UPDATED — After almost 80 years in business, the PumpHouse will no longer be pumping gas as of late July.
“It’s a landmark in Old Town,” owner Jim Ross says.
The area has changed, though, and the PumpHouse is changing with it.
Five years ago, Ross and his wife, Judy, converted part of their property into a bar and restaurant. It has done so well, it’s edged out some of their gas business.
“The bar has become so popular that people now think it’s just a parking lot, and they’ll pull up at the pump and go inside,” Jim Ross says. “They think the gas pumps are fake. We can’t even sell gas.”
The Rosses have expansion plans.
“We need to do things like add to our food menu and develop the rest of our property,” Jim Ross says. “It’s just got a lot of potential that we haven’t tapped yet.”
It’s probably not quite what his father envisioned in 1931 when he first opened a gas station.
“He started in a location just about nine blocks from here, right across the street from the new arena,” Ross says of his late father, Bob.
“The guy that was in this location went broke, and Vickers Petroleum asked my father to come take this location.”
That was in the late ’30s.
“He had a lot of the downtown commercial business at that time,” Ross says.
Commercial sales, such as to a large cab company, were a big part of the PumpHouse’s business.
Ross went to work there in 1959. He took over the shop when his father retired in the early 1970s.
“As the downtown started declining, business started moving to the suburbs,” Ross says. “The gasoline business declined a little bit.”
The service side of his business did well, though.
So did an unexpected side of the Rosses’ business.
Twenty years ago, Judy Ross used to make sandwiches for employees.
Customers smelled her cooking and suggested she make food to go.
“One thing led to another,” she says.
She made a kitchen in a former tire room and started serving customers.
“We opened one little room, and then another one,” she says.
During this time, Old Town was experiencing a revitalization.
Jim Ross and his sons started talking about a new restaurant and bar.
“We knew it was just a matter of time until it would be a good location for that,” Jim Ross says. “So we just waited.”
His wife didn’t like the idea.
“Bars are a little risky,” she says.
Business has gone well, though, and now the Rosses see the potential for things like a possible party room in a former warehouse.
“We’ll continue to keep the flavor the gas station,” Jim Ross says.
He’ll put some of his father’s old pumps out front.
“We’ll get rid of these more modern pumps and just make it a fun place to go.”
This time Judy Ross has no hesitation, though she says it’s a bittersweet decision.
“There’s no little independent stations left,” she says.
Ross thinks his father would approve of their decision.
“He always enjoyed the gasoline business, but he always was a businessman.
“I think he’d be real proud of what we’ve done with the property.”
It’s in part thanks to his mother and father that Ross still has the property.
“Keep a hold of that property,” his parents told him. “It’s going to be good some day.”
They were right.
“We lucked out when Old Town surrounded us,” Jim Ross says. “Old Town has turned out to be . . . a pretty hopping place.”
It will be an adjustment for some longtime customers, though, such as the almost 82-year-old Nellie Roets.
She’s been going to the PumpHouse for gas since Bob Ross had the business.
Though the PumpHouse is now self-service, Jim Ross always helps longtime customers like Roets.
She did not like hearing his news.
“Aw, come on, Jim, you can’t do that to me,” she said.
“I’m going to miss him,” Roets says.
Not to mention she has to learn how to pump her own gas now.
“I’ll probably have gas all over my whole car.”