Low gas prices have plenty of people choosing driving as the transportation mode of choice during the holidays, but that’s not the only bright spot to keep an eye out for along some well-traveled roads; behold the restored rest stop. Imagine rest stops that are actually places you don’t mind stopping for food, gasoline and restrooms. Newly designed rest stops in states such as Connecticut and New Jersey may restore your desire to actually stop there.
In 2012, the Grover Cleveland Service Area (or rest stop as it’s more commonly called) in Sewaren, N.J., was destroyed by Hurricane Sandy. Since then, the signs in the area have said little more than, “Fuel Only / No Food Services.” But on November 23rd that changed, as a newly built stop opened its doors to passersby once again.
And this new rest stop is nothing like the old one, or any of the older ones that are typical of what you find so often when you stop—full of fast food franchises, little in the way of healthy options and depressing dining ambience that harkens back to cafeterias circa 1982.
Setting the Trend in Rest Stops
I’d experienced something similar in a number of newly re-done rest stops in Connecticut along I-95 over the summer, and was encouraged by this trend. Bright, clean spaces, modern dining areas (a few even set-up family style) and outdoor green areas made the experience much more pleasurable. Although they contained some of the familiar fast-food franchises so common along rest stops (McDonald’s, Subway, Dunkin Donuts) the atmosphere made them much more tolerable. And the fact that apparently New Jersey has followed suit and taken it even a step further is downright encouraging. These new rest stops should be considered models in how to take roadside travel up a notch.
New Jersey Takes the Lead
Upon entering the building, we were greeted with a blackboard sign with handwritten holiday wishes from New Jersey surrounded by a nicely displayed selection of large baskets of holiday treats including candies, nuts, brownies and more, ranging in price from a quite reasonable $3.00 to $6.99. If you’d needed a little last-minute something to bring to a host at your destination, there were plenty of choices that would be appreciated on the other end.
The new building itself is a modern design of mostly glass and 30-foot ceilings. The dining area has cleanly designed tables, chairs and motifs on the walls and windows that could be described as “Scandinavia meets the New Jersey Farm.”
Most of the fast food franchises we’d seen at the re-done Connecticut locations were gone except for a Popeye’s. In their place is the Refresh & Co. brand, which offers freshly made food-including salads, burgers, sandwiches (reuben anyone?) and pizza. There is a Starbucks as well for those jonesing for a coffee or other Starbucky fare. But most of the food is grilled and carved (at the “Grill and Carvery”) right in front of you.
Ordering at the “grill and carvery,” can be done the old-fashioned way by giving your order to a person, or you can use one of three large touchscreens underneath a large sign reading, “Order here. Save time and skip the line.”
A Fresh Theme
There were lots of signs reading “Fresh” and re-enforcing the concept of freshness throughout. Fresh food! Fresh dairy! Be Healthy! Drink Milk! Evidently, Jersey produce is a part of the package here. If you don’t have the time to wait in line for the fresh food, there are a number of market salads to choose from (we saw Cesar and spinach), hard-boiled eggs and various types of cheeses (including three types of cheese sticks for and small easily portable chunks of cheddar for little ones).
Fresh fruit bins were filled with oranges, apples, bananas that you could buy individually, and a stand encouraging you to “Be Smart Eat Smart!” contained numerous choices of granola, various dark-chocolate covered fruits and more.
For those who aren’t into eating healthy, there were plenty of less-smart options as well. Aisles with titles like “Sweet Ride” and “Go Nuts” were filled with salted/caramelized/sugared nuts and ample candy and gum options. But even they looked more appetizing in their arrangements and location.
Checkout included a traditional cashier, but also two “Self-Pay” counters in which customers can scan items and pay by credit/debit cards.
An efficient selection of travel pillows, aspirin, cold medicine, cough drops, t-shirts and robes, aprons , mugs, t-shirts (with the state of NJ) had been put together for the traveler who doesn’t want to have to get off the highway. (Again, last minute gifts were a possibility.)
Rest Stop Restrooms
Rest rooms can make or break an experience. Here, just outside the restrooms was a small waiting area with a modern-rounded couch. Each of the rest rooms was clearly labeled (including a separate “Family” rest room that was also wheelchair accessible), and a design that kept the bathroom sounds (no sinks or flushing) in the bathroom if you had to wait outside. The rest rooms themselves were sparkling clean. New tiling backsplashes adorned the walls, large, clean mirrors hung above the sensor-triggered sinks and there were options of the high-powered “xlerators” as well as paper towels to dry your hands. While it may have appeared so clean because it’s still so new, I do think (and hope) that because it’s so much nicer, there will be incentive to keep it that way.
Because it’s New Jersey, the gas at the service area is still pumped full-service (in addition to being some of the cheapest gasoline in the country), and there’s also an A Plus Convenience store (also handicapped accessible) and a Sunoco Service center in the event you’re having any minor car troubles.
If this is the model for more rest stops in the future, I don’t mind stopping.