Road trips are a popular way for individuals, couples, families and social groups to explore new places. That makes highways a very lucrative place for entrepreneurs to situate new businesses, especially businesses that cater to travelers like convenience stores, gas stations and fast food restaurants.

Travelers aren't the only people who rely on the United States' extensive highway system; every day, hundreds of thousands of commuters travel these highways on their way to and from work. They, too, patronize roadside businesses regularly, especially when these businesses offer things they want without adding to their commute times.

Brainstorm Highway Business Ideas

Opening and operating a business is an expensive, complicated venture that has no promise of paying off financially for the business owner. Before committing to opening a business that serves a nearby highway’s travelers, you should follow your brainstorming sessions with research to determine the viability of your ideas. When brainstorming, you should consider all of the following:

  • Whether you want to buy a franchise or develop a completely new brand

  • The size of the loan for which you could realistically qualify if you need financing

  • How much startup capital you have on hand to invest in the business

  • Your previous experiences and how they could translate to starting a new business

  • Your skills

  • Your passions

  • Whether you will operate the business alone or with one or more partners

What Businesses Do Well Alongside Highways?

Part of brainstorming highway business ideas is thinking about what kinds of businesses tend to do well alongside highways. Often, these are businesses that serve people who are on the go, like commuters or travelers. Popular highway businesses include coffee shops, fast-food restaurants and gas stations because these provide immediate relief for travelers’ basic needs, like the need to eat, the need to fill their gas tanks, the need to use the restroom and the need to stay awake to continue driving safely.

Instead of providing relief for drivers’ immediate needs, some entrepreneurs open roadside attractions. These businesses offer the opportunity to relax and have some fun while taking a break from driving to a destination — and in some cases, they are the destination. Roadside attractions enjoyed a heyday in the middle of the 20th century, but many are financially successful today. Types of roadside attractions include:

  • Themed restaurants
  • Miniature golf
  • Museums 
  • Haunted houses
  • Farm stands 
  • Petting zoos
  • Unique, off-beat attractions

Research the Local Market

Researching the local market is critical to validating highway business ideas. The data you collect about an area’s market determines whether opening a business in that area is a worthwhile investment or not, and if so, the data may shape the business plan you develop. When researching the local market, you should collect and analyze data on:

  • The number of people living, working and passing through the area each day

  • The demographics of the people in the market, such as their average age, socioeconomic level, values, cultural background and interests

  • How much money the population spends on products and services in the proposed business’s category each year

  • How many similar businesses are currently operating in the market

  • The market’s projected growth in the near and long-term future

During the research stage, you should look for areas in the market that are not currently being served or areas that could be served more effectively. For example, you might have noticed that there are no gas stations on the stretch of highway where you are looking to build a business. By opening a gas station, you can offer drivers the opportunity to fuel up without leaving the roadway and the opportunity to grab a hot coffee and a healthy snack if you choose to build a convenience store within the gas station complex.

Determine a Budget and Business Plan 

One of the most important preliminary steps to take when planning to open any kind of business is developing a budget and a business plan. In fact, these two assets are intertwined: The budget is part of the business plan, which outlines how the startup capital and future income will be spent.

A business plan is a comprehensive document that includes all relevant information about the development and operation of a business. It includes all of the following information:

  • The business name

  • The business owner and all key leaders, such as its chief technology officer and its chief financial officer

  • The business’s physical location

  • The goods or services provided by the business

  • The business’s target audience and data about this audience

  • The company’s mission statement

  • All business goals, both short term and long term

  • The company’s legal structure

  • All important information about the company’s products or services, such as any trademarks or patents the company holds and any relevant trade secrets related to the products or services

  • How the company will be marketed

  • The leadership team’s plans for future company growth

  • Employee demographics, such as the number of people employed and the roles they fill

  • Details about the business’s day-to-day operations

  • The company’s budget and all relevant financial data, like previous earnings, tax statements, cash flow information and capital expenditure budgets for the future

Find an Ideal Location for the Business

Once you have a budget and business plan worked out, your next task is to find a location for the business that fits with them. Not all highway-supported businesses are located in rest areas or directly beside highways; some are just a short drive off the roadway into town or into a rural area. Certain kinds of businesses, like a petting zoo or a farm-to-table restaurant, thrive when they are not immediately on the highway. If you choose not to open right on the highway, you can take advantage of billboards to advertise the business to travelers and direct them to its location.

