The Untold Truth Of Pilot Flying J

Since the inception of the Interstate Highway System, weary road travelers have grown accustomed to filling their tanks as well as their bellies at travel plazas located just off the freeway. Ranging from kitsch to state-of-the-art, travel plazas and truck stops have become natural extensions of the U.S. off-ramp. They keep proliferating across the country as they continue to competitively entice customers with an increasing array of on-the-road options.

In this hungry spirit of American expansion, no travel plaza or truck stop has become more competitive than Pilot Flying J. Whether you're riding the turnpike or cruising along toll-free, you've likely seen Pilot Flying J's great red and yellow sign towering above your next exit like a beacon prepared to offer you everything.

And when it comes to everything, Pilot Flying J is rapidly approaching the asymptote of unlimited food and fuel options. A behemoth disguised by expressway infrastructure, the untold truth of Pilot Flying J is far more than meets the traveler's eye.

Pilot Flying J is the largest travel plaza chain in the United States

Pilot Flying J is helmed by Jimmy Haslam, the owner of the NFL's Cleveland Browns. The CEO has overseen the expansion of the largest travel plaza chain in the Land of the Free. Standing at over 750 locations at the time of this writing, Pilot Flying J continues its ruthless expansion through mergers and acquisitions, striking deals that have added to its dominant position.

Pilot Flying J's history of acquisitions lays out like a chronological roadmap. Its first notable addition was in 1977, when it acquired Lonas Oil out of Knoxville, Tennessee, and brought its business under the Pilot banner. Just over a decade later, the company would strike a deal with Marathon Oil, buying out its 50% stake. This move led to rapid expansion and a rapid clip of acquisitions. It bolstered the Pilot brand, allowing it to reach the No. 99 spot on the Forbes Top 500 list of privately held companies by 1997. 

In 2001, Pilot and Marathon made another major move by rebranding Pilot's truck stops as Pilot Travel Centers, per the Knoxville News Sentinel. Pilot would buy back Marathon's stake in the company in 2008, but the latter's fuel would continue to be sold at Pilot Travel Centers. 

In 2007, it became the biggest franchisee of Subway in the world

To become a behemoth, you must sometimes ally yourself with other behemoths. Or at least cross-pollinate.

The Subway sandwich chain has long battled McDonald's as America's most prolific fast food restaurant, and part of that success is dependent on Pilot Flying J. Through a lucrative partnership of truck stops and sandwich shops, Pilot Flying J has become the king franchisee of Subways across the land.

Seizing yet another opportunity for expansion, Pilot Flying J achieved this elevated status back when the company was known as Pilot Travel Centers. Importing 135 Subway installments into their plazas by 2007, Pilot's aggressive plans of expansion started showing up on the scoresheet when Restaurant Finance Monitor tallied the impressive numbers and made them public. These numbers were still continuing to grow as of November 2020, with Restaurant Finance Monitor reporting 205 Subway restaurants located within Pilot Flying J plazas.

Pilot Flying J revamped its kitchen design in 2018

Pilot Flying J has consistently rocked ketchup and mustard colors on its sign, but this doesn't mean that the company hasn't tweaked its design. In 2018, its kitchens were due for an upgrade. Deciding to break from its history of cloistered, steamy kitchens, Pilot Flying J broke down the barrier between cook and consumer, rolling out open kitchen plans and rewiring the way it kept food warm, per CSP. By switching from steam wells to induction plates at its buffet stations, it also helped keep the open air free of swelter, creating a more comfortable environment for customers and employees alike.  

Just prior to the kitchen revamp, Pilot Flying J signed a celebrity chef to upgrade their menu. Recruiting a specialist in western-style cuisine, the company joined forces with chef and restaurateur Tim Love in a move that made upgrades to their menu with an added culinary focus on the food served at their Southwestern truck stops.

The company provides free meals for military veterans

To honor veterans and support the Call of Duty Endowment, Pilot Flying J ran a parallel donation campaign in the weeks leading up to Veterans Day 2021, per QSR. On Veteran's Day, active and retired military service members could use Pilot Flying J's myRewards Plus app to claim a free meal at any of its 750 locations. On top of that, Pilot Flying J customers could support the good fight as well by rounding up the charge on their purchases and donating the change to the troops. Better yet, Pilot Flying J would match those donations penny for penny up to a predetermined threshold of $100,000.

