MAISACH — “It’s high season, so it’s not really convenient," says Uwe Möderl when we first talk on the phone. Then, moments later, he says, "How would tomorrow night be?"
The 51-year-old Bavarian is apparently not a man who wants to be kept from his work. I had been looking for an experienced gas station pro to interview and Möderl was recommended by none other than his own boss, Dietmar Possart.