Service station service

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Church service or car service? Painting by Rachael Wakefield-Rann

For a modern institution that is explicitly about service, todays service stations offer very little in the way of meaningful service experience. Gone are the days when the station staff would come out, welcome customers before filling their car and perhaps offer a windscreen clean and an oil check. Unless you’re one of those well-adapted individuals that uses the pay-at-the-pump option, heading inside often involves a decent wait in a queue while attempting to ignore the temptations and visual noise of the more or less exclusively nasty range of snacks and reading material.

There are a few exceptions. The crew at Rosebery Service Station in Sydney still offer the full-service experience.  Unsurprisingly it’s a long standing (since 1974), family run businesses. There’s a small handful of traditional service stations like these that exist around the country.

At the other, more contemporary, end of the spectrum, the Caltex on Parramatta Road in Concord is the first of its kind to ditch the old Star Mart brand and adopt “The Foodary”, which offers a range of healthy, gourmet food (by service station standards), including Brasserie Bread and Sumo Salad.

This is certainly innovation by increments. Any suggestion of “transformation” in the language of those associated with the development needs to be taken with a grain of salt. The fit-out is a classic example of what Kyle Chayka calls “airspace”, a kind of watered down hipster aesthetic; minimalism combined with organic authenticity. There are mobile knowledge workers on their laptops and plenty of indoor plants in the advertising imagery.

Bruce Rosengarten’s (Caltex Australia’s Executive General Manager Commercial) suggestion that The Foodary doesn’t look like a traditional petrol station is true up to a point: it doesn’t look like a traditional petrol station, but there won’t be any enduring sense of vertigo regarding where you’ve ended up once you go inside. It’s pretty much Star Mart plus Sumo Salad, some nutritious snacks, decent bread and “neutered Scandinavianism”. And perhaps Caltex will be all the better for it. If you haven’t got an eye for detail, then have a couple of drinks, go inside, spin around on the same spot for a minute, open your eyes, and you might feel for a second as though you’re in Manly Greenhouse. 

Service station restaurants

On a few occasions in the past I’ve been revived fleetingly after a couple of hours in the surf by a sausage roll, a Dare Iced Coffee and a packet of Kettle chilli chips from the Caltex on Pittwater Road in Manly, or by a Nandos burger above the BP on Parramatta Road before a big drive west. However, for the most part, the food at service stations is like the food at the cinema, a masochistic pleasure that I’d willingly see replaced by something more nutritious, distinctive and tasty.

In an urban context, taxi and now to a lesser extent Uber drivers are the “extreme users” of service stations (in the country its truckies). There are a couple of service stations close to the inner city that offer, or once offered, services that cater specifically to their needs.

The Taxi Driver Food Court on Regent Street in Redfern, previously part of the GoGas Service Station (now Budget), once offered a range of Bangladeshi, Pakistani and Indian tucker. You could get a seasonal vegetables, daal and a drink with plain rice there for under ten bucks. 

The Taxi Driver Food Court, soon to be Manny’s Pizza Diner

It’s currently empty shell is surely ripe for a popup foodie concept: it’s right across from the swarming hipster nest that is the Lord Gladston, has 24hr licence and is the perfect combination of grungy novelty and proximity to trend aware consumers, who tend to spend their money on food and drink.

(And sure enough, hot off the press, Evan Hansimikali, previous owner of the recently sold Pink Salt in Double Bay, has purchased the servo and will open Manny’s Pizza Diner in the space later this year.)

On Bourke Street Waterloo, right in the thick of the rapidly emerging jungle of apartment blocks, is a small cafe/ restaurant attached to the United Petrol Station, which is  much frequented by cab drivers due to its gas bowser, discount offers on fuel, generous parking spaces and garage. The cafe doesn’t operate during the evenings, but has outdoor tables and chairs and sells a range of dishes, including banh mi rolls.  

Although there’s no petrol on offer, the Weighbridge Cafe on Bourke Rd in Alexandria is another unique, culinary-automotive-service mashup. Here you can get your vehicle weighed while downing a latte and scoffing a caesar salad.

The future of service stations

According AECOM, there were around 25,000 service stations in Australia in the 1970s, with a national population of 13 million, that’s roughly one for every 520 people. Today there are about 6,500 service stations in total for a population that has almost doubled. 

Car ownership is increasingly unpopular among urban millennials in Australia. AECOM’s Transport On Demand report “predicted that every car share vehicle in Sydney could take up to 10 private vehicles off the road by 2036”. 

What does this mean for the future of service stations? Maybe they’ll become places that are increasingly frequented by a more exclusive set of users? Maybe they’ll develop offerings that are more meaningfully targeted to the values and habits of particular user groups, like Saturday Uber drivers, or people hiring a GoGet for a road trip—I remember a time when browsing the CD or cassette selection in a servo on a road trip was decent way to take a break from the rigours of the highway, though I’m not sure if I ever bought one. Maybe the human body, crippled by the  posture driving requires us to adopt, is the real thing stations should be servicing? 

The people at AECOM argue that the value in service stations “is not the fuel they provide” but “their strategically significant locations” (something clearly recognised by Hansimikali in his recent purchase). As electric and other low emissions options become more common, there’s less of the undesirable fume-filled atmospherics required by petrol vehicles. Service stations feature large, level sections of sheltered outdoor space. In a future after petrol, with the right kind of design, they might become the ideal location for outdoor eating?

In the 1970s, warehouses in New York’s old industrial suburbs became the foundations for a new, globally sought after postindustrial aesthetic of loft living. Maybe the old automotive infrastructure of cities will become mixed into new modes of leisure and movement? I suppose if Merviale can do it in a drive through bottlo, why not a service station? 

The other just as likely alternative is evidenced in the stone horse troughs that pop up in surprising locations in the city. In rural NSW, where station numbers have dwindled significantly due to a marked decrease in the labour required on farms, the old bowsers already pop up with a reasonable degree of regularity in locations where they are orphaned from their original purpose.

If, as Roland Barthes suggested, “cars today are almost the exact equivalent of the great Gothic cathedrals”, then no doubt some of automotive infrastructure of our cities will be preserved, some of it converted and some demolished. Perhaps the traditional service models, like the one still operative in Rosebery, will be the ones that endure.   

The Caltex Sign at the Wattle Flat General Store
More signage like this please! Petersen’s Garage in Bundanoon
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