All in all, the campaign was a goal-shattering success that benefitted veterans. Initially anticipating a haul of $500,000, Pilot Flying J raised more than three times that, providing $1.75 million for vets through matching contributions and an outpouring of customer benevolence, according to Truckers News.

It added Dunkin' Donuts, Arby's, and Cinnabon to its travel plaza food options

Keeping up with Americans' unending appetite for options, Pilot Flying J has attracted undeniably popular fast-food chains into licensure. Dunkin' Donuts was one of the first big brands to take a flier, landing in five Pilot Flying J locations in 2017, per CSP. This move proved to be a watershed moment in fast-food cross-pollination, as additional eateries would catch on and join the Pilot Flying J team.

Prospering off this burgeoning résumé, Pilot Flying J continued striking deals, extending its reach to include both Arby's and Cinnabon, bringing the meats intoned by Ving Rhames and the world's most popular cinnamon roll chain under one sprawling roof.

In addition to the above, the Pilot Flying J restaurant lineup typically consists of Huddle House, Dairy Queen, Pizza Hut, KFC, Chester's Chicken, McDonald's, Subway, Wendy's, and Taco Bell — a veritable smorgasbord of choices available in over 750 locations.

Pilot Flying J ran a hot dog giveaway on Twitter

If you saw an Oscar Mayer Wienermobile at a Pilot Flying J location in 2021, know that your brain wasn't playing tricks on you, because that hot dog oasis was real.

On July 21, the Wienermobile rolled into Newark, New Jersey, stopping off at a Pilot Flying J. The iconic vehicle visited another location in Carney's Point a few days later as it continued its mission: to promote the sharing of hot dogs in celebration of National Hot Dog Day.

And since every hot dog deserves condiments, Heinz joined the promotion as well, completing a triad that ran under the Twitter and Instagram hashtag #ShareAHotDogSweepstakes. For a chance at a $500 Pilot Flying J gift card, all fans had to do was post a picture of their favorite moments that combined hot dogs and togetherness. Only 10 would win at this game, but through the Pilot Flying J rewards app, everyone could procure a free hot dog during the promotional period.

It massively upgraded its breakfast menu with four new sandwiches

As any fan of fast food has noticed, breakfast menus have not only become more available but also increasingly competitive. Entering this arena and trying to shake off the stigma of travel-stop breakfast food, Pilot Flying J launched four new breakfast sandwiches that could be considered artisanal. The overhaul yielded a larger sausage and egg biscuit sandwich, as well as a croissant option with the same fillings and the ability to bun your bacon, egg, and cheese with French toast.

Promising fresh ingredients and teaming up with Tyson bacon, Pilot Flying J debuted these sandwiches as part of its "Unexpectedly Awesome Menu." The company's senior executive chef, Shannon Johnson, trumpeted the company's motives and mission through a Pilot Flying J press release, stating, "When you're on the road, a fresh meal made with quality ingredients is all the fuel you need to reach your destination. With these new additions to our unexpectedly awesome menu, there's no debate that our breakfast is worth stopping for."

Pilot Flying J developed two new chicken sandwiches during the height of the 'Chicken Sandwich Wars'

Popeyes. Chick-Fil-A. Pilot Flying J? At first glance, one does not look like the others, until you've seen Pilot Flying J's crispy new tandem of chicken sandwiches, its contenders in the fast food industry's "Chicken Sandwich Wars."  

In May of 2021, QSR reported the debut of "The Southern Chicken Sandwich" and "The Spicy Chicken Sandwich" on Pilot Flying J's expanding menu. The Southern Chicken sandwich is bookended by a brioche bun, with a classic middle layer of crispy chicken breast and dill pickles. For its second take on a popular fast food item, Pilot Flying J adds pepper jack cheese and chipotle ranch to craft its Spicy Chicken Sandwich.

And if you're not a brioche bun kind of person or just want to reduce your carbohydrate intake, Pilot Flying J has also released a pair of wraps to complement the chicken sandwiches on its menu: The Greek Chicken Wrap and The Smoked Turkey & Bacon Wrap.

