| Arts & Culture
Food My Kwik Trip Gas Station Has Always Been There for Me
I want to preserve this old gas station because it feels like preserving myself.
When the Kwik Trip gas station two blocks from my childhood home closes forever, my sister sends me a Facebook post that feels like an obituary: STORE CLOSING: gallery of 16 photos from the last day, December 14, 2022, as workers rushed in the final few hours to clear the store out. The post comes from a group called “You know you grew up in Faribault when . . .” that specializes in the history of the area. I’m not a member. I’m over a thousand miles away from Minnesota and my family as I scroll through the gallery. I don’t know why these images make me cry—like, shed actual tears.
The first image is an exterior shot of the station, with parked cars getting their last fill-up and a dirty, shrinking snowbank. Inside the station are near-empty display racks: rummaged-through packs of gum, one lonely row of potato chips, Long John doughnuts drying up. I can’t believe the tile floor, with its filthy brown color, looks the same after almost thirty years. I think of my fingernails and the grime beneath them, how it always reappears no matter how often I scrape it out.
I text my sister back: It was just nice knowing it was there.
There is one final image: the vacant building in the night. I know exactly on which corner the photographer stands. To the right is my old street where the jagged sidewalk makes bicycle handlebars rattle. A couple blocks down is my childhood home, where my mother’s hostas are still planted. Along the street, wooden porch steps have gone crooked from harsh winters and economies. The photographer’s camera lens points north. The gas station sign contains no numbers. Just decimals. A period. An end of an era.
One Sunday when I was ten, my mother—exhausted from doing the laundry, helping us with homework, and cleaning our home—drove us two blocks to Kwik Trip. There was Tuna Helper in the pantry, but even boiling water felt taxing. After my parents separated, my mother had to love double and be two parents at once. This meant quick meals, and on this night: Kwik Trip gas station dinner.
When we stepped out of the car, the ground smelled unseasonably raw from the rain. The sun had set at four thirty, but behind the finger-smudged glass doors, fluorescent lights were beaming. Our unwashed and uncombed hair became noticeable under the light, but I wasn’t embarrassed. We weren’t the most unkempt in the neighborhood.
This meant quick meals, and on this night: Kwik Trip gas station dinner.
Kwik Trip had once been a treat. When my dad had still been around, he’d taken my sister and me there on summer evenings. My face, flushed with heat, would cool in the station’s air conditioning. I’d choose grape Kool-Aid Bursts and Hubba Bubba: Groovy Grape. My sister and I would tear off slices and chew until we couldn’t shove any more into our mouths. Now, in the dead of winter, with my father gone and me old enough to be aware of my mother’s sadness, Groovy Grape didn’t look as refreshing.
My mother said I could pick out whatever I wanted. I longed for sweetness, so I grabbed a chocolate Long John from the doughnut case. Long Johns came in various topping and filling combinations: vanilla, chocolate, maple, peanuts, sprinkled, un-sprinkled, vanilla or chocolate drizzle, cream, custard or no filling at all. The basic iteration—plain chocolate, plain insides—was the most effective, but that night the selection had been massively picked over, so I settled for sprinkles and cream filling.
I shuffled over to the hot-food section and let it warm me after our drafty house. Leftover that evening were a couple greasy slices of pizza, dusty burgers, and a lone sausage-egg-and-cheese croissant that had grayed and dried up into rock form. I didn’t dare mess with the hot dogs and the meaty armor of their skin.
There was one piece of glory.
The garlic-dusted cheese-filled breadsticks smelled of pure Italian-seasoned wonder—like Olive Garden. Since the restaurant was fancy and expensive, we’d only been once. Oh, but Kwik Trip was my Olive Garden. There were no busts on the racks of Flamin’ Hot Cheetos. No columns by the entrance. But it did have those tasty breadsticks and a cashier in front of the cigarettes who said “see you next time” to every customer.
