Call it sad. Call it funny. But it’s better than even money that a new gas-station opening is going to get me – well – pumped. I get excited because I still believe in the romance of the automobile. The average Canadian filling station is grim, functional and desolate. They all look like locations from the series Fargo. You know, come for the gas, stay for the wood chipper. I wish we still had gas stations manned by dudes in spiffy uniforms. Why can’t there be a little style and pleasure when we need to gas up?
So, I was delighted when a Mobil station, one of the first in the country, opened in December in Toronto, erected upon the rubble of a tattered No Frills Gas. In 2017, Brookfield Business Partners bought 213 gas stations from Loblaw and 200 of them are being opened as Mobil stations across the country this year. I was energized. I’ve been to Mobil stations in the United States and in Europe and, while they aren’t all pleasure palaces, they have more to offer than a Circle K or Petro-Canada.
I let the Mobil settle in for a few months (any new business needs to find its footing before being judged) and then, once the ice melted, ventured forth. Would there be swag? I dreamed of buying a Mobil mug to go with my Mobil 1 water bottle.
It was a mixed experience. The signage was all there – the classic Mobil brand and streamlined design. I liked it. It reminded me of the Fisher-Price parking garage I played with as a child. The price was competitive ($1.339/litre the day I was there). The pumps were quick. I didn’t spend forever waiting for some ancient system to process my payment.
I was hoping, however, for an upgrade from the No Frills and I was disappointed. Aside from the Mobil oil on sale, it was the same old cramped store. I bought a pack of gum and a lottery ticket.
A calamity? No. Worth getting upset about? Nope. Most gas stations are run-of-the-mill.
But worthy of a self-entitled whine? Absolutely.
Is it so much to ask for fuel-service stations to inject a little fun into the equation? Some cultures celebrate car culture. In many countries, the gas station isn’t just a place to tank up, it’s a place to eat, shop and enjoy.
In Finland, Rest Area Niemenharju not only offers drivers gas, food and lodging, but saunas as well. In Miami, drivers can go to a Mobil station that houses El Carajo, a restaurant that offers tapas and a bakery along with a 24-hour wine shop that has one of the more eclectic selections in Miami. The Miami Herald has even reviewed El Carajo, calling it an “excellent Spanish restaurant where they pump gas and sell power steering fluid out front.”
In San Jose, Calif., I visit the Delta Queen, the world’s first themed car wash, built more than 50 years ago. I drive my rental into a replica 19th-century steamboat to get the works. Meanwhile, I have a coffee and feed the ducks and koi. When I’m in the Outer Banks in North Carolina, I gas up at the Brew Thru, a drive-through beer store and gas station founded in 1977. You drive in to order your beer from more than 100 brands from a friendly sales assistant and drive off.
In Toronto, there is a Burrito Zone at an Esso near the Junction, but for me the one bastion of gas-station-themed dining is the Leslieville Pumps. Started in 2011, you could buy your gas and pick up some barbecue, salad or poutine. The food is good and the staff is friendly. If you’re looking to combine the mundane (gassing up) with the munchies, it’s the place to go. To be honest, you don’t even need a car – the food is reason enough.
But that’s one for a city of millions. I don’t expect every trip to the gas station to be a magical experience in wanton consumerism but once in a while that would be nice. Must everything in the peaceful kingdom be so dour?
So, let’s go, Mobil at Carlaw and Gerrard – the next time I fill up, I expect a little flash. Make an effort – when it comes to having fun at the pumps, you have very little competition.