Vaiden — Rahul Kamtam moved to Mississippi from California and took over the management of the 35/55 Travel Center at this Carroll County crossroads in March 2005. It was fulfillment of a long-time ambition to own his own business.
“I always had a vision of being an entrepreneur,” he said.
Kamtam built his earlier business career in information technology from all sides of the corporate world-he’s been a software engineer, a franchisee for office automation systems and a corporate salesman for IT solutions and has worked in locales as varied as Singapore, the United Kingdom and California after immigrating to the United States from India five years ago.
To go out on his own, however, he scouted out various opportunities and decided that the travel center industry was one place he could make a mark on how business was done. The 35/55 Travel Center was ideal in that it was a long-established location that was ripe for the kinds of changes Kamtam wanted to make.
“There’s always been a truck stop here since 1969,” he said. “Some of (the employees) have been here over 30 years.”
The truck stop business, long accustomed to catering to long-haul drivers’ needs, is starting to shift to a more casual, traveler-oriented focus, Kamtam said. National chains such as Pilot and Flying J are on the leading edge of the trend. “This had always been called a truck stop, but the industry is moving away from a ‘truck stop’ to a ‘travel center,’” said Kamtam.
The expanding customer base has caused some changes to come about in the business, Kamtam said.
“The truckers want home-cooked food, good food. The family crowd is looking for fast food, like McDonald’s. But the truckers still need a place where they can come and have all the amenities,” he said.
Such amenities not only include showers, laundry areas, a TV lounge, plenty of parking and motel space, but a new feature that speaks directly to Kamtam’s computer background — a fully operational CyberCafé with 18 computers onsite and wireless Internet available throughout to customers who carry their own computers on the road.
Kamtam hopes the CyberCafé concept appeals to both the long-driving traveler as well as the family vacationers who want to stay connected while on the road. Business travelers can take advantage of the opportunity to stay in touch with their offices as well as research information affecting their travel plans, while families can let their children take a break from the car by allowing them to play the wide variety of games and other educational aids available, Kamtam said.
But he had another audience in mind for the computer offerings as well, especially as he learned of a lack of computer access and availability in the community.
“The Cyber Café is more to helping the community, too,” Kamtam said. “This is a town where high-speed Internet falls under luxury need for most of them. Many of the kids wait hours in the library to get their turn on a computer so that they can do their homework.”
Services are available for $1.50/hour for the travel center’s computers, while the wireless access is free, Kamtam said. Frequent users can take advantage of membership benefits in the near future, he noted.
Kamtam also hopes to take the CyberCafé concept to other travel centers under franchise arrangements, although those plans are for further down the road, he says. Currently, he is concentrating on maintaining his signature services, which include 24-hour buffets to serve the 30,000 travelers per day that the Mississippi Department of Transportation estimates come through his location.
Kamtam is garnering recognition with his efforts — six months after he took over ownership of the facility, the 35/55 Travel Center was named “Best Truck Stop” in Mississippi Magazine’s inaugural “Best of Mississippi” contest, open to readers and subscribers of the publication.
More than 200 ballots were cast in the contest, with 35/55 Travel Center garnering the most write-in nominations for the category, said Mississippi Magazine editor Kelli Bozeman.
“We just started doing Best of Mississippi last year,” she said.
The idea to solicit nominations for the best truck stop was born out of brainstorming categories of restaurants available in the state.
“It was just a quirky idea that we had for the list under restaurants,” said Bozeman. The facility seemed to be best known for its Southern down-home food offerings as well as its hamburgers.
The 35/55 Travel Center has also been recognized by the Mississippi Hospitality and Restaurant Association and was recently honored at the National Association of Truck Stop Owners convention in Orlando, Fla., according to Kamtam.
“We were recognized in front of thousands of the truck stop owners, ranging from big chains like Flying J and Pilot to independent truck stop owners, and other NATSO members,” he said. “All of our achievements were displayed in one of the booths we shared with other giants like Idleaire, a multi billion dollar organization.”
The appeal of the facility to both traditional truckers and leisure travelers might be best summed up in the billboards that Kamtam uses to advertise on I-55. They feature the travel center name, but are illustrated with a photo of an 18-wheeler in the background.
“That lets them know that we are committed to taking care of all their needs,” Kamtam said.
Contact MBJ contributing writer at Julie Whitehead at email@example.com.