Over the last three decades, gas station full service has been replaced by pay-at-the-pump machines or if paying with cash, by cashiers behind glass partitions who take payment in advance — which often requires returning for change.
Whether credit or cash, the dance ends the same way: You pump your own gas.
Gone are the easy-going days when a young man in a jump suit would greet you at the service station, pump your gas for you, clean your windshield and take your payment all without you having to leave your car.
Well, not quite gone.
PHOTOS: Customers let them ‘fill ‘er up’
A handful of stations in Southern California still offer full service but only in upper-class communities such as Bel Air, Brentwood, Santa Monica and San Marino. At such stations, customers pay more for service, akin to paying extra for leg room on an airplane or having your groceries delivered — a business model making a comeback in the monied pockets of a patch-knit society separated by economic lines.
Motorists who cruise into Leon’s Auto Care in San Marino sometimes feel like they’ve entered a time warp, say pre-1986, the year pay-at-the-pump was introduced.
At the Unocal station at the corner of Los Robles Avenue and Mission Street, probably the only one like it in the San Gabriel Valley, everyone experiences having their gas pumped for them. If they want to pay even more for “full serve,” they can ask the attendant to look under the hood and check the car’s fluids and put air in the tires.
San Marino and Pasadena residents enjoy the nicety of having their gas pumped.
Outsiders not familiar with the service can be taken aback.
“There are some people who look at us like, what the (expletive) are you doing here and they take off. Usually, they are younger and don’t know what this is,” owner Leon Markosian said.
On a recent weekday morning, Rene Cuesta pulled his Honda Pilot to the gasoline island, turned off the engine, got out of the car and walked toward the pump. He was immediately intercepted by Edmund Parker, the attendant on duty that morning.
Cuesta, who lives in Los Angeles, was stopping to get gas before dropping his daughter at nearby Pasadena City College. Sensing he was unaware of the full service, Parker informed him and Cuesta got back in his car and enjoyed the service. Are people often surprised?
“Yeah, because this is a lost art here in Southern California,” Parker said.
Customer service is not dead in Southern California. As long as you are willing to pay for it.
Leon’s “self serve” includes having someone pump your gas and not having to leave your car to pay. Last week, prices ranged from $3.19 to $3.45 a gallon. Prices for “full serve,” in which a customer can have the car’s tires or fluids checked in addition, went from $3.59 to $3.89, depending on the octane.
The only other gas station in San Marino, near Huntington Drive and Sierra Madre Avenue, does not offer the pumping service and the prices were about the same.
Markosian said the pampering at the pump helps him gain customers for car repairs and tuneups. Since 1987, he’s been in charge of the full-service station and is celebrating his 30-year anniversary. He bought the business in 1996.
Vince Wagner, manager of the Brentwood 76 station, said they’ve been pumping people’s gas for 28 years. He said there is no particular cohort who uses the service.
“It is a wide range,” he said. “I couldn’t put any demographic on it.”
Marie Montgomery, spokesperson for the Automobile Club of Southern California, had not heard of any stations that pump your gas. But she imagined there would be a few in Los Angeles County and figured those who used it might be the elderly or the disabled. However, the Americans with Disabilities Act requires giving assistance to a disabled driver, she said.
Markosian said his customers are men and women, young and old, single and married. Some older customers arrive on Sundays, he said. But primarily, Leon’s Unocal in San Marino is busiest on weekdays between 7 a.m. and 9 a.m. and 4 p.m. and 6 p.m. as commuters navigate the 10, 110 and 210 freeways to get to and from work on jammed up Los Robles Avenue, a north-south thoroughfare.
Why do they like having someone pump their gas for them?
“I have a baby in the back,” said one customer in an Audi T-3, who found it convenient and safer.
Hanah Rees, a mother and San Marino resident, agreed.
“I have a child so it just is easier. … Not having to take her in (to pay) makes a huge difference. Then she’ll want sweets and it takes double the time,” said Rees while sitting in the driver’s seat as Parker pumped her gas and cleaned her windshield.
“It’s the small things,” she added.
Jack Feldman, webmaster and curator of Water and Power Associates, a nonprofit organization whose members are former executives from the energy and water industry, said their site gets 400 hits a day, mostly of its archival photos of L.A.-based full-service gas stations from 1920-1950.
They were popular because customers would run into people they knew. But socialization around the gas pump is part of a bygone era that included something called “gasoteria,” in which “young ladies on roller skates that would come and fill up your car with gas back in the early ’40s,” Feldman said.
“I think (full-service) stations are going to come back,” he said.
But for different reasons.
“People are becoming more resourceful and trying to find a market for everything,” Feldman said.
UCLA Professor Brian Taylor, who heads the college’s Institute of Transportation Studies, said full-service stations are about product differentiation, tantamount to airlines charging five different prices for seats on the same flight. It’s something that co-exists with people waiting in line at Costco for the lowest-priced gas, he said.
For Cuesta, he would usually find the lowest price gasoline. But stumbling onto Leon’s full-serve Unocal was a pleasant surprise.
“It is nice. It is a good idea, I like it. It is comfortable. It is healthy,” he said, thanking the attendant for filling his tank while handing him a tip. “It was the first time somebody asked me what kind of gas I want in my car. I was surprised.”
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