The light, airy, upscale atmosphere that greets customers when they walk into Air Guitar is designed to feel unlike any other c-store. The 2-year-old independent retailer in Gilbert, Arizona, is one-third grocery store, one-third c-store and one-third specialty market with a focus on local products, Air Guitar co-owners Eric Seitz and Craig DeMarco said.
Seitz, who owns 21 4 Sons Chevron c-stores in Arizona with his family, and DeMarco, who is a partner in restaurant company Upward Project which operates 30 restaurants, met 10 years ago. “We both had little places in Encinitas [California] and became good friends. We had a little coffee shop we went to and tried to buy that, but California was difficult,” Seitz recalled.
They attempted to buy two other locations in the San Diego area in order to open a “better coffee shop,” Seitz said. But, while those deals “made it to the finish line,” they never came to fruition.
The pair switched their focus to building their dream c-store that would combine both their hospitality and c-store operational backgrounds. Along with their wives, Elissa Seitz and Kris DeMarco, who are also co-owners, Seitz and DeMarco set out to form a one-of-a-kind c-store concept. They traveled to Japan, New York City, California and elsewhere to gather ideas.
They soon found an “incredible” location on which to build their 5,500-square-foot store in Gilbert, “one of the fastest growing and safest cities in the U.S.,” Seitz said.
Envisioning the perfect c-store
Privately owned Los Angeles-based Erewhon Market, which operates 10 specialty stores, served as the inspiration for some of the architecture and design, including Air Guitar’s modern, clean and open layout. The retailer relies on almost all natural light with a lot of glass, and features high ceilings and low shelves.
The co-owners also invested heavily in the “concert-level” sound system. “We built great systems and we can execute quickly, but there’s more to it than that,” DeMarco said. “We want you to feel better leaving than when you came in.”
Outdoors, DeMarco and Seitz opted for more expensive concrete rather than asphalt, which they believe provides a better experience for customers. An open outdoor patio provides seating for around 60-80 people, where customers can consume a coffee or latte, along with beer, wine, pastries, sushi and pizza. Indoor seating can accommodate another 20.
Then, Seitz and DeMarco set out to develop the store’s novel product mix. “We don’t discriminate if you want healthy or junk food,” Seitz said. That philosophy came about when one day, DeMarco wanted something from Whole Foods Market while his son wanted a Gatorade.
“We wanted to give everyone a mix of a higher end convenience store and a higher end grocery store like Erewhon,” Seitz said. “We thought there was a niche that didn’t exist.”
The concept also led to the business’ motto.
“We realize that people like to treat themselves to their favorite unhealthy items — we coined the term 'life's little luxuries’ — but with all of the information available today people want to also make healthy choices about what they consume,” DeMarco added. “We offer both choices side by side.”
“Healthy” items can be vegan, vegetarian, plant-based, organic or just have healthier ingredients, he said.
So, in addition to Doritos or Lays chips, candy bars and other standard c-store fare, Air Guitar customers can find kale chips, organic sodas and other snacks.
With more than 7,000 food and non-food items, shoppers can also can find any of the staples they would typically buy at a grocery store, including produce, oil, sugar and household cleaning items.
“Our goal is to have at least one product of every category that a typical grocery store like Whole Foods, Frys, Sprouts or Trader Joe's would carry so our guests do not have to make the trip to a big-box retailer,” DeMarco said.
Prices are comparable to the same SKUs in a c-store or grocery store, Seitz said. However, the store’s pricing is based on the quarter, so instead of ticketing a product for $2.99, it would be $3 or $3.25. “The experience needs to be about you having a good vibe and energy, not about you figuring out [how much to pay],” he noted.
An oasis in the desert
Because the store is in the desert, “liquids are key,” Seitz said. Air Guitar features over 40 feet of open-faced coolers, which the owners believe look better than coolers with doors. While half of that space showcases the store’s beer selection, the rest is for of nonalcoholic beverages — everything from kombucha and tea to energy drinks and carbonated beverages.
The store also features a large wine selection, with bottles priced at either $15 or $25 each.
Air Guitar customers will find a full coffee program inside, and local bakers bring in pastries and acai bowls. “After 10 years of talking about this and five years of designing, we wanted the labor model of a typical convenience store and grocer — not heavy into production,” Seitz said.
To that end, foodservice is limited and primarily outsourced — including a variety of retail sushi supplier Hissho Sushi’s offerings. An ice cream shop inside the store features including raw cookie dough from a Phoenix provider, while all the ice cream is outsourced.
“We do an insane amount of ice cream after school. There are so many schools and youth sports nearby,” Seitz said.
Pizzas, however, are made in-house. The owners plan to add more food offerings in the future, but they will likely be outsourced.
Supplying local foods and goods is of the utmost priority to the two owners, so they buy local fresh produce, fresh flowers, honey and many other items.
Non-food items also get some love. From the start, Air Guitar has offered its own apparel line “which has done great for us,” Seitz said. And the stores recently added a selection of skateboards. “We have a tremendous amount of kids and families [in the neighborhood,” DeMarco explained.
Adding skateboards — an item not found at most c-stores or grocery stores — is “just us making decisions; we don’t have any restrictions…and we don’t have a board of directors,” DeMarco explained. “We are really fast and quick on decisions.”
What the future holds
Unsurprisingly, the unique concept has drawn many c-store and grocery operators to visit and glean knowledge. “There seems to be a lot of attention on what we have created and we have heard that many grocery companies are working on a smaller footprint offering,” DeMarco said. "We are trailblazing and believe that this is the future of the neighborhood retail experience.”
Additionally, mayors from several U.S. cities have also contacted them about opening stores in their cities.
While DeMarco and Seitz are interested in expanding, they are trying to get their concept “really dialed in” first,” Seitz said. “We are 95 percent of where we want to be.” Once they are set, they plan to expand in the Phoenix metropolitan area.
As for the Air Guitar moniker? One day, when Seitz was flying into Phoenix and DeMarco and his wife picked him up at the airport, the Guns ’n Roses song Paradise City came on radio, DeMarco recalled. “Eric jumped into an air guitar riff and said ‘we should call it Air Guitar!’.”