Fuel City is a gas station in the middle of downtown Dallas, but "gas station" hardly describes this bizarre Disneyland of truck stops. Inside its large convenience store there's a huge, custom-made ice chest for beer the size of a Jacuzzi. A taco stand regularly serves long lines of customers 365 days a year.
It's hard to miss the swimming pool by the car wash decorated with a life-size dinosaur, and the stuffed remains of wild animals adorn every wall. "His name was Double Wide," said owner John Benda, referring to the massive bust of a longhorn hanging above him whose horns measure 90 inches "from tip to tip."
Benda, however, is not a hunter, and none of the animals are his personal trophies. "I'm a complete pacifist, I don't even like to fish," he said, before stepping out to check on the well-being of a living longhorn named Stretch kept in a large pen.
Welcome to our strangest success story yet.
He may not hunt, but Benda is a 65-year-old native Texan. He's a good ol' boy with a soft heart who wanted to recreate the ranch experience in the middle of Dallas "and let people see what Dallas looked like before it was a city."
So in 1999, after a lifetime of business pursuits, he created Fuel City on Riverfront Boulevard, at the intersection of two freeways. "I was doing jury duty down the street, and during lunch break, I found this spot." Benda figured he could make money selling gasoline and food at the convenience store, and use those funds to build out the 8-acre space to include animals.
"We've got longhorns and donkeys," he said. Dallas hasn't been as welcoming to other species. "We had a white buffalo, (but) got a ticket from the city which said you can't have buffalo in downtown Dallas," Benda said. He also bought camels and zebras, and the city made him get rid of those, too. "My dream is a giraffe. It's on my bucket list."
Last year, Benda said Fuel City sales hit $25 million (the station is associated with Gulf). He's expanded to a second, larger location in Mesquite, and together 2015 sales were $39 million. Two more Fuel Cities are in the works.
The journey from golf balls to bikinis
"I love to work," said Benda. As a kid, he used to fish used golf balls out of the pond at a country club his father managed, then polish them to resell. "I found out later that the lake was used as a septic tank," he laughed. Along the way he also worked as a lifeguard, a substitute teacher, auditioned to be Bozo the Clown, sold disposable lighters and eventually opened a cigarette store after two years of unemployment.
Then came the day in his late 40s when Benda took a lunch break from jury duty and found the spot where his dream of a ranch in downtown Dallas could come true. He needed to convince the bank to share his vision. "The store cost $4.5 million," Benda said. He scraped together all the money he had to come up with the first $1 million, even taking out a second mortgage.
Benda begged the bank to lend him the rest. "I showed them the swimming pool, and they said, 'A swimming pool at a convenience store?' I said, 'No, no, no it'll be cool, people will want to come.'" He eventually got the money. (More on the swimming pool in a bit.)
When Fuel City finally opened in 1999, Benda was so nervous he didn't immediately come in to supervise. "I was terrified. I didn't know if people would come or not."
They came. Over the last 17 years, Benda has continued to track his daily bank balance with a graph. "If it was going up, I was making it, and if it was going down, I wasn't gonna make it." The graph has steadily gone up.
Much of Fuel City's revenue comes from the 24-hour taco stand, which Benda rents out to the cook. It's extremely popular after the bars close down at 2 a.m. "We have so many people here at night on the weekend that we have two police officers directing traffic until 4 in the morning." People also come for the karaoke on Fridays and Saturdays, to picnic near the animals and for the free vacuum stations set up next to the car wash.
Benda's philosophy is to entice with affordability. "We can force people to come into the store by having low prices." His goal is to be worth $70 million by the time he's 70. "How much am I making?" he asked before laughing. "A lot."
Not everything has been a hit, which brings us back to the swimming pool. When Benda installed it at the gas station he placed a "help wanted" ad in the newspaper to hire women willing to wear bikinis and sit by the pool as a novelty to attract customers.
"I had prostitutes answering me, all sorts of riffraff," he said. "It was hard to get a girl to sit by the pool." Eventually he said he found the right women, but after a while his daughters told him the whole concept was offensive. "I said, 'Yeah, I guess you're right.'" That was the end of the models. Now, instead of bikini-clad beauties, a dinosaur statue named Rocky decorates the pool area.
Anywhere else in the world, a dinosaur by a swimming pool at a gas station would seem out of left field. It's all perfectly normal at Fuel City. "I just want people to come in and have a good time," said Benda.
Live simple, never give up
He attributes much of his success to living within his means. Benda didn't buy his first home until he was 40, plowing any money he made back into whatever business he was trying to grow. "I remember people would come over to my house when I was young and married with kids, and my wife was embarrassed for them to come in, because our house so was small and simple."
He also credits tenacity. Benda's wife has nicknamed him "the turtle" because he refuses to quit. "I had a stamp made 25 years ago that said, "Never, never, never, never, never, never give up.'"
Benda said he won't give up until he has spread the Fuel City brand all over Texas. "Some people might call it a truck stop," he said. "I say it's someplace where dreams come true."