Gas station gains social media following
ORANGE, Conn. (AP) — It’s not unusual to see customers dancing to the oldies while pumping gas at Ben’s Shell Service Center & Towing — and if they’re just too cute, the video could end up on the station’s popular Facebook page.
The service station combines old-fashioned service — they’ll pump the gas and the fancy coffee is free — with modern twists, including outdoor music and a strong presence on Facebook, Instagram and Twitter.
A few bistro tables in front beckon customers to sit, gab and hang out, and although the station is in a high-traffic area at 115 Boston Post Road, large wooden planters brimming with American flags and forsythia add a country feel.
Owner Ben Santamauro, 75, for decades ran the station he founded in 1966 as a simple gas pumps/car repair operation. Business has skyrocketed since the continuing transformation to “homey” began eight years ago, and he credits his wife of 11 years, Andrea Santamauro, 55.
“It turned around 100 percent,” Ben Santamauro said of the business that always thrived for what it was. “Her ideas are phenomenal. Everything she says, she’s right.”
Andrea Santamauro, who worked as an administrative assistant at a school in West Haven for 16 years, never dreamed she would one day be remaking a service station into a warm, fuzzy place, but she loves it.
She married Ben in 2008 after their respective spouses died within a month of each other. Two years into the marriage, she wanted to get away from the other job, so Ben invited her to join the station team. She said she used to go to the station with her dad when she was a kid.
“Now she’s the boss,” Ben Santamauro said whimsically.
A boss the guys have nicknamed “Cruella Deville,” she said with a chuckle, because her standards for cleanliness and perfection are high. She wants the bays spotless, too.
The station is located on the Orange/West Haven line and the Santamauros live in West Haven.
Andrea Santamauro got creative with the goal of making the business a “mom-and-pop” shop.
“I think I made it homey; I love customer service,” she said. “We make friendliness a top priority — I want hellos, goodbyes, thank yous,” and when possible, for customers to be referred to by name.
Customer John Keeler of Orange said he is feeling the fuzziness.
“I love this place — they treat you like family when you’re in here,” he said.
Customer Rick Barretta, owner of Barretta Landscaping, recently came up to the cash register giddy with a joke about 5 cents a gallon off for dancing at the pump — and then made it clear that it was just a joke.
“It’s friendly, everyone is polite,” Barretta said.
Andrea Santamauro said she expanded the front customer area to make a waiting room with television, coffee and food station, and installed a drink cooler.
That’s not an uncommon sight in gas station stores, but she took it even further. The coffee, with all kinds of flavor offerings is free. And if someone wants to come in just to warm up, without doing business, they can — and grab a coffee too.
In warmer months, they have a table-top pizza oven out and sell Carmine’s pizza to bake there.
Andrea Santamauro has held “women only” car clinics — yes, she learned how to do oil changes — has made the place pet friendly with dog treats, kid-friendly with books and coloring and even added a few basic groceries so it can be one-stop shopping. The oldies are always streaming outside to make the atmosphere more pleasant — many opt to do the Mashed potato, Twist or other dance moves.
There are also all kinds of interesting items for sale: unique greeting cards; biker jewelry (Ben loves his Harley); and rhinestone doo wraps.
Andrea Santamauro even added propane tanks for sale, and it was her idea to add a garage bay just for emissions testing. Since then, the business is doing 30-40 vehicles a day as opposed to nine, she said.
All the interesting activities get posted on social media, and Andrea Santamauro has grown a huge Facebook following and is sure to post often.
It may be a cute meme about car repair, life in general, dogs, specials at the station, a video of a customer dancing, romantic sentiments about Ben still making her heart skip a beat, happenings in the general community, such as West Haven Pizza Wars, and daily trials everyone can relate to — like a treasured coffee mug breaking.
It was on the Facebook page that many learned of the death of Ben Santamauro’s son, Val, and the outpouring of support helped comfort the family, they said.
When longtime mechanic Ernie Burton returned to Ben’s Service Center after a brief absence, Andrea Santamauro announced it on Facebook like a rock star was coming to town.
“There’s more outreach. People love it,” he said of the changes. “It’s the little extra things customers come for.”
Manager John Moore, who has been there 35 years, said that when he started there were only soda, snacks and cigarette machines.
“We try to offer everything so there’s not another stop,” Moore said. “The so-called neighborhood gas station has fallen by the wayside.”
Ben Santamauro’s son, Bobby Santamauro, is an auto technician who has been there more than 30 years and said the Facebook presence and changes have increased business.
The cashiers, Freddie Evans and Larry Burgess, who do lots of the gas pumping, feel the love and work hard to pass it on to customers. That kind of an attitude is a requirement for the job at Ben’s.
“It’s all family here — everyone’s family,” Evans said.
Information from: New Haven Register, http://www.nhregister.com