looking back looking forward

It hardly seems appropriate for me to write about the joy of producing Convenience Store Decisions' milestone 200th issue, especially since I've been here barely long enough to figure out the voice mail system. But while my contribution to CSD encompasses all of six issues, I have had the good fortune of literally growing up in this industry long before I became a scribe.

I was introduced to the fuel business at my father's Exxon station on the outskirts of the Bronx in Mt. Vernon, N.Y., back in the days when gasoline had more lead in it than a pencil factory and fuel margins were whatever you wanted them to be.

He began as an Esso dealer in the 1950s with his two brothers, and it truly was a family business. The three-bay garage where he spent his workday was as much his home as our living room. In time, it would become my second home as well. Long before I saw a food court at a travel center, I was eating meals on an old desk that had more oil and grease residue than the chassis of a '54 Chrysler.

There, at a tender young age, I learned many valuable lessons, like checking the oil, clearing a carburetor and anything else that would help me earn that elusive $1 tip. It didn't take long for me to hone my sales skills milking my age for a sympathy quarter. But trust me, all it took was pouring one quart of oil in the wrong compartment to get a grown up tongue-lashing.

One of the joys I have now in my adult life is discussing how the industry has changed with my father, who easily preferred stockpiling engine parts on the side of the building to expanding the station to accommodate a convenience store, food court or even a soda machine for that matter. To him, upscale foodservice was the silver truck that stopped by the station around mid-morning, or anything that came out of a tap. Needless to say, my mother packed me a lunch for the long summer days I spent manning the fuel island.

Age and changes in the industry eventually caught up with my father and two uncles, and all three decided to retire and go their separate ways in the mid-1980s, as did many of the men who were cut from the same cloth. It turned out to be good timing for his generation. As the 1990s rolled around, a new convenience store and gas station paradigm was being introduced and his unwillingness to change would have likely caused him much despair. In athlete speak, he walked away on his own terms.

But it's still in his blood. He often takes time to reflect on the glory days of his youth in the gasoline business, and as a writer–and more importantly, as a son–I listen. That changed recently as I was preparing CSD's 200th issue retrospective. I went on the offensive and proceeded to explain to him how much the industry has changed over the past 16 years since CSD was launched and even in the 10 years since I started covering the industry as an editor.

He wasn't impressed. Instead, he offered some keen insight on the advances made by contemporary gas stations and convenience stores, such as pay-at-the-pump. "I wanted customers to pay with cash," he said, "this way I didn't have to report it."

While ignoring his ethical shortcomings, my goal was far from accomplished. I wanted a true understanding of how he felt about the industry that put a roof over our heads in the suburbs and food on the table until I was well into my high school years.

So to elicit a true emotional response I arranged a trip to the old location, now a nail salon (you would really understand the irony here if you could see the grease indelibly etched in the cracks of my father's hands) and I asked him if he wished he'd kept the business alive. After all, he worked alongside his brothers and nephews every day for close to 30 years, and, sadly, many of them are no longer with us. His poignant answer, in retrospect, was pretty obvious. "We were mechanics," he said. "We needed to be realistic toward the end of our run. We wouldn't have been any good at running convenience stores or fastfood restaurants and we wouldn't have trusted anyone else to come in and run them for us. Sometimes, you just have to turn the page."

And as we reminisced about other changes in the industry, a modern versionof the "roach coach" rolled on by much to the delight of employees at a nearbyfactory. Through the haze of a cold New York City morning, I could see a sparklein his eye that seemed to reflect a lifetime of cherished memories. "Let's gosit down and grab a bite to eat," he suggested. I smiled and thought to myself,if only he would have stayed in business, we would have already been there.


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