KINGSPORT — Fill her up, clean the windshield and check the tires and fluids.
Those words of bygone days still get a positive response from at least two businesses in Kingsport, among a handful of what once was the norm in automobile fueling: the full-service gasoline filling station.
Full service, once commonly mandated by law, has fallen by the wayside for the most part, but not at Brooks Circle Exxon at the intersection of Eastman Road and Fort Henry Drive and CenterDale Service at the intersection of Center and Dale streets.
Brooks Circle changing name, keeping full service
Changes, however, are coming to Brooks Circle, the namesake of a traffic circle that ceased to exist in the late 1970s. Soon the station won’t be an Exxon and will become a Zoomerz, but the owner said it will retain at least some full service.
The station closed as Brooks Circle July 9 and will reopen as a Zoomerz when the convenience store is completed. The store is expected to open with the new pumps around Aug. 18.
Rogers Petroleum owns the Brooks Circle station. Don Rogers, chairman and chief executive officer of the Morristown-based company, said plans are to keep at least limited full-service gas and other full-service offerings at the station, which will become the fifth Zoomerz convenience store in Kingsport this summer.
“We wanted to keep that” full-service gas pumping, Rogers said. “I’d bet you in East Tennessee there’s probably half a dozen full-service service stations.”
The station is open 24 hours a day, but Rogers said after the change to Zoomerz employees probably will be available to pump gas around eight to 12 hours a day, although the gas sales and convenience store will be open 24 hours a day, seven days a week.
“We’re still on the fence with that right now,” said Kevin Dalton, vice president of retail operations for Rogers. “I’d like to see 7 in the morning to 7 in the night full service. Ray Smith is really a monument at Brooks Circle and he’s built us a lot of customer loyalty.”
He said the full-service would be available only at the full-service pumps during the selected hours.
“I’ve been doing this for 18 years, and it’s (full service) gone long by the wayside,” Dalton said, estimating that full service gas accounts for half of 1 percent of the retail gas business.
“It’s 95 percent sure we’re doing it (staying with full service),” Dalton said.
Rogers Petroleum, with the conversion of Brooks Circle, will have 20 convenience stores from Bristol, Va., west to Kingston, Tenn., and is a wholesaler to others, including a full-service station in Knoxville that also works on cars, another rarity.
For instance, Rogers said Tom Brooks Exxon on Stone Drive in Kingsport sells gas and tires and does work on vehicles, but the gas pumps are self-service.
Although Rogers plans to hang onto the rare full-service pumps, the company also plans to bring back biodiesel to a retail pump at the Zoomerz in Sullivan Gardens. Dalton said the company has applied for a grant to help offset the cost of offering B20, or 20 percent biodiesel, at that location, even though biodiesel — made from vegetable or animal oils — has been selling for more than regular petroleum diesel.
Smith full-service veteran
Ray Smith, manager of Brooks Circle, said a regular customer asked what he was going to do after the new pumps were installed.
Smith, a 27-year veteran of full-service gas stations in Kingsport and Bristol, Tenn., said he had to explain to her that the new pumps with the convenience store would include a full-service island.
“I started here in 1981,” Smith said of working for Exxon station owner Eddie Williams, “and in 1984 I went to Bristol.”
In 2004, he came back to Brooks Circle and stayed with the operation after Williams sold it to Rogers Petroleum.
As a steady stream of full-service and self-service customers came by one recent afternoon, Smith spoke to most by first name.
“If I’m out and say I’m Ray Smith, they may not know me. If I say I’m Ray at the Exxon, they know who I am,” Smith said.
One regular customer is Josh Lawson, who uses self-service pumps, but he came by for some free air put in by Smith in one of his pickup truck tires.
“I live right out the road, so I’m here all the time,” Lawson said.
Smith added, “He’s keeping me in a job.”
Aside from selling gas, some drinks, motor oil, transmission fluid, power steering fluid and antifreeze, workers will check the oil, tires and other things for self-service as well as full-service gas customers.
Smith said some self-service customers who unknowingly pull up to full-service pumps are young enough not to know about full service, while others who know about full-service pull in because of a problem.
