Sunday, July 6, 2008

Caper Gas: Back to the Future

When I moved to D'Escousse, Isle Madame, in 1971, the island had at least eight gas stations, all representing major oil companies – Gulf, Shell, Esso, Irving. They were full-service businesses, selling gas, oil, tires, batteries, accessories, lube jobs, minor repairs and tune-ups. Some of them also did bodywork and paint jobs. Two were new car dealerships: Clarence Martell sold Chevs, and his cousin Leo sold Fords.

Five of those eight stations have run out of gas. One stands abandoned, another has been levelled, and three have been converted to other uses: a fiberglass boat factory, a heritage centre and an auto-repair shop. Of the three surviving stations, two are essentially unchanged, but one has morphed into a little retail node which includes a convenience store, fast food services, a propane depot and a car wash.

These changes echo a nation-wide movement away from traditional service stations and towards self-serve gas bars, often coupled with convenience stores. Between Halifax and D'Escousse, gravel lots mark the sites of vanished service stations in Heatherton, Salt Springs, Marshy Hope, Sutherland's River and elsewhere.

The vanished stations may be no terrible loss on the TransCanada Highway, but it's another story on the back roads and secondary highways. There's hardly a place left to buy a chocolate bar, let alone a tank of fuel, in the 80 km between St. Peters and Sydney.

Yet though rural communities may not offer economies of scale, they do still represent a market. Years ago, when the major oil companies shut down their local heating-fuel businesses, a wide-awake entrepreneur named Greg Boucher established Greg's Fuels and built a thriving home-heating operation in the niche vacated by Big Oil. He expanded into the gasoline business, and when major companies like Esso abruptly severed their long-standing relationships with outlets like Poirier's Garage in D'Escousse, Greg's Fuels – head office, Arichat, NS – was ready to fill the gap.

Boucher ultimately built a chain of service stations reaching into New Brunswick, just as Wilson's Fuel expanded elsewhere. (The former Petro-Canada station in West Arichat is now a Wilson's convenience store/gas bar.) But then along came Emera, the energy company that grew out of Nova Scotia Power. Emera bought Greg's Fuels, and promptly closed down the head office and many of the stations.

The Poiriers in D'Escousse eventually found their competitors were selling fuel for less than they themselves were paying for it. They stopped selling fuel, and within a couple of years they closed the station and retired. That left us with an 8-km drive to the nearest gas pumps.

But the oil business – and the Acadians – are irrepressible. After Emera bought Greg's Fuels, Greg's customers migrated en masse to a new distributor in Arichat, Boudreau's Fuels, established in 1995. Boudreau's Fuels is owned by four Boudreaus, two cousins and their wives – Brian and Lisa, Lloyd and Viola. In the beginning, the two men drove the company's two trucks. Now, with seven trucks and 10 employees, Boudreau's is the dominant fuel supplier in the area. And rightly so. I've done business with them for a decade, and they're a pleasure to deal with.

And their whole business is built on their perception that though rural communities may not offer economies of scale, they do still represent a market. Which brings us to Caper Gas.

Caper Gas is the Boudreaus' new venture – a business aimed squarely at rural consumers abandoned by Big Oil, a business which actually returns gasoline retailing to its roots. In the beginning, after all, gas was sold from a hand-cranked gas pump out in front of a general store. Service stations came later. But why shouldn't a general store sell gas again? As a standalone business, gasoline retailing may not be very rewarding – but as a community service, as part of a broader business, and as a generator of traffic to a store, it may make a great deal of sense.

The Boudreaus commissioned a smart corporate orange and green logo derived from the Cape Breton flag, and adopted the Cape Breton phrase “drive 'er” as their motto. They developed a micro-station format, with a fat above-ground tank and a single pump for regular gas. They found partners in small Cape Breton general stores like G.H. Smith and Son in Orangedale, the Fleur de Lis Store in Rockdale, Ehler's Convenience in Whycocomagh, and – of course – Shamrock Store in D'Escousse, run by my friends Pearl and Raymond LeBlanc. Four outlets now, two coming soon, more in development.

And when Wilson's recently chose to build up a great fund of consumer ill-will by peevishly and publicly allowing rural gas pumps to run dry, the phone was ringing furiously in Arichat. Would Caper Gas be coming to other Cape Breton locations?

Soon, soon! Drive 'er, chers Boudreaus!

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