Pioneers of Convenience

Now in its 65th year, QuikTrip sets industry standards for success through constant innovation. But in the beginning, cofounders Chester Cadieux and Burt Holmes had little more than ambition, work ethic, and just enough good luck.

Kayloni Alexander
Director of Operations & Culture
In the lead up to QuikTrip’s 50th Anniversary in 2008, Müllerhaus Legacy worked with cofounder Chester Cadieux to develop his management memoir, From Lucky to Smart: Leadership Lessons from QuikTrip. In the following excerpt from the book, Mr. Cadieux recounts the founding of QuikTrip.

It’s funny how you remember some things so clearly. One day when I was in my early teens, my father pulled me aside and said, “If you really want to make any money, you have to go into business for yourself.” I’ve never forgotten his words, or the look in his eye. That simple statement planted a seed that refused to die. From that moment on, I always knew I’d be my own boss someday—I just had no idea how to get there. 

I was raised in what most people would call a middle-class family in Tulsa, Oklahoma. After graduating from the University of Oklahoma in 1954 with a degree in Business Administration, I reported for duty in the Air Force as a 2nd Lieutenant. I was one of the brave souls who diligently guarded the Midwestern skies during the Cold War from a strategically located Air Defense Command radar site in Bartlesville, Oklahoma. Since not a single Russian bomb dropped anywhere in the United States, we apparently did a great job of holding down the home front. By the time I left the service in 1957, I had a wife, two children, a mortgage, a car payment and more than enough ambition to be dangerous.

To make ends meet, I settled into a job selling printing and in my spare time, I mulled over starting my own business. As I assessed my very limited options, I went about life as though merely thinking about starting a business would actually make one miraculously fall from the sky. In a short time, I established three conditions that I felt were essential to offset the risks inherent in taking a chance on a new venture:

Low capital investment. After all, I was already in debt and had little to invest.

A simple concept. Although I had a college degree, I didn’t have the technical expertise to go into a specialized field where I would have to pay skilled laborers.

Little competition. Without money to throw into a startup business, I knew I’d need to find one that was easy to enter.

As it turned out, a chance meeting with Burt Holmes dropped the golden goose right in my lap. Although I knew Burt from junior high, our friendship hadn’t developed much because we went to different high schools and colleges. Since we were both salesmen (he was selling insurance for his father’s company), we’d see each other downtown and stop to talk.

One such unplanned chat changed both our lives more than we could’ve imagined. Burt was in the process of developing a new business concept based on Southland Corporation’s successful operation of 7-Eleven stores in Texas, Florida, and several other states. They were selling beverages, dairy products, bread, a limited selection of groceries and crushed ice in small stores that offered longer hours than traditional markets. These bantam stores catered to people who needed items when the supermarkets were closed. Since the little stores filled a service void, people were willing to pay the higher prices they charged for the “convenience” they provided.

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QuikTrip cofounders Chester Cadieux, left, and Burt Holmes. In their first two years, the company lost its entire capital. But within eight years, they were operating 50 stores with plans to add another 50 within three years.

Burt needed someone to invest who could also run the stores—and his idea to mimic 7-Eleven fit all three of my business conditions. It also helped that I was familiar with the look and feel of the stores from frequent trips to visit relatives in Dallas. Tulsa seemed like a natural expansion of that market and the next day I told Burt that I was in. I borrowed $5,000 from my dad to match Burt’s $5,000. Since he had already convinced three other partners to invest $2,000 each, we had $16,000 to begin our enterprise.

We proudly incorporated on May 19, 1958, originally naming the business Quick-Trip until Sam Karney, the art director of the sign shop, suggested the signage would be more balanced with four letters on each side. Thus, we dropped the “c” and became Quik-Trip. 

“Fueled by a combination of nervous energy and determination, the daily struggle to find a way to make the business succeed became a way of life.”

Müllerhaus editorial director, Jodie Nida, worked closely with Mr. Cadieux in cowriting From Lucky to Smart in which he shares the wisdom he gained from building an enterprise that reinvented the convenience retail industry. Although Mr. Cadieux passed away in 2016, the book remains as a resource for future generations of Cadieuxs and every QuikTrip stakeholder.

Sometimes news spreads fast along unexpected paths. When the printer I was working for heard from a cash register salesperson that I was going into business for myself, he decided my services were no longer necessary. I became Quik-Trip’s first employee sooner than expected and spent the summer working for free at grocery stores to learn the basics of what we thought was the core of our business. With the benefit of 20/20 hindsight, it’s clear that my time would’ve been far better spent in Dallas studying 7-Eleven’s operations but at the time we hadn’t yet grasped how little the convenience industry had in common with grocery stores.

The thing that truly brought home the magnitude of what I’d done was signing the contract for our first neon sign. Since our capitalization was thin, we were doing as much as we could on credit. For whatever reason, as I looked at that particular legal document I realized how much was at stake and it scared me. It was a feeling I would come to know well in the years ahead. Fueled by a combination of nervous energy and determination, the daily struggle to find a way to make the business succeed became a way of life.

“Ultimately, I hope that QuikTrip’s journey under my guidance will be remembered for what it was—a group of wonderful people learning how to grow a business together. Whenever current or past employees shake my hand or offer appreciative embraces, I am humbled. I want them to know that I value, admire, and thank each of them. Their advice, loyalty, conscientiousness, and enthusiasm brought us this far and they’re marvelous spirit will continue to help make dreams come true—the QuikTrip way.” 

— Chester Cadieux (1932–2016)

In 2002, QuikTrip became a second-generation company when Chester assumed the role of Chairman and his son, Chet, succeeded him as president. 

Of course, we were trying to make the best decisions that we could, but in retrospect we always did everything wrong the first time.

To save money we bought used fixtures and opened the dumbest looking store ever thrown together. It was simply a little grocery store with a small checkstand and an odd collection of products. We sold coffee in cans, vegetables, bread, milk, beer and lots of Vigo canned dog food. Although we had a pop box that we filled all the time, it never occurred to us to put the bottles in the cooler. Hungry customers would buy a sleeve of crackers and a can of sardines or  buy a loaf of bread and a package of meat to make sandwiches. Our customers knew why we were there long before we ever figured it out!

If the city hadn’t closed the road eight days after we opened, the location of QuikTrip No. 1 would have been pretty good. Unfortunately, the closure hurt business so much that I knocked on doors in the surrounding neighborhoods to drum up customers. 

But as true entrepreneurs, we opened a second store, which was even worse than the first. However, QuikTrip No. 3 immediately broke even and No. 4 eventually saved the company.

Losing money made those first two winters long, tough, and grim. It was scary—and if I hadn’t been so exhausted from working all the time, I might have lost sleep over it. Instead, I just worked harder because that’s all I knew to do. 

On the day we opened, my idea of success was running ten stores. Burt was a bit more optimistic. His goal was a hundred stores—which we achieved by 1971. 

Obviously, founding QuikTrip was the right thing to do and the right time to do it—one of many perfect examples of why it’s better to be lucky than smart.

This article first appeared in Müllerhaus's publication Legacy Journey Quarterly. For information regarding any of the projects mentioned in this publication or to inquire about Müllerhaus Legacy or our services, please contact Ally Seifried at 918-747-0018 or
Kayloni Alexander
Director of Operations & Culture