We piled our bounty onto the checkout counter. My mother had chosen Old Dutch restaurant-style queso, corn chips, a Snickers bar, and a bottle of Diet Pepsi. My sister: stuffed breadsticks, Diet Mountain Dew Code Red, and fresh warm cookies. I added a bottle of Capri Sun, grape Laffy Taffy, the chocolate-sprinkled Long John, a prepackaged cup of marinara, and the breadsticks. My mother retrieved the cash from her wallet. We didn’t need endless salad, but it would have been nice.
While visiting home over holiday break, I reread the post about my Kwik Trip closing. An argument about change versus tradition appears in the comments. I don’t know any of these people, but we have two things in common: our birthplace and our love of Kwik Trip. As I read, I am also chewing on a perfect chocolate Long John.
This guy Brandon comments: As a kid, I used to ride my bike down there all the time and buy baseball cards in the early 90s.
Greg shares his connection to the place: I remember buying Swisher Sweets there underage many years ago.
Chris and Mark state aggressively that this is not something to mourn. It is a corporate gas station that doesn’t give two shits about your nostalgia.
And then there’s Linda, who aches over the fact that the town has changed and looks nothing like how it did when she was a kid. Other comments express excitement about new developments. They’re going to construct another Kwik Trip several blocks north. It will be larger than the old one with more to offer.
I read and chew. The dough slides down my throat and the chocolate hides between my teeth. I understand what Scott and Mike are saying, even if I wouldn’t be so assertive about it. This is a $4 billion company. Why should I care? When I was younger, I used to dream of new establishments coming to Faribault. Then I glance at my Long John and consider how gushy I feel about it.
I’m even particular about the name Long John. I can’t find much about its origin story. I assume the regional slang for an iced rectangular-shaped doughnut has something to do with wearing long johns, or long underwear beneath your clothes. Since Minnesota winters get below zero with brutal wind chills, the only way to get a doughnut in the freezing cold is to put on long johns. This makes me feel soft about where I grew up. I appreciate the Midwestern humility.
I take another bite. My teeth stick to the ganache, and I really do mean ganache, not icing. Icing is more liquid than solid. In other parts of the country, it crystallizes on top, and beneath that shield is a wet, gritty sauce that slides off the doughnut.
My eyes linger over the comments. I feel the same battle of change versus tradition within myself. I like progression. I don’t want to rot in nostalgia. I want to evolve, but at the same time, I will always prefer a Kwik Trip Long John over any other doughnut. It is more than just a doughnut, more than a chain of gas stations. That building holds a part of me, my memories. I picture the jelly sandals I wore as a girl scraping on the brown tile floor. I want to preserve this old gas station because it feels like preserving myself.
When we got home from Kwik Trip that winter night, drops of freezing rain lingered on our sweatshirts. My mother switched out a load of laundry before heating her queso in the microwave. She made sure to cover the jar with a paper plate since she’d cleaned our splatter from the machine earlier that day.
“Is this okay?” she asked my sister, about having Kwik Trip as a meal. I was in another room and never heard this conversation. My sister would tell me about it years later.
“I just can’t today,” my mother said. “Am I lazy? Am I a bad mom?”
“It’s fine,” my sister said, uncomfortable at seeing my mother question herself.
Soon after, we sat in front of the television stuffing our mouths with Kwik Trip. The Vikings were playing, but that was my dad’s thing. Instead, we watched Bridget Jones’s Diary . As I watched Bridget find her inner power through Chaka Khan and exercise bikes, I bit into my Long John. The cream was bearable, but the ganache was solid enough to suck on and the light dough barely needed chewing.
When I drenched the breadsticks in marinara sauce, I noticed my hands smelled like Windex. Earlier, we’d gotten on our hands and knees to clean the house. We cleaned every Sunday, but no matter how hard we scrubbed, it was never pristine. Another layer of filth under my fingernails. The breadstick was ruined. The butter-garlic seasoning on top had seeped into the rest of the sticks, making them soggy. A bright yellow liquid squeezed out of the bread and onto my fingers. The cheese filling squeaked against my teeth. In this state, they weren’t worth finishing, but I was hungry and didn’t have other options. I ate them anyway.
