In 1998, former schoolteacher Lavaille Lavette published the first installment of The Adventures of Roopster Roux, a children’s book series about a rooster who uses his ability to read to defeat villains. Lavette initially penned the tale to encourage her younger brother, Tyrone, to read more.
Over two decades later, the Roopster Roux series has grown to a handful of books, which have been endorsed by the U.S. Department of Education and even given an annual holiday — Roopster Roux Day — by 18 U.S. cities to promote reading and literacy. Lavette even collaborated with comedian Steve Harvey on parts of the series.
Now, Lavette is taking Roopster Roux a step further by molding the concept into a themed convenience store chain. The first Roux c-store and gas station opened last September in the Chicago Lawn neighborhood on Chicago’s South Side.
“Lots of times in various neighborhoods, parents aren't equipped with some of those easy techniques and fun things that they could do at home to get their child ready to read when they go to school,” Lavette said in an interview.
The whole idea behind Roopster Roux is to have fun, but also encourage kids to be lifelong readers, Lavette said. But why turn that idea into a gas station instead of, say, a restaurant or grocery store?
“Some people grocery shop, others don’t,” Lavette said. “But just about every adult with school-aged kids has to drive them around from place to place and eventually get gas.”
A ‘purpose-driven’ gas station
Lavette first thought of the idea for The Roux over a decade ago, but took her time to find the right partners to bring the concept to life. While on a trip to India around 2018, Lavette was connected to Naser Odeh and Mohammed Abdallah, who co-own numerous c-stores around the Chicago area.
Lavette flew to Chicago to set up a pitch meeting with Odeh and Abdalla, and from there, they were off to the races.
“It was amazing to me that they actually got it,” Lavette said. “They understood, since they were community-oriented as well, and needed to do something with purpose.”
At first glance, The Roux resembles an ordinary convenience store and gas station. In the forecourt, there are six fuel pumps with spaces for 12 vehicles. Once inside the 2,000-square-foot store, the cash register with candy and behind-the-counter items sits to the right, while the company’s foodservice counter — which only offers various flavors of popcorn, such as Cheesy, Caramel, Cashew and Pecan — is straight ahead. A sharp veer to the left is the dispensed beverage section, coolers and numerous shelves for snacks, household items and more.
But it’s the far left corner that’s the star of the show. In this section is Roux’s Reading Corner, which contains a small table with chairs and a bookshelf containing every story from the Roux series along with other children’s books. On the wall in the Reading Corner is a giant Roopster Roux with a book in hand. This section of the store is made to encourage families to come in and enjoy some reading time together.
Although this community-focused concept is still new, the Chicago Lawn community is quickly catching on. Just a few weeks ago, Odeh saw a man and his daughter enter the store, and after buying some candy, chips and drinks, they sat down at the Reading Corner, and ended up being there for an extra 45 minutes.
“He came to the front after, and he’s like, ‘This is the best idea,’” Odeh said. “I was so happy, because this is the reason why this all exists.”
Lavette and her team have plans that go beyond The Roux being a standalone place for children to hone their reading skills. They’re looking to become part of the fabric of their community.
For starters, the retailer has partnered with Play Smart, a Chicago-based nonprofit that helps children ages five and younger improve their communication skills. The Roux has also partnered with school districts in the area to create a mentorship program where high school students help younger kids with reading. The Roux will also start giving out scholarships to students as well, Lavette said.
Last month, the retailer debuted a writing contest, where children write a themed story and submit it to win various prizes. In May, The Roux will kick off its Roux All Stars program, a reading club that awards kids a certificate and various prizes once a certain number of books are read.
“The idea is to meet people where they are, and not have it where you can only learn about reading and [other] things like this in school,” she said. “We want kids to see that reading and learning is lifelong, no matter where you are.”
Plans are currently underway for three more Roux stores to open in Chicago, “hopefully this year,” Odeh said. Beyond the Windy City, the team is looking at markets in California, Texas, Louisiana, Michigan, Wisconsin and Maryland for Roux stores. Future locations — most likely bigger than this first one — may have electric vehicle charging stations and car washes on site.
“Get all of the processes and everything in place, and then expand,” Lavette said when asked for a timeline on The Roux’s growth plans.
During The Roux’s grand opening last September, one of the attending organizations was the Inner-City Muslim Action Network, a Chicago-based nonprofit that fights for social justice. While at the event, the organization’s executive director, Rami Nashashibi, spoke of how The Roux is hopefully the beginning of what gas stations can eventually become moving forward.
That message mirrors Lavette’s mission.
“It's never just a business to make money — it's always about how this business can be of benefit to others, beyond the service, the snacks, the drinks and the popcorn,” Lavette said. “I know that we're going to touch a number of parents and a number of kids, and we're going to motivate and inspire.”