It's the end of the road for Michael's Hess
Waterford — It was a busy day at Michael's Hess in the 1980s, the wind exacerbated by the perch of the gas station atop a hill on Boston Post Road. Michael Olsen suddenly heard, "Mike! Mike!" and turned to see several hundred dollars blowing out of an employee's pocket.
Customers got out of their cars to chase down bills, which they promptly returned to the employees. Olsen recalled he was surprised to find he was only about $5 short for the day.
A lot has changed since then: the station is no longer full-serve, Olsen started selling lottery tickets, and of course, gas prices have gone up.
But the change that will be most emotional for many longtime loyal customers is the end-of-October retirement of Olsen, who has been the franchisee of the station since 1972. They stop to chat about sports — Olsen is a die-hard Yankees fan — or about politics.
At 68, Olsen feels it's the right time to retire, partially because Hess' parent company, Marathon Petroleum, this year sold the station to Petroleum Marketing Group, which rebranded it as Citgo. The name has thus changed from Michael's Hess to Waterford Citgo.
"It was just new ownership, new requirements," he said, noting that he might have re-signed the lease if he was 10 years younger. But working from 3 a.m. to 4 p.m. six days a week in a highly competitive industry is exhausting, and he wants to spend more time with his wife.
And if he gets bored or tight on money? "I can find a part-time job working 40 hours a week somewhere."
Olsen expects a new franchisee to take over Nov. 1, so the station will remain in operation.
In the meantime, gas was unavailable there for part of this week, as the pumps were being replaced for the first time in a decade. The sign has changed from Hess to Citgo, but there's no sign on the exterior of the small shop.
"Right now, it's pretty darn ugly," Olsen acknowledged, "but it's a work in progress."
Still, customers steadily file in and out to purchase cigarettes and lottery tickets, Olsen's biggest sellers along with gasoline. He said he probably averages about 120 packs per day, though there was one point when it was easily 900, before people quit or started getting them online.
The store contains signs that read, "We sold a $100,000 winner" for Cash5, and "We sold a $10,000 winner" for Mega Millions. The trash can is labeled "Basket of Lost Dreams."
Reflecting on the proliferation of larger gas-station convenience stores like Cumberland Farms, Olsen commented, "The only thing that keeps me going are the loyal customers who've been coming here for years."
He also points to his great employees over the years, which he said have included New London Mayor Michael Passero and East Lyme police Sgt. Joe San Juan.
Olsen laughs as he remembers San Juan answering the phone as, "Joe San Juan, night shift supervisor here."
One of the best workers he had was his daughter, Stephanie Gould, though her employment meant for "some fierce battles in the morning" over use of the bathroom, he said.
'Holidays, Even Saturdays and Sundays'
Growing up in Groton, Olsen wanted to be a draftsman and hopefully get a job at Electric Boat but had been working as a gas station manager.
He said the previous dealer at the 122 Boston Post Road station closed rather abruptly, and Hess wanted to get it open. The company reluctantly agreed to let Olsen, just 21 at the time, run it, and after four months it sold the franchise to him.
For a couple of years, Hess was working 16-hour days, considering he had a second full-time job at the former Arwood Precision Casting Corporation.
Olsen has been open every Christmas and Thanksgiving, leading to the joke that Hess stands for "Holidays, Even Saturdays and Sundays."
When he started, gas was only 29.2 cents per gallon. He remembers how much people freaked out when it got up to 30.9 cents. He remembers the gas shortage and rationing in the 1970s, resulting in a line of cars backed up beyond Waterford High School amid shortened hours of operation.
Also in the '70s, he was put up in nice hotels to attend corporate meetings in West Palm Beach, New York City and Washington, D.C.
Having not had a real vacation in 20 years, Olsen's retirement plan involves going to Florida.
"The thing I'm going to miss most is interacting with the customers," he said, "because we have a lot of good memories, a lot of fun times."
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