I visited my Kwik Trip two weeks before it closed—my first visit in years. When I walked in, I felt like I towered over everything. I shuffled around the aisles knowing the movements by memory.
I clutched my hand around a plain chocolate Long John—one of few left. I wanted to linger in the store but wasn’t sure what for. I dropped the doughnut on the counter, and it rung up as less than two dollars. I paid with my weighty Capital One and then nervously apologized for paying by card even though I’ve never said something like that in my life. Perhaps I was apologizing for leaving this neighborhood and gas station behind. The person taking my money reassured me that no one carries cash anymore. We both smiled, and they said, “See you next time.”
I could have lingered, walked the blocks under the trees that knew me, but instead I drove five minutes to my favorite neighborhood with streets of Tudor-style and midcentury homes. I imagined it housed families that stayed together, where kids played on lush grass. Families who sat down for warm meals with vegetables. Afterward, they drank Pamplemousse La Croix and listened to NPR next to their midcentury modern splayed-leg tables.
I imagined it housed families that stayed together, where kids played on lush grass. Families who sat down for warm meals with vegetables.
My parents settled in my old neighborhood because they were young and had accumulated three years of medical bills. It felt dangerous to play outside after the streetlights came on. My father never sat at a table for dinner. I often ate overly salted food that sometimes came from a gas station.
The faraway winter sun glossed the homes in a pale yellow the way only a Minnesota winter sun can. I felt like I could belong in this neighborhood. This is what I wished, and still wish, to be. For the first time in my life, it felt like strangers might believe I lived here.
A week after my Kwik Trip closes, my mother takes me to visit the new Kwik Trip that was built less than a mile down the road. It’s more of a grocery store than a gas station, but it does provide extra unleaded and diesel pumps. People of the neighborhood, my old neighborhood, push carts down the much wider aisles.
The gray tiles on the floor are shiny rather than sticky. A tasteful black tiled backsplash covers the wall of the coffee station. The perfectly ripe bananas sit like a pyramid-shaped shrine in the center of the space.
They still sell milk by the bag. They upgraded their basic grocery section of cereal and Pop-Tarts to include ground beef and shredded hash browns. Not only do they have milk, eggs, and bananas; they also have a miniature produce section of Honeycrisp apples and russet potatoes.
By the hot food, the cheese-filled breadsticks sit on the warmer along with full pizzas, juicy burgers and chicken sandwiches, buckets of mashed potatoes and mac and cheese, and entire rotisserie chickens. My mother says the jumbo chicken tenders are really good. I tell her that we’ll have to get them together sometime.
It doesn’t smell like freezer burn, but I can’t be mad at it. I think of the children who will have Kwik Trip dinners and their abundant options.
Of course, I buy a chocolate Long John at a self-checkout. My mother laughs at me while I buy it. We both look brighter than we have at a Kwik Trip in the past because it doesn’t feel like the only option. Now I have the means and time to buy herbs, spices, lemons, to make us meals from scratch and enjoy the slow layering of flavors—a luxury we didn’t have growing up. The kiosk sounds like a real person when it says, “See you next time.”
Afterward, my mother drives me to the vacant station two blocks from my front-porch steps. I wish I could look inside, but it’s already obscured by construction. Instead, I stand on the sidewalk in the cold. I realize that as I get older, I’ll find more things to ache over, and I hope they don’t ruin me. I don’t want to be like the people from the Facebook post, but I understand it now—the feeling that as the things I know go away, I will go away too.
If I added my comment to the thread, it would say something like this:
In the summer, I used to buy Flintstone Push-Up Pops here. I’d purchase the pop and forget the loose change on the counter, wait for it to melt so I could push the plastic into the cardboard cylinder, then eat it as juice dripped down my hands. When this building was open, I thought I could grasp that memory, but I can only reach out for it.
For a little while, I let myself ache over this.