“We always try to help everybody out,” Smith said. For instance, a woman in an overheating car drove up and he advised her to go to a local garage to get a burst radiator hose replaced.
He estimated about 10 percent of the business is full-service gas, mostly from regular customers since gas prices have spiked.
The new pumps will allow credit card transactions at the pump, something that Smith and employee Roy Davidson must handle in one of two kiosks.
Center Dale (full) Service
Another Smith, unrelated to Ray Smith, operates CenterDale Service, 801 E. Center St.
The business has been owned by the Smith family since 1958. Anthony Smith, son of the founder A.D. Smith, runs the station, which also offers tire sales and mechanical work.
Drive to the full-service or self-service pumps and your vehicle will go over a rubber hose that rings a bell, a once common way to notify the attendant of the need for service.
These days, however, Anthony Smith said there’s not as much demand for full service or his mechanic’s service.
“People want that quick, cheap, easy gas,” he said.
A framed newspaper ad from the 1960s shows A.D. Smith and a group of attendants ready to help customers at the station. Now Smith is the sole worker at the business his parents, A.D. and Shirley Smith, still own and oversee. The anniversary advertisement includes a promotion in which anybody who filled up or bought at least 10 gallons of gas would receive a free silver dollar, a sizeable refund in the day of gas in the 30- or 40-cents-per-gallon range.
The station also used to give away one used car or $250 in cash each week, and the Smiths have a 1962 photograph of the station showing the giveaway car.
Since the photograph was taken, gasoline prices have risen more than 10 times that amount to almost $4 a gallon. Regular was 31.9 cents a gallon, while high-test “Super Shell” was 35.9 cents a gallon.
A.D. Smith said many older customers, including friends and high school classmates, know him because of the right arm injury he received while serving in the Korean War.
He said some customers regularly come from Gate City, Va., and other areas surrounding Kingsport.
“You enjoy the customers that’s been sweet to you and helped you for years and years and years,” the elder Smith said.
Anthony Smith estimated about half the station’s gas sales are full-service.
The elder Smith, interviewed July 3 on his 79th birthday, said he hopes to keep the business going “if I can keep my son going.”
Shirley Smith said the station has had some regular customers for years, although her husband said some are getting on in years and no longer drive.
Anthony Smith does oil changes, air conditioning work, brake work and other minor mechanical repairs.
The station’s regular hours are 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. Monday through Friday, 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Saturday and is closed Sunday.
Self-service gas banned?
Places like Brooks Circle and Center Dale used to be the rule, not just for convenience but under the law.
Self-service gasoline used to be banned by law across much of the United States, with safety concerns cited, and it still is in Oregon and New Jersey. Huntington, N.Y., also has banned self-service gas since the early 1970s.
Emily LeRoy, associate director for the Nashville-based Tennessee Oil Marketers Association, said that Tennessee law was changed to allow self-service gas in the mid-1970s. The association, formed in 1929, represents wholesale petroleum distributors and convenience store owners. Before self-service became the norm, she said members were all wholesale, but that now 80 percent of members have wholesale and retail.
However, LeRoy said it might surprise most people that about 95 percent of retail gasoline outlets are owned by chains or individuals, not the large oil companies often denoted on the signs out front.
Pay more for full service
Although fuel prices have spiked in the past year to all-time highs in the United States, LeRoy said some consumers are willing to pay more for full service.
“There’s one (full-service station) in my neighborhood and I fill up there,” LeRoy said.
She said the station’s staff will come out to her house to fix a flat or do other work, something the family-owned station used to do when she was growing up in that same neighborhood.
“I’m single and I don’t know very much about cars,” LeRoy said.
She said it all boils down to the motoring public being willing to pay more for service or — in the case of biofuels — more for fuel touted to help the environment and lessen U.S. dependence on foreign oil.
According to a February article from the Reuters wire service, Dutch inventors have designed a robot that will automatically fuel vehicles as long as the model is one of the ones it is programmed to recognize.
The two full-service Kingsport gas stations, however, have no plans to go robotic. They are keeping full-service gas sales alive with personalized service from employees who know and are known by their customers.