Todd Kerby acknowledges he’s among a dying breed.
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.”
Given a choice
At the J&S location in Waterville, drivers have a choice between self- and full-serve pumps. About 35 percent of customers choose full-serve, Babb said.
On Thursday there was an 8-cent difference for regular gas between the two services, and a 4-cent difference for the other grades.
Allen Gilbert, 64, of Oakland, pulled up in a full-size pickup truck and asked for a fill-up. He said he always chooses full service.
“It’s worth it to me to pay a little extra,” he said. “I have problems with my arms. It’s a lot easier to let them wrestle with them hoses.”
Katie Brown, 31, of Waterville, approached the full-service pumps in a sporty sedan.
“I always use full-serve. I don’t know why,” she said.
Her passenger, Dillon Cyr, 27, of Portland, offered a concise reason.
“Because we’re decadent,” he said.
Something completely different
Dylan St. Amand, 19, has been a fuel attendant in Winslow for nearly four years. He said the rarity of the job is part of its appeal. Also, the camaraderie with the other attendants makes each shift fly by.
“We try to have fun here. You don’t want to come in here and drag yourself around. It’s work, but you make the most of what you do,” he said.
For Jarred Grant, being a gas attendant at Fabian Oil in Oakland is a second job. It’s also a change of pace. Grant is a full-time sergeant at Somerset County Jail in Madison.
“It’s a nice diversion from working in corrections,” he said. “It’s nice to be around people who aren’t so controversial and against the grain. Working here is kind of a de-stresser. That’s how I look at.”