazas.
Developers evaluate a complex set of factors when selecting concepts for service stations. How labor-intensive is it to operate? How much do the royalty and licensing fees cost? Does it serve breakfast for early-morning travelers? Will at least one of the brands in the retail mix remain open 24/7 for overnight travelers? And can the brand sustain itself alongside a highway? But it ultimately boils down to a simple question: What do most motorists want?
They want national fast-food brands. “It was astounding to me to see the plurality of people that walk in the door [and] run to a Subway or McDonald’s just because they’re so familiar with the brand,” says Paul Landino, president and CEO of Project Service LLC, who spends a lot of time watching how people behave in service plazas. He offers an example: Though you would think barbecue fans, at least, would flock to a niche barbecue concept, Landino argues most would invariably patronize chains instead. “I do it myself,” he says. “When I travel and I’m sure when you travel, you don’t want to experiment.”
Travelers behave the same way on the Ohio Turnpike, where the wide range of dining options lean toward the likes of Burger King, McDonald’s, Hardee’s, Popeyes, Sbarro, and Starbucks. Andrew Herberger, service-plaza operations manager for the Ohio Turnpike and Infrastructure Commission, says McDonald’s and Burger King are successful in travel service because they’re comfortable. “Can you make a better burger in your backyard on your grill? Yes, probably,” he says. “However, you know that if you go to Burger King in Ohio or New York or California or Tokyo that you’re going to get the same product across the board.”
Road warriors are also looking for speed. “The number one reason people stop is to use the restroom,” Herberger says. They may have to stop, but drivers want to get back on the road as quickly as possible. And they know national fast-food chains like McDonald’s can put a hamburger or chicken nuggets in their hands within minutes. This is also why service-plaza convenience stores have started selling prepackaged sandwiches and other fresh items, too: their checkout process is even quicker than a fast-food chain. “We’re conscious of the service time even down to the minute,” Landino says.
Operators care about efficiency, too. In Ohio, the turnpike system is only busy 100 days out of the year. “We have a very short window to become profitable,” Herberger says. That’s why state transportation departments usually contract out with concessionaires like Project Service LLC (or the even more ubiquitous HMSHost). Those operators come with a stable of core brand partners, like Subway and Dunkin’ Donuts, meaning a service plaza can open multiple concepts under one streamlined licensing, management, and staffing process. Adding a local or start-up concept — the way some airports have done in recent years — would undermine that efficiency.
Roadside dining is ultimately distinct from eating in an airport. There are so many small but crucial differences: While you can bring a picnic lunch on a road trip, you may have a harder time getting it through airport security. Airports are generally more expensive and cater to clients who are willing and able to pay more for their food. And at an airport, you don’t have any control over your time.
“The thing about an airport is you go there to wait,” says Camarano, the AAA cartographer. If you’ve got hours to kill between flights, you can grab a sit-down meal and a beer. If you just hate all the dining options, tough shit — everybody knows you’re not going to go back through security just for lunch. Travelers on a toll road can always pay a few cents more to pull off at an exit with their preferred fast-food brand. Service plazas have to work to entice them.
Fast-food behemoths like McDonald’s might draw in American motorists now, but service plaza operators are keeping an eye on the little guys. Landino is always looking to satisfy niche markets in addition to the majority of travelers who prefer his core tenants. “Over decades, habits change, preferences change,” he says. “The brands themselves constantly fight to stay relevant and current.” Sometimes brand innovations — like McDonald’s all-day breakfast — benefits service stations. But sometimes operators take it upon themselves to appeal to new customers.
Service-plaza renovations have taken a number of different forms in each state. In 2014, USA Today reported that the Maryland House on I-95 reopened after a $30 million improvement project that brought in local chains Phillips Seafood and Jerry’s Subs & Pizza to complement national brands like Wendy’s and Dunkin’ Donuts. Service stations on the Pennsylvania Turnpike have all been upgraded within the last decade; Pennlive broke down their new amenities, such as touchscreen ordering, a drive-thru Starbucks window, and seasonal farmers’ markets. The New Jersey Turnpike’s Grover Cleveland service plaza reopened in 2015 as a “healthy” choice with fresh, not frozen, food. (Starbucks and Popeye’s are its only remaining national brands.) HMSHost has even opened food trucks at service plazas in Delaware and New York.
The Ohio Turnpike is testing a small New York-based chain called Meatball Obsession, which serves meatballs and pasta in a cup. Some of Ohio’s service plazas have also opened small Ohio Heartland concepts, which sell local food products like meats and cheeses. Plazas on the New York State Thruway sell local products and host farmers markets. And Connecticut, too, is in talks with a healthy-food concept and is in the process of designing small office facilities for business travelers who have been known to host meetings in the food court.
Those changes are happening along the fringes of roadside dining rather than replacing the existing paradigm. But New Hampshire, on the other hand, recently upended the highway travel status quo. In 2015, the state reopened its northbound and southbound Welcome Centers on I-93 in Hooksett in a public/private partnership with Alex Ray of the local Common Man restaurant group. Under the restaurateur’s direction, food offerings include the Common Man Roadside Food Court as well as a counter-service concept called the Hi-Way Diner.
“We didn’t want it to be just an arbitrary stop in New Hampshire,” says Christopher Waszczuk, deputy commissioner of the New Hampshire Department of Transportation. “We wanted it to have that New Hampshire feel.” Hooksett is already a major hub for vacationers passing through the state; Waszczuk and his colleagues believed having a rest area with a local feel would make it a “must-stop” destination by offering something different.
It’s worked so far. Only in their second year, the Hooksett Welcome Centers have already reached the projections for their fourth and fifth years of operation. Waszczuk says the state is very happy with that success — and is ecstatic about the expected $100 million value of a public/private partnership. He thinks other states will start to follow suit. “I think people are starting to realize that we can take advantage of the tourism in the state,” he says. “This kind of model makes a whole lot of sense.”
More change could be coming if the federal government drops its restrictions on commercialized rest stops, allowing for the creation of even more service plazas.
The Trump Administration’s budget proposal does support reducing those restrictions and allowing the private sector to compete in interstate rest areas beyond those that were grandfathered in long ago. Waszczuk, for one, supports the measure, but it does have some fierce opposition from NATSO, the trade association representing the travel plaza and truck stop industries. NATSO president and CEO Lisa Mullings argued in a statement last month that “[u]nder this proposal, the same people who have been paying fuel taxes to build and maintain these roads will have to pay tolls, too.”
It’s hard to say what will happen to the makeup of service-plaza food courts. Over decades of traveling the interstate system, Camarano has seen service plazas change. But it happens at a glacial pace. “These places are evolving along with the traveling public, not leaving anybody behind,” he says. His colleague Michel Mousseau, who has been with AAA for 31 years, agrees. Service-plaza dining is a mirror of dining everywhere. “Now we’ve got foodies,” he says.
American food lovers have already driven service plazas to fill in around the edges of their chain-restaurant retail mixes with things like farmers markets and local cheeses. But, for the moment, they’re still just a niche market. Should those consumers ever become the mainstream, though, expect service plazas to transform in response. That opportunity to adapt is what operators like Landino find exciting about creating retail dining markets. Change is coming, whatever it is, he says. “Call me in a year.”
Amy McKeever is a freelance writer in Philadelphia. Grace Murphy is an illustrator and aspiring retiree based out of Portland, Oregon.
Editor: Erin DeJesus