The company is majority owned by Warren Buffett's Berkshire Hathaway

Warren Buffett, The Oracle of Omaha, is arguably the greatest value investor of all time, and in 2017, he seemed to realize the value of Pilot Flying J. According to USA Today, Buffett's Berkshire Hathaway moved aggressively, acquiring over one-third of Pilot Flying J stock. But the deal wasn't done yet, as the agreement also stipulated that Berkshire Hathaway would purchase majority control of Pilot Flying J by 2023. This would increase its stake in the company by an additional 41.4% while reducing Haslam's total holdings down to 20% of Pilot Flying J shares.

In traditional Buffett fashion, not much will change at the top level for Pilot Flying J while he controls the company. Per Reuters, Buffett plans to keep upper-level management intact, citing Pilot Flying J's "smart growth strategy." An ostensible win-win not just for Pilot Flying J management, but for all travelers and tummies involved.

Pilot Flying J has teamed up with Truckers Against Trafficking

Back in 2011, Pilot Flying J CEO Jim Haslam made the decision to join his company's forces with Truckers Against Trafficking (TAT), an organization that aims to end human trafficking along America's roads and truck stops. Given Pilot Flying J's myriad locations, the joint venture boosted awareness tremendously, with posters and hotline numbers initially displayed in over 550 Pilot Flying J stops nationwide, per Convenience Store News.

In addition to these avenues of outreach, Pilot Flying J also initiated training programs for all employees regarding the signs of human trafficking, including learning how to spot when someone is under duress by a human trafficker, which manifests in such scenarios as lacking knowledge of their whereabouts, being unable to speak freely, or being unable to produce their own ID without permission.

Pilot Flying J is united with a proud fleet of sponsors of Truckers Against Trafficking, a list that includes Love's Travel Stops, TravelCenters of America, and many more like-minded companies looking to raise awareness of this crisis.

In 2016, Pilot Flying J acquired several Speedway gas stations in a joint venture

Pilot Flying J has long sought alliances with premium petroleum companies and distributors. Back in the 1970s, it bought out Knoxville's Lonas Oil Company. In 1988, it acquired a large chunk of Marathon Oil. So by the time Speedway came to the table, Pilot Flying J was no stranger to collaborating with fuel companies.

During the summer of 2016, Pilot Flying J and Speedway reached a deal to serve Speedway fuel at 120 Pilot Flying J locations in the Southeastern United States. According to CSP, the deal involved adopting 41 existing Speedways into a new entity called PFJ Southeast LLC while importing the services of Speedway to the remaining 79 Southeast locations already under the Pilot Flying J brand. Over the course of 2016, Pilot Flying J also added 17 new locations, bringing their yearly expansion up to 58 new stops, thanks in large part to Speedway.

The company promoted its pizza during a NASCAR race with a giant pizza decal on the Pilot Flying J car

Any regular fan of NASCAR since the 2010s has likely seen the Pilot Flying J car racing around the oval. Driven by Michael Annett, the red and yellow Chevrolet has sported the No.1 and No. 46 decals. And for one magical event, Annett's speedy Chevy sported a piece of pizza.

In honor of National Pizza Month in October 2015, Annett's car bore a wrap featuring a cheesy slice of pepperoni pizza across the hood for the Fred's 250 at the Talladega Superspeedway. Leading up to the race, Annett and his crew stopped by a Pilot Flying J in Lincoln, Alabama, where they pumped gas for customers and offered free slices of PJ Fresh Pizza, according to CSP.

Although the Pilot Flying J pizza car never achieved NASCAR glory, the essence of this promotion can still be found in collector's items across eBay.

Country music singer Trace Adkins serves as Pilot Flying J's spokesperson

Signing a spokesperson famous for singing his words, Pilot Flying J inked country music star Trace Adkins to promote its brand in the spring of 2012. Known for songs such as "Every Light in the House" and "Honky Tonk Badonkadonk," Adkins applied his blue-collar image to the premiere of Pilot Flying J's loyalty program.

According to CSP, Pilot Flying J CEO Jim Haslam said he saw Adkins as a "natural match," denoting parallels between Adkin's earned moniker as "the hardest working man in country music" to the industrious philosophy of Pilot Flying J. Asked for his thoughts, Adkins agreed that his interests and those of Pilot Flying J's were in alignment, stating, "As much as I travel, my band, crew and I certainly rely on Pilot Flying J travel centers as we tour the country." An endearing statement on how celebrities are sometimes just like us, even if it's for just one stop on our mutual paths.