By CRISTINA JANNEY
From a single gas station to an independently owned chain of convenience stores that is beloved for its Popt Popcorn and Snoballs, Cervs has been a Hays staple for 25 years.
The business began in 1994 when Verlin and Elaine Pfannenstiel opened their first location at 27th and Vine in Hays. They bought what was then a gas and service station from the Brown family.
The family developed the name Cervs by combining a letter from each member in the family.
That first store had a single Snoball machine with two flavors. The Snoball did not originate at Cervs. They started at the Stop and Shops, which was another area convenience store chain.
During the school year, you can go into Cervs after school gets out, and there is a line at the Snoball machines. But it’s not just kids, adults seem to love the syrupy, icy drinks too.
Owner Russ Pfannenstiel, 50, said it seems to be a phenomenon unique to this part of the state.
Verlin and Elaine sold the business to their son, Russ, in 1999. Russ graduated from Fort Hays State University in 1991 with a business degree. He worked at a lumberyard in Russell for eight years before moving back to Hays to run the family business.
Russ expanded the business to three locations in Hays, including Hall Street in 2002 and Main Street in 2007.
In 2008, two more stores were added to the Cervs family, including a store in Hoisington in June 2008 and a store in Great Bend in July 2008.
The company started making flavored Popt! popcorn out its Main Street store in 2014. That business, run by Russ’ wife, Bonnie, eventually moved to a stand-alone location on 27th Street. The Popt! retail store also sells candy, homemade fudge and assorted bottled sodas.
Cervs is also known for its handmade bierocks. You can get the traditional beef in the afternoon along with taco or ham and cheese and breakfast bierocks in the morning, including bacon, egg and cheese or sausage, egg and cheese.
Russ Pfannenstiel is self-admittedly a guy who does not like to be in the limelight. He seldom does interviews and he would prefer someone else to cut his commercials for the stores.
In an industry that used to be dominated by independently owned gas and service stations, Cervs is today a rare example of an independently owned and operated business in a chain-dominated industry.
“I think the single mom-and-pops are becoming harder to operate — keeping up with the fuel and keeping up with the investment in it,” Russ said.
He said he thought the support of the community has been important in the success of the business.
“I have been surrounded by some great people,” he said. “I have had some fantastic employees, and we’ve had the support of community in western Kansas.”
Cervs employs 50 to 55 employees across all five locations.
Pfannenstiel, as do most employers in Hays’ tight market, sometimes struggles to find employees. However, he said he has employees who have been with him for some time. He often hires students and said he finds it rewarding to see those young men and women graduate and move on to jobs in their fields.
Why do people like working at Cervs? Pfannenstiel jokes, “You get free Snoballs.”
“It is clean. It is well lit,” he said. “We try to make it a fun place to work.”
Three employees at the Great Bend store came to work for Pfannestiel when he purchased those operations 11 years ago, and they are still with the business. Pfannenstiel said having dependable, long-term employees has made branching out into Great Bend and Hoisington easier.
Pfannenstiel continues to update and look for new product lines that will bring customers into the store. Five years ago, the Cervs at 27th and Vine was renovated and yogurt machines were added. Two years ago, the Hall and Main Street stores were renovated, the Great Bend store was renovated this spring.
“It is fun going through the remodel process and seeing the finished process,” he said, “and getting customers’ feedback and seeing what they would like to see different and incorporating it into the store and the layout.”
The business also recently made the transition from Conoco branding to Phillips 66. Both brands are owned by the same company, and the parent company preferred to brand its gas stations as Phillips 66 from Kansas City to Denver, Russ said.
Russ said he continues to enjoy the challenge of running Cervs despite its demands.
“Every day is different,” he said. “There is not the same thing. You have a different challenge every day. The people are fun to work with, not only the employees, but the customers and the vendors you work with. It is never the same thing from day to day.”
Russ said Cervs is a fun business, but it is a constant learning process. His hopes for the future …
“To keep it going, keep it a fun place, always coming up with the next new and unique item to bring into the store and be open to any additional possibilities that are out there and being in a position to act upon them,” he said.
His advice for entrepreneurs who are just starting out is this, “You live and breathe it. It is on your mind 24 hours, seven days a week. It is not an 8 to 5 job. It is an extension of you and your family.”
Cervs will have a 25th anniversary celebration Friday, Aug. 16, through Sunday, Aug. 18. During the event, Cervs will be collecting food for the Community Assistance Center in Hays and the Community Food Bank of Barton County. Bring in two or more canned goods and you can be entered to win Royals tickets with a parking pass and a year’s supply of Snoballs. Additional giveaways will include concert tickets, bicycles, coolers and other items.
The anniversary event will also include 10 cent 16 ounce coffee Aug. 16 and Aug. 18, a Snoball drinking contest at the Vine and Great Bend locations on Aug. 16 and 25 cent 20 ounce Snoballs on Aug. 17.