Full-service gas stations still around

Nearly extinct, full-service gas stations find a niche

September 7, 2013
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Jim McNutt/Observer-Reporter
Gino DeFilippis chats with a customer while he pumps gas into a vehicle earlier this summer at Russo’s Sunoco in Canonsburg. Russo’s Sunoco is one of the last area service stations that provides attendants to pump gas, clean windshields and check fluids for customers. Order a Print
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Jim McNutt/Observer-Reporter
Richard Horvath, manager of the Kwik Fill on Pike Street in Houston, pumps gas for a customer earlier this summer. Kwik Fill is one of the last area gas stations that still offers full service. Order a Print
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This photo of Russo’s gas station, then an Esso station, was taken in 1956, the year the station opened.

There aren’t very many full-service gas stations left in Washington County, but Ron and Barbara Cianelli are happy there’s one in their neighborhood.

The Cianellis, of Canonsburg, are regulars at Russo’s Sunoco gas station on Pike Street in Canonsburg, where an attendant pumps their gasoline and always has a minute or two for a friendly chat.

“We’ve been coming here since the 1960s,” said Ron Cianelli. “I come because it’s full service. They know who we are, and my wife doesn’t have to worry about getting out and having to pump gas.”

Russo’s Sunoco is one of the last full-service stations around, a throwback to a long-gone era when attendants pumped customers’ gasoline, checked tire pressure, washed the windshield and offered to look under the hood and check the oil.

You can’t get a latte, a breakfast sandwich or a hot dog at Russo’s, but you can stay inside your car on a frigid winter morning or a rainy afternoon while someone else fills up your tank.

“It makes us quite a bit of a dinosaur. We’ve thought about changing to self-serve and adding a convenience store over the years, but now we’ve crossed over to the point where it’s unique enough – and it’s a service customers want – that it works for us,” said owner Rich Russo.

His father, Patsy, opened the station in 1956, and Russo has “operated it pretty much the same way all these years,” he said.

His three full-time attendants and five part-time employees – high school students who work on weekends and evenings – man the gas station from 6 a.m. to 10 p.m. daily, while mechanics and technicians work on vehicles in the auto repair shop from 8 a.m. to 4 p.m. during the week.

Customers often ask them to give the windows a quick cleaning and to check the oil. If you need air in your tires, it’s still free at Russo’s.

“We’re a full-service station, so that’s what we’re supposed to do,” said attendant Geno DiFilippis. “Just this morning I put four quarts of oil in for a woman who didn’t realize how low she was.”

The OPEC oil crisis in 1978 signaled the end of the golden age of full-service gas stations, as companies looked for ways to cut costs, explained Peter Conley, vice president of retail marketing for United Refining Co., which operates more than 290 Kwik Fill gas stations in Pennsylvania, New York and Ohio.

Self-service stations started to sprout up, offering gas for a few pennies less per gallon, and within a few years, the full-service stations had largely disappeared (except in New Jersey and Oregon, where self-service stations are banned).

A National Shopping Service survey found that today’s motorists prefer a quick pit stop instead of a leisurely visit to a full-service station.

“We live in a world that’s in a hurry all the time, but self-serve stations aren’t for everyone. The full-service stations have been a nice niche for us,” said Conley, who noted about one-fourth of Kwik Fill’s stations, including the ones in Houston and Burgettstown, offer full service.

“There are a lot of people who would rather not pump their own gas.”

A majority of customers who stop at full-service pumps are women, Conley said, but the service is valuable for the elderly and those with disabilities.

And, Russo said, businessmen and women dressed in suits and dresses often don’t want to handle a pump or smell like gasoline.

Tom Davis has owned the BP station on Main Street in McDonald for 40 years. He said his customers appreciate the full-service station.

“They tell me, ‘If it’s not broken, don’t fix it,’” said Davis. “And I’m appreciative of my loyal customers. We know them by name. I’ve had customers who started coming the day I opened the station. They’ll get their gas here, and they’ll get their car inspected here, too.”

The Pennsylvania Petroleum Marketers and Convenience Store Assocation doesn’t keep track of how many full-service stations are in operation, but their numbers are dwindling.

Another full-service station went by the wayside recently when Bob Beard, owner of Beard Auto Service in North Franklin Township, quit dispensing gas, opting to concentrate on his repair and service business. His antiquated pumps are not equipped to charge more than $3.99 a gallon, “and besides,” he said, “most people today end up pumping their own gas.”

Russo believes the bottom line is that gas stations are a service business, and his philosophy is that providing excellent service keeps customers coming back.

Houston Kwik Fill manager Richard Horvath recalled teaching a woman in her 80s and the woman’s teenage grandson how to pump gas for a vacation the pair were taking.

“She still talks about that when she comes in for gas,” he said.

Russo said grateful customers sometimes tip the attendants.

“We’re in a small town where family-owned businesses and neighbor-owned services seem to matter,” said Russo.

Teena Bonnarens of Canonsburg has been getting her gas at Russo’s station since she moved here from Missouri four years ago, opting for the full-service station over the dozens of nearby self-serve stations.

“The people here are very nice. It’s more convenient,” said Bonnarens. “In the winter, it’s wonderful.”

Karen Mansfield is an award-winning journalist and mom of five who has been a staff writer for the Observer-Reporter since 1988. She enjoys reading, the Pittsburgh Steelers, a good glass of wine and nice people.

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