September 2, 2012

'Fill 'er up' hasn't disappeared

By Ben McCanna bmccanna@centralmaine.com
Staff Writer

Todd Kerby acknowledges he's among a dying breed.

click image to enlarge

Joseph Hopkins fills the tank for Lorraine Bowdion on Saturday at J&S Oil Xpress Stop on Bay Street in Winslow.

Staff photo by Michael G. Seamans

BY THE NUMBERS

AAA said on Friday that about 1.6 million New England residents, or about 11.3 percent of the population, will travel 50 miles or more from home during Labor Day weekend, according to The Associated Press. That represents a 3 percent increase over last year, slightly ahead of the national forecast. Also on Friday, the average price of gas in Maine was $3.89 per gallon, and the national average was $3.83, according to AAA.

For the past 10 years, Kerby has pumped gasoline at J&S Oil Xpress Stop in Winslow. It's a job that suits him.

"What more could you ask for? You work outdoors and you meet lots of people, and 90 percent of the people are great," he joked.

J&S Oil is among a small number of full-serve gas stations in central Maine and Kerby is among a handful of gas attendants. Full-service used to be the norm 40 years ago, but today it's nearly extinct. Those who continue to provide the service acknowledge it's tough on the bottom line, but they say they can't imagine doing business any other way.

Even with gas prices inching toward $4 per gallon in Maine, and a recent price spike from Hurricane Isaac, drivers are still willing to pay a little extra for the bygone service.

The sound of business

Kerby and two other identically dressed attendants zigzagged through the pumps during a lunchtime rush Thursday. The trio popped hoods, checked oil and pumped gas. All the while, each man called out exactly what he was doing.

"Hood's coming up," Kerby shouted while raising the hood of a late-model sedan.

Then, after checking the oil, Kerby shouted some more.

"Stick's in. Cap's on. Hood's comin down," he said.

J&S owner John Babb said there's a few reasons for the chatter, which he calls echoing.

"It's showmanship," he said. "It also keeps the customer aware of what we're doing and it keeps attendants on their toes. It helps with clarity, it helps them remember the steps they need to do."

J&S Oil has seven locations. Five -- those in Augusta, Farmingdale, Manchester, Waterville and Winslow -- still offer full-service gas.

"It's ingrained. Right from the beginning, we've been a service-focused company," he said. "The whole thing starts with a pleasant greeting and a sincere thank-you and we do all the other stuff in the middle of it."

Babb is one of the company's original employees. In 1972, he got his start in the business when his father, John Sr., opened his flagship station in Manchester. The elder Babb put his son to work.

"I was forced labor," Babb joked.

In his late 30s, Babb began to assume ownership of the company, which is also 25 percent employee-owned. Over the years, Babb has witnessed a major shift in the business as more and more stations switched to self-serve to improve profit margins.

Sticking it out

Dan Parks is operations manager of Fabian Oil, which owns four gas stations in Maine. Three of the stations -- in Jay, Oakland and Thomaston -- are full-service.

Aside from New Jersey and Oregon, where law prohibits drivers from pumping their own gas, full-service stations are rare throughout the country, Parks said.

"Maine and New Hampshire are probably the last of the holdouts," he said.

Parks said there's a simple reason that full service has given way to self-serve.

"With more employees involved, you're net margin is going to go down," he said, "but, we're pretty committed to it. The owner of the company is a firm believer in it and wants to take care of his customer base."

At both Fabian and J&S, the gas prices are often identical to their self-serve competitors, the owners said.

Babb said he and other managers at J&S regularly discuss whether to make the switch to self-serve, but always circle back to tradition.

"It's something that no one wants to let go," he said. "We enjoy being able to offer the service. It makes us unique. It's something that's bred in us and something we've been doing right from the beginning."

(Continued on page 2)

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