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Full-Serve Lingers in Self-Serve World

For some motorists, not even $3-a-gallon gas can drive them to cheaper, do-it-yourself pumps. They're happy to pay for the special attention.

October 09, 2005|Elizabeth Douglass | Times Staff Writer

Like many motorists, Albert Menaster has watched with alarm as gasoline prices zoomed past $3 a gallon.

But when he drives his 1998 Ford Windstar into Silverlake 76, Menaster stops at the lone full-serve nozzle, where customers can bark a command heard mostly in old movies: Fill 'er up!

In a world gone self-serve, Menaster belongs to a pool of full-serve holdouts who pay as much as 50 cents more per gallon than their self-serve brethren. If he pumped his own gas, Menaster could save $4.50 with each fill-up. But he and others say not even the unrelenting rise in gasoline prices can force them to the cheaper, do-it-yourself pumps.

Paying the higher price assures them of an oil check, a clean windshield and some special attention. And in a city where people complain of feeling disconnected, it also provides a human touch.

"Yeah, it costs more," said Menaster, who heads the appellate branch of the Los Angeles County public defender's office. But "Paul, he and I became friends because of it.... Now it's as much a social event as anything."

Menaster was referring to station owner Paul Sawan, who is often there waiting for him. They joke and talk about world events, court cases and, on one recent day, about the book "Freakonomics" -- a bestseller that uses statistics to help explain human behavior.

It's a ritual that grew out of Menaster's misbehaving gas tank, which shut off the pump before his tank was full. After Sawan found a way to fill the minivan's tank without spilling, a friendship blossomed.

Menaster, 56, said he had no intention of letting soaring gasoline prices ruin it now.

Visit a local station that offers full-serve and you get a good sense of who uses it: Seniors. People who should read "Auto Repair for Dummies." People with company cars and expense accounts. And others who can't stand the thought of dripping fuel on their clothes or having their hands reek of gasoline.

Dawn Josef, among the 15 to 20 motorists who buy full-serve each day at manager Gurnam Singh's Chevron in Encino, said she began paying extra to have attendants pump her gas while she was pregnant. She got hooked and never went back to self-serve.

Silver Lake resident Bridget Arian, 83, has been going to Sawan's 76 on the corner of Glendale Boulevard and Fletcher Drive for the last 25 years. Her loyalty is underscored by the "76" ball on the antenna of her Nissan Sentra. She became such good friends with the former owner that they still call each other.

On a recent Friday morning, Arian called out, "Hi, Carlos, it's already open."

The longtime attendant, Carlos Campuzano, returns the greeting, starts the pump, then lifts the hood.

Full service, Arian explains, is easier for a woman her age.

Because her driving is limited to local shopping, she comes to the station once a month. Arian spent $14.05 to buy four gallons at $3.199 each -- 22 cents a gallon more than self-serve.

After getting her change, Arian waves and drives off.

Nationwide, about 20% of the nearly 169,000 gas stations still offer full-serve to customers, according to trade publication National Petroleum News, which doesn't break the data down by state.

Finding one can be a chore, except in places such as New Jersey and Oregon, where statewide bans on self-service have been in place for decades despite periodic attempts to remove them.

Under California law, all gasoline retailers must provide fueling assistance to the disabled at self-serve prices. Exceptions include stations with a single employee.

Full-serve is still the norm in San Marino, 12 miles east of Los Angeles. City officials dumped a self-serve ban five years ago but still limit gas stations to one self-serve island -- unless stations get a special permit.

In its heyday, full-serve was the core function of every gas station. When cars tripped the station bells, attendants dashed to the pumps, said John Jakle, a professor at the University of Illinois at Champaign-Urbana and author of "The Gas Station in America."

"There was the uniform, the manner in which the customer was greeted and served, the wiping of the windshield, the free air, the checking of the oil," he said.

The demise of full-serve started in Los Angeles in 1947, when an independent operator named Frank Ulrich opened the first self-serve gas station with the slogan, "Save 5 cents, serve yourself, why pay more?"

Ulrich stunned naysayers when his station, on the corner of Jilson Street and Atlantic Boulevard, sold 500,000 gallons in the first month.

By the 1970s, self-serve was permitted in 42 states. The energy price shocks of that decade hastened the trend, persuading oil companies to experiment with convenience stores, in which stations would cut staffing and make money from snacks and soft drink sales instead of fuel and car repairs.

When a 10-cent gap developed between the cost of full-serve and do-it-yourself fueling, business plummeted at full-serve pumps.

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