Muralt’s Travel Plaza remains family-owned
Missoula has grown up at the center of five valleys. Its rivers empty into the bowl that’s our city. Head west of town, to Muralt’s Travel Plaza, and you can trace those waters on a giant, hand-painted mural. Like the pin of a compass, this family-owned truck stop has served customers, who are on their way to somewhere else, for more than 45 years.
In 1975, Gary and Susan Muralt bought the truck stop. Today, their son, Walt, operates a collection of businesses, including: a truck repair shop, general store and refueling station, Wye West Casino & Lounge, Days Inn–Missoula Airport, and Wheat Montana Bakery & Deli. However, when Walt worked at the truck stop as a kid, the area was just a weed patch with no stoplight.
“I’d basically mow the dirt,” quipped Walt. “There was so little grass, that when I mowed down the weeds, a big plume of dust is all you’d see.”
When the dirt didn’t need mowing, Walt pumped gas.
“It was full-service back then, so I doubled as the attendant and windshield washer. I remember this one Fourth of July—everyone’s headed up to the lake for the weekend, and my brother, Jeff, and I had a challenge to wash everyone’s windshield that came through. That was a long day.”
Both Walt and Jeff—plus their sister, Sharla—worked in the business while growing up.
“Being the oldest boy in the family, I figure that’s why I was nudged a little harder to take a bigger role in the business over the years,” said Walt.
During those years, Walt learned how to hustle by watching his parents.
“Both mom and dad believed in working hard and respecting the customer. My dad would be sitting by the front window of the old Muralt’s Café, in a lunch meeting, and see someone pull up for gas. If no one was out there right away to help, he’d go out and pump the gas himself. And, of course, I’d hear about it for some time after,” joked Walt.
By 2002, Walt had taken over all the businesses. He continues his parents’ tradition of quality customer service by expanding the perks beyond the pumps.
“We’ve installed fiber-optic wi-fi, which gives our visitors the best connection possible,” Walt explained. “We also have inspirational fliers all throughout the place. Our business mission centers on customer service, but it’s also about enriching people’s lives. Customers will pick up one of our fliers, and hopefully the message makes their day a little brighter.”
Fostering those relationships keeps Muralt’s competitive edge sharp. That’s significant, considering that three (soon to be four) corporate truck stops operate within a one-mile radius.
“A lot of independent truck stops have sold out to the big chains,” said Walt. “There’s not a lot of family-owned truck stops out there anymore. I like to think of us as the craft beer of the truck stop business,” he said, beaming.
“In fact, we’ve added a walk-in Beer Cave with our General Store remodel,” Walt explained. Customers can walk through double-doors into the tricked-out, custom-cooled space and pick packs of cold brews right off frosty shelves lining the cave.
“We’re also expanding our product offerings to double the size,” Walt added.
Still, the family’s focus on local and regional products will remain. Inside the main store and the Wheat Montana Bakery & Deli, shoppers can buy Montana-made products, like huckleberry treats from the Flathead and skin care products made from the honey of bees raised west of Missoula.
“I think it’s important to represent local and regional businesses,” said Walt.
Customers can experience that kind of enduring community connection with a new service called “Hump Day Help.” Every Wednesday, from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m., Muralt’s provides free full-service at the pumps. “It’s a throw-back concept,” explained Walt.
“We’ll pump your gas, wash your windshield, and even check your oil and tire pressure. You won’t even have to get out of your car,” he winked. “My dad passed away last fall, and it’s a way to honor him.”
As does the sign above Muralt’s Montana mural, which reads, “Fiercely Independent! Proudly Montana!” Walt stopped at the foot of that sign, one recent afternoon, to help a visitor who was folding and refolding his map. When Walt walked by, the man asked, “Do you know how to get to Spokane?”
“Where you from?” Walt replied with a pat on the man’s shoulder.
“Canada,” he answered.
“I’m sorry, we don’t help people from Canada,” Walt joked. Awkward pause. Then they laughed, like instant friends. Walt pointed his finger along the interstate. “Just head that way and keep on driving,” he directed. “That’ll get you where you want to go.”