Dealer prices gas over $4 in protest
It has become almost a regular stop for San Francisco tourists. Once
they've seen the Golden Gate Bridge and the Transamerica Pyramid, they
can drive down Harrison Street to see the most amazing sight of all.
Regular gas for $4 a gallon.
Actually, it is higher than that. At Bob Oyster's Shell station at Sixth
and Harrison, regular is $4.33 a gallon, plus is $4.43, and "V-Power''
is $4.53. Motorists can be seen rolling their eyes as they drive by.
Just another example of a greedy station owner, sticking his customers
for all they are worth?
There's a much deeper story here, and it begins with Oyster, a
respected, self-made businessman who turned a single station into Oyster
Petroleum, a profitable firm in Redwood City. Oyster is nobody's fool.
Don't think he isn't well aware that the Chevron station across the
street is selling regular for 70 cents less.
Putting the price way up over $4 a gallon isn't about making a profit.
It's about making a statement to a multinational corporation. After
Shell forced him to pay higher prices for gas in San Francisco and
jacked up his rent, Oyster says, he decided to fight back.
"I got fed up,'' Oyster admits. "It makes a statement, and I guess when
people see that price they also see the Shell sign right next to it.''
In fact, far from making a huge profit, Oyster is going out of business.
He has operated the Shell station at Sixth and Harrison for 22 years,
but he's walking away from it at the end of the month, handing over the
keys to Shell officials and expecting them to shut it down.
"I'm getting nothing for the station,'' he says. "I just give them the
keys and walk away. They told me they were probably just going to fence
it and bulldoze it anyway.''
For franchise dealers like Oyster, it is the ultimate irony. At a time
when the oil companies are posting record profits, the little guys are
struggling to stay in business. And many, like Oyster, are giving up the
"The dealer can no longer be competitive,'' says Dennis DeCota,
executive director of the California Service Station and Automotive
Repair Association. "The companies are squeezing these guys out. Bob's
tired of it, and a lot of us are. It's just wrong.''
Shell, of course, says nothing could be further from the truth. "I can
only speak for Shell, but the majority of our sites are independently
owned,'' says company spokeswoman Karyn Leonardi-Cattolica. In fact, she
says, the number of independents is increasing.
Maybe so, but anyone entering the business had better be prepared.
Oyster says his rent has gone up exponentially. Fifteen years ago it was
$1,000 a month. Then it went to $6,000, then $8,000, and five years ago
the company wanted $13,000. Oyster says he was able to appeal that
amount, based on real estate values, and "we got it down to $6,000,''
but this year Shell came back with a demand of $13,000 again.
Leonardi-Cattolica did not get back to us Wednesday about Oyster's
station, but when asked in the past about similar rent increases, she
said, "To the extent that rents went up, it was to bring them in line
with the rest of the market.''
DeCota and Oyster see a more sinister motive: If the dealers like them
leave, a company like Shell can run its stations with its own employees
and set its own pump prices.
"That way they really are controlling it from the well head to the gas
pump,'' says DeCota. "Once the gas companies get control, you are going
to pay the price.''
It isn't just the rents that put the squeeze on the independents. Oyster
has other stations in the Bay Area where he can buy gas for up to 20
cents a gallon less than what he has to pay Shell for gas in San Francisco.
"We've said, 'Just let me buy my gas where I want to,' '' Oyster says.
"They won't let me do that. I want to say, 'You guys make enough off of
me. 'Why don't you give me a little break?' They don't care. Shell would
rather put us out of business.''
That's a job that has been pretty well accomplished. Despite a location
that is just off the entrance ramp to Highway 101, Oyster's station
isn't getting much traffic. Part of that is the price, of course.
I stood on the curb for a full 20 minutes Wednesday afternoon before the
station had a single customer. And that was motorcyclist Ken McNary, who
said he stops by only because he thinks his Yamaha needs "V-Power'' gas.
But when I asked him if he'd noticed that the Chevron had much lower
prices, Oyster's station lost another customer.
"Well, I'm going across the street from now on,'' he said. "The last
time we filled up our van here it cost $120.''
While the price per gallon gets all the attention, Oyster says the
little secret of independent dealers is that, like movie theater
operators, they make their profit on the extras -- snacks, drinks and
other items. But with the automated pumps and a small lot, he's limited
to three gas pumps and a tiny cashier kiosk.
"All I've got is gas and cigarettes,'' he says. "And you can't sell that
So Oyster took matters to their logical conclusion. If it took $4 gas to
get people's attention, he'd give them $4 gas.