The ideal location for a business along a busy highway is one that sees a sufficient level of travel to support the business. Businesses that aim to serve commuters have different location and traffic needs than businesses created to primarily serve travelers. Similarly, businesses that cater primarily to truck drivers have different location needs that other businesses do not face, like the need for a large enough lot to park tractor trailers and entrances and exits that can accommodate large vehicles.

Whether you plan to construct a new building or buy or lease an existing building also factors into your decision about where to open it. If you plan to build, your options are limited to available land parcels. If you plan to occupy an existing space, your options are limited to buildings currently for sale or spaces currently available for rent depending on whether you plan to buy or lease.

Register the Business

Any new business has to be incorporated with the state where it operates and the Internal Revenue Service. Additional licensing from the state and/or federal government might be necessary depending on the nature of the business.

There are slightly different requirements you have to meet if you open a franchise instead of an independently operated business. Which requirements you are required to follow depends on your state. In 13 states, franchisees are required to register their businesses with the state. In the other 37 states, there is no such requirement, but franchisees are still required to obtain any industry-specific business licenses required in their states, and if they want to access the benefits of operating as incorporated companies, they must incorporate with their respective states.

An incorporated company may buy and operate a franchise, but the company is technically an independent entity that merely obtains the right to use an established brand’s business model. For example, an individual might want to open a Dunkin’ Donuts location just off Interstate 95. When she incorporates her business, she might incorporate it with a name like “Highway Donut Shop, LLC” or “Coffee Store, Inc.” As the owner of an incorporated business, she can then purchase a Dunkin’ Donuts franchise and begin the process of starting her roadside business.

Start Marketing Before It Opens 

The time to start marketing a business is before it opens, not once it's open. This ensures that by the time the business opens, its community and its target customer base know all about it and are excited to visit it. Depending on your budget and marketing skills, you might choose to do the marketing yourself or hire a marketing agency to handle this task. If you're operating a franchise, corporate might already be handling the bulk of the marketing for your brand.

For businesses frequented by younger adults and teens, social media marketing is a must. Don't ignore this wide-reaching platform for advertising discounts and promotions, like the opportunity to buy one item and get another free on certain days of the week. However, a roadside business cannot rely solely on social media. Because your business targets commuters and people taking long trips, be sure to focus your marketing efforts on the people who'll pass by it.

An effective way to market your business to commuters and travelers is to make sure it's listed on Google My Business. People driving through the area looking for food, gas and other amenities will be searching for things like "gas near me" and "food near me," and having your business listed on Google ensures that they'll see it. Other popular marketing strategies tailored to highway travelers include:

  • Sponsoring a highway to keep it litter-free
  • Continuous billboards along the highway
  • Brochures and flyers in rest areas along the highway
  • Radio ads on local stations

Staffing Your Highway Business

You must staff your new business, ideally with employees who are local and have good social skills. Beyond providing the goods or services the company typically sells, employees could find themselves having to give directions, calling for tow trucks, taxis or rideshares and even needing to call 911 in emergency situations.

You can recruit prospective employees with hiring fairs and job postings on social media and in local newspapers. You can also post flyers listing job positions, pay rates and job requirements in public spaces like the local library and community bulletin boards. Another way to advertise that you're hiring is to post a "HELP WANTED" sign in the business' window or on its roadside sign. By doing this, you'll catch the attention of the hundreds, or even thousands, of locals who pass by your business every day.