Deja vu from 1941
A young woman pulls her car up to one of the four pumps at the Mallek's service station in the vee where Huron splits into Dexter and Jackson. Holding her credit card, she looks searchingly at the pumps, then asks a fellow customer, "Do they only accept cash here?"
"No," he replies, "You can pay with a credit card inside."
"Thanks," she says, "I've never been to a station like this before."
Not surprising. There are no other stations like Mallek's left in Ann Arbor. It is the only one in town whose pumps don't take credit cards.
"I'm a little deja vu," says John Mendler, who's owned the station since 1976, when employees still pumped gas at most stations. "I wish that we were still 100 percent full serve," Mendler says. "We get an awful lot of elderly people and handicapped that we help out. I think that people still deserve that kind of treatment. But that's not the mind-set now. It's come in, get your gas as quick as you can, and go."
When he bought the station, it still carried the name of Kasimir "Cash" Mallek, who opened it in 1941. He saw no need to change it. "What good does it do to have my name up there? People in the neighborhood are familiar with Mallek's Service. That never entered my mind, to change it. It's almost embarrassing the number of people who think my name is Mallek," says Mendler. "It really is comical. Even my wife most of the time calls me Mr. Mallek when she calls me on the phone."
Mendler is frequently asked why he has not upgraded to pay-at-the-pump. "It's strictly economics. We do maybe forty thousand, in the summer fifty thousand, gallons a month. And that's nothing by today's standards. Some of these places, the truck stops, the big Speedways, if they're not in the hundreds of thousands, or half a million gallons, they're nothing. And then you can justify spending eight, nine
thousand [dollars] a pump. But it takes a long time to pay off that doing forty thousand gallons."
Part of the problem is access. With a single island, the station cannot accommodate more than four cars at a time, and if anyone parks carelessly not even that many. "People want to come in, pump their gas, they don't want to wait in line, wait for two or three other people. Could it be reconfigured? Probably. Maybe somehow put in two islands on the diagonal? That's not my desire right now."
Another contributing factor is that Mallek's sells only gas--no coffee, milk, or snacks. "In hindsight, I should have done something years ago and put in some sort of a mini convenience store, where I've got something other than just gas and oil and conversation. That's where they [other stations] make the money. They don't make it on gas. That's kind of a loss leader, just to get people in."
Mallek's is atypical because it also still does repairs. That aspect of the industry has changed too. "Cars are incredibly different now, you need much more equipment, and we are not state of the art on some things ... But I think there's still a need for the basics, the suspension, the exhaust, the steering, the brakes, all of that stuff. That's frankly what keeps us going."
One big change since 1941 is that most stations today are owned by a major oil company and leased by the people who manage them. "That's my big problem right now and the reason why I feel that you don't see any small independents any more," Mendler says. "For an independent like ourselves it's almost impossible, with all of the fees (and this is all gas I'm talking about, not mechanical, although there is some of that), the licensing, the tank inspections, the testing, the insurance--it's unbelievable. Every year it seems like the state, especially, throws another fee of some sort. And it's not just a couple thousand dollars. It's tens of thousands of dollars. If you're leasing, then it's the oil company's responsibility to pay those fees."
Mendler, who is nearly seventy, still comes in five days a week at 4:30 a.m. and opens the station by six. He says he'd like to find somebody that would be willing to buy Mallek's and continue to run it as it is. "But I just don't think that's going to happen--unless it was somebody that had enough wherewithal financially so that they could see, 'Well, maybe if we do reconfigure the island so we can generate more gas income, and maybe we'll put in a little party store ...' I'm afraid no one is going to say, 'Yeah, I want to just continue on the way it is.'"
So for now Mallek's will go on as it has, relatively unchanged, for over seventy years. "The people of Ann Arbor, and particularly the west side, are incredibly loyal," says Mendler. "We may not necessarily always have the best price on gas, although I try to stay fairly competitive, but there have been times when we haven't been, and they could very easily go somewhere else, but they don't. And I recognize that, and I appreciate that. And it's fun, it's just plain fun to be able to talk with them, call them by their first name. I like that."
[Originally published in September, 2013.]