2011 wasn’t the only thing to shut its doors on Dec. 31. As the ball dropped on last year, Ric Foster, Gardner, shuttered his gas station and convenience store.
For more than 17 years, Foster was a staple behind the counter of the tiny gas station on East Main Street. Foster started as a store manager in 1994 and then purchased the store 16 months later. He’s been behind the counter almost everyday since.
“I’ve got a daughter and two grandsons in Iowa that I haven’t seen in nine years,” he said.
But he’s made new family from his perch where he sells cigarettes and soft drinks.
“The people who come in here may have started as customers, but they’ve become friends,” Foster said.
His final day of operation was more like a family reunion than a typical work day. Throughout the afternoon on Dec. 31, long time customers poured through the doors wishing Foster and his wife well in their retirement. Employees stopped in as well to say their goodbyes.
Karen Crews worked at the station for more than eight years. She started as a clerk at the store when she was in college, and drove back to Gardner to continue working at the shop even when she moved to Kansas City, Mo.
“I’ve never had a better boss or father figure,” Crews said.
Sandy Carter, Gardner, stopped in to give Foster a hug, and every customer walking through the door was offered a free slush.
You can’t save those or resell them, Foster explained.
Merchandise isn’t the only thing customers expected to receive when they walked through the doors at E and J Food Mart. Despite the hugs and well wishes flowing, Foster still offered words of wisdom on fuel. Long known as an advocate for ethanol-free fuel, Foster isn’t shy on the topic.
For years, a sign in front of the gas station announced his fuel was alcohol free. Ethanol doesn’t help the farmers, and it’s hard on a vehicle’s motor, he said. Ethanol is also hurts consumers.
“(Ethanol) raises the cost of livestock feed, which raises the cost of livestock. That raises the cost of food,” Foster said.
Foster doesn’t plan to stop advocating against ethanol – even in his retirement.
“I will probably always be involved,” he said.
Although he’s ready for a little relaxation, Foster admits regulations and the state of the economy helped fuel his decision to close his doors. Two recent regulatory hits raise his ire.
For the first time in the summer of 2010, he was required to sell fuel blends at his pumps due to environmental regulations specific to the Kansas City Metro Area.
He lost customers, he said, during the 90 day stretch in which he had to sell fuel with ethanol. The customers got used to buying elsewhere.
Another 2010 statute forced him to stop allowing customers to smoke inside his store. Foster said there were customers who complained about the smoke in the store, but Foster told them to visit one of the other seven gas stations in town if they wanted a smoke free environment.
When smokers were allowed in the store, they stepped inside, drank a cup of coffee and made purchases as they fueled up. The smoking ban led to decreased sales, Foster explained.
“But the economy is a lot of what did it,” he said.
His volume in fuel sales was steady, but the amount of purchases people made inside the store was dwindling each month.
“People didn’t have the money to come in like they used to,” he said. “The last two years have just plain sucked. Until they start putting people back to work, it’s not going to pick up.”
When it does, Foster has a word of advice for small business owners.
“In business, you better take care of your customers,” he said.