Bend man puts 'service' in gas service station

BEND — Gas sales at some service stations across Central and Eastern Oregon have been flat for more than two years because of the depressed economy, but fuel sales have steadily increased at the Stop and Go Shell station on Bend's east side — something owner Kent Couch attributes to what he calls the "wow factor" of old-fashioned service.

"When I bought the gas station in 1997, I didn't know anything about the fuel business, but I knew from my prior experience managing grocery stores that customer service is the key to success, so the first thing I did was reinstate windshield washing," Couch said.

Customers were so complimentary that Couch decided to go a step further and require his gas station attendants to wear white uniforms with folded hats, such as those some service station attendants wore from the 1930s to the early '60s.

Couch said he got the idea from old photographs and watching old movies that showed crews of three or four uniformed service station attendants rushing to greet cars as they pulled in for fuel.

One greeted the driver with a big smile and started pumping gas while others washed the windshield, rear window and side windows, and checked the tire pressure and oil. Couch said window washing is mandatory for his attendants and they get bonus points, which translate into bonus pay, for each additional service performed for customers, time-permitting.

"I figured if we are going to do the old-fashioned service, we ought to dress the look," Couch said. "We tell our employees the uniform represents good customer service, so you wouldn't want to wear the uniform and not provide good customer service."

That strategy has paid off. Fuel sales have increased every year since 1997 at the station — located at the corner of 27th Street and U.S. Highway 20 — despite the depressed economy, Couch said.

Larry Kimmel, vice president of Bend Oil, a regional fuel distributor for Shell and Chevron stations in Central and Eastern Oregon, confirmed recently that Couch's sales have risen annually, even during the economic downturn over the past couple of years when sales generally have been flat for most gas stations across the region.

"His (Couch's) sales have grown compared to other sites we service," Kimmel said.

While promoting gas sales with uniformed attendants and old-time service has been successful, Couch gained national attention in 2007 with a more daring promotion in which he tied helium balloons to a lawn chair, rode it to 16,000 feet and traveled 193 miles from his Shell station launch pad to Baker City.

"It was all over the news," Couch said, rattling off CNN, Fox News, "Good Morning America," "Inside Edition" and "The Tonight Show with Jay Leno."

"I got the idea from watching a segment of 'MythBusters' on TV. They proved it could be done. The balloons lifted a guy up into the air, but they kept it (the lawn chair) tied down, so it only rose about 60 feet.

"I couldn't believe they'd go to all that trouble and not let him go," said Couch, 50. "I did it partly as a promotional stunt and partly to prove I could actually take off and fly."

He controlled his altitude with low-tech methods. When he wanted to descend, he used a BB gun to pop balloons. If he descended too quickly, he released some of the 4-pound bags of water tied to the chair.

Once, when he was experimenting with helium balloon flight in 2006, Couch said he had to bail out with a parachute because some of the balloons spontaneously popped at around 14,000 feet. He didn't have enough water bags to compensate for the loss of lift and his lawn chair plunged toward the ground.

At his service station, Couch offers the usual soda, coffee and snack foods. He also added a Baldy's BBQ restaurant, which features the same barbecued beef, pork and chicken sandwiches and other popular menu items served at the original Baldy's in west Bend.

To attract and keep good employees willing to meet his customer service expectations, Couch said he pays more than minimum wage and gives bonuses to employees who meet or exceed the company's service standards with secret shoppers.

"We pay between $9 and $11 per hour for gas attendants, and they can earn an extra $25 to $50 each time they get a good score from a secret shopper," Couch said.

Jazzwinder Alvarez, 21, said he enjoys wearing the uniform and working at the station.

"I've been working here 41/2; years. It is a really fun place. You get to meet a lot of people, and everyone is really friendly," said Alvarez, who is a student in Central Oregon Community College's automotive technician program.

He said it's not unusual for customers to tip attendants, which can add $10 to $20 to daily pay during the summer tourist season.

Couch was 13 when he landed his first job in 1976 as a box boy at Safeway in Pendleton, and by 18 he graduated to assistant store manager positions in Burns, then Hood River and Hermiston, before rising to manager of the Redmond Safeway in 1991.

When Safeway tried to transfer him to a larger store out of state in 1994,

Couch said he quit rather than uproot his family, including five children in Redmond-area schools. That decision eventually led Couch to take an entrepreneurial leap and purchase the gas station.

"Even before I left Safeway I had a strong desire to own a business of my own," Couch said.

While he searched for the right opportunity, Couch managed the Thriftway grocery store in Prineville from 1994 until 1997.

During the 13 years he has owned and operated the Stop and Go Shell, each of Couch's five children has worked there, including his son, Kizer, who started working at 13 and is now 26 and part owner and manager.

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