It turns out that people traveling the Maine Turnpike between Portland and Lewiston are more about the Double Whopper than double espresso.

Since Starbucks became a rest-stop option along the turnpike in 2007, sales have gotten a jolt at the service plazas in Kennebunk. But in Cumberland and Gray, where the baristas replaced Burger Kings, travelers have turned up their noses at the higher-end chain.

The Maine Turnpike Authority is hoping they’re more willing to spend their money on a value meal than they were on a venti latte.

The rest stops at Mile 58 southbound in Cumberland and Mile 59 northbound in Gray will close Monday for nine weeks so the two Starbucks can be turned back into Burger Kings.

The cost of the $2.2 million renovation project will be shared by the turnpike authority and HMS Host, the company that runs the rest stop – and had the idea to switch to Starbucks in the first place. The thought at the time was that it would cost less to keep a coffee shop open 24 hours than it would a fast-food restaurant, said turnpike spokeswoman Erin Courtney. But more than what was saved in wages was lost in sales.

Total revenue at the two plazas in 2005, the last full year that Burger King was open, was nearly $1.9 million. In 2015, it was about $1.6 million, Courtney said, and that was an improvement from recent years.

Meanwhile, at the two Kennebunk plazas, each of which has had a Burger King since before 2007, annual revenue has shot up from $9.4 million before Starbucks was added to $13 million last year.

And at the West Gardiner plaza, which was built in 2008 with a Starbucks and a Burger King, among other businesses, sales rose from $2.3 million in 2009 to $3.1 million in 2015.

The variable appears to be the palates of the people behind the wheel.

Because the Cumberland and Gray plazas aren’t big or busy enough to support both chains, the turnpike authority and its tenant were faced with a choice: go back to Burger King or bust.

They settled on the former and decided to add a 24-hour drive-thru, another feature they believe will appeal to the apparent Starbucks-snubbing, french fries-loving clientele.

So, what does all this say about travelers along this stretch of the turnpike?

Peter Mills, executive director of the turnpike authority, said last week that “the traffic that travels between Lewiston and Portland is not the place for a Starbucks.” He explained later that it’s more about why those drivers are using the highway than who’s in the car.

The Kennebunk and West Gardiner plazas see more tourists, and if they’re not just stopping for the bathroom – so-called “pee-ers and flee-ers,” he said – they’re more likely to be in the mood to treat themselves.

“I think out-of-staters are coming in to go on vacation, and they’ve got money to spend, and they want to stop and get a fancier cup of coffee,” Mills speculated about why Starbucks does better at those rest stops.

Commuters and commercial truck drivers make up more of the traffic passing through Cumberland and Gray.

Mills said many of the truck drivers are headed to the Wal-Mart distribution center in Lewiston, and their delivery times have to be precise.

If they’re running early, they often stop at the Gray service plaza and wait, he said. And if they’re hungry, they’re more likely to want hot food than the scones and cinnamon buns that Starbucks has to offer.

As for those headed to and from work, maybe at a store in the Maine Mall, Mills thinks they’re more likely to get a cheap cup of coffee at a gas station’s convenience store before they get on the turnpike than spend more money at Starbucks.

However, he said, “If they can get a hot breakfast sandwich on the way south or grab something for the kids on the way home” at Burger King, they may opt to use the rest stop.

However, despite the driver data and revenue figures, people using the Cumberland and Gray service plazas on a recent weekday morning insisted that switching to Burger King would not be having it their way.

“Burger King’s garbage,” said Rich Hummer of Barrington, New Hampshire, who was on his way to the Oxford Casino with his wife, Kelli — each with Starbucks coffees in hand.

Seth Gordon, who recently moved to upstate New York from Falmouth, is just glad he made it out in time.

“I would have blown a gasket,” he said, if the Starbucks had been replaced with a Burger King while he was still commuting to St. Mary’s hospital in Lewiston.

Donald Medeiros, a truck driver from Massachusetts, stops for the bathroom or a cup of coffee at the Gray service plaza at least once a week on his way to the Canadian Maritimes. But he’ll forgo the joe from now on.

“I wouldn’t buy Burger King coffee,” he said.

Even Bruce Urquhart, who prefers Burger King to Starbucks, said he wouldn’t patronize the restaurant in the plaza on his commute from Sanford to Auburn, because he knows they jack up the prices.

Only, he said, “if I was starving.”

Although a couple of people said they’d be more likely to get something to eat at the rest stop if a Burger King was there, the majority were more likely not to get anything at all.

But they weren’t the only people using the highway that day. Perhaps the potential drive-thru customers were the ones just driving by.

 


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