BREWER, Maine — When it comes to filling stations and garages, this is not your average Joe.
For 35 years, Joe Kalel’s first name has become synonymous with automobile service for generations of customers in North Brewer and well beyond.
Now, the longtime gas station attendant, mechanic and small-business owner has opted to put himself in rare company as the owner of an independent station selling unbranded gasoline.
Motorists are still doing double-takes as they pass the gas station and garage at 210 North Main St. and notice the replacement of the long-standing Gulf company colors and “Joe’s Gulf” signs with a smaller, illuminated rectangular white sign with just “Joe’s” in red lettering.
“When you have that name for so many years, it’s weird not seeing it or having it,” said Kalel. “I didn’t like the idea of changing from Joe’s Gulf. I never will, but there ain’t nothing I can do about it. My hands are tied.”
The station known as “Joe’s Gulf” for 34 of the last 35 years — Kalel opted to sell Citgo gas for one year, but switched back — is now simply Joe’s after he decided he was tired of fighting with the corporate folks.
“They told me I didn’t really fit their image. I’m too small,” said the Bangor native.
Several attempts to reach a Gulf Oil spokesman were unsuccessful.
As a smaller filling-station owner, Kalel has to use a “middle man” to purchase oil on his behalf because he is unable to buy gasoline in the larger, bulk amounts most larger stations do.
Dead River Co. remains his supplier after the changeover, which became official earlier this month. Loyalty is a big thing with Kalel, who has been with Dead River for all 35 years. And that’s why parting ways with Gulf troubles him.
It’s already been a tumultuous year for Kalel and his son John, who now owns the building and handles most of the mechanic work.
A major reconstruction project that rerouted traffic on Main Street disrupted his business for months and, Kalel says, is still costing him business at the pumps now that it’s finished.
“The road reconstruction hurt me because it makes it hard for people to turn into the station now, especially if they’re on the opposite side of the road,” he said, referring to the dividers that make it impossible for northbound motorists to turn left directly into the garage lot if they don’t first take a left at the North Main-Parker Street intersection and then turn right onto a new access way into Joe’s.
So with all the headaches, why does the 73-year-old Glenburn resident still show up every day to pump gas and help his son work on vehicles?
“I don’t know why. There’s no money in it,” Kalel said. “I’ve had it so long. I think maybe it’s meeting people over the years. I have a lot of people from out of state who come back here over and over to see us.
“I had two older ladies came here last week and they hunted all up and down the road, and the only reason they found me is they saw ‘Joe’s Gulf’ on the window.”
John Kalel certainly understands and appreciates customer loyalty.
“I have great customers. They’re kind of like family to me,” said the 47-year-old Kalel, who was the first member of the family to race cars as well as work on them.
Working side-by-side for the better part of 30-plus years hasn’t resulted in many disputes, according to both father and son.
“Oh, we don’t have any problems,” John Kalel said. “We don’t really see each other much outside of work because we spend so much time together. He probably spends more time with me than his wife and the same with me.”
Becoming an independent station has no effect on the garage, and very few visible effects on the filling station except for the number of credit cards it can accept.
“I’m not going to be able to take the fleet cards from places like Advance Auto Parts or rental companies,” Joe Kalel said. “That will hurt. I’ll just accept only the major credit cards now.”
Still, the elder Kalel has no thoughts of retirement.
“I’ve been tempted to retire ever since this all came up, but I guess it’s just in me. It’s something I like to do. I’ve done it so long, I’d hate to give it up,” he said with a chuckle.
“Me?” John said with a laugh. “I’d love to retire, but I just can’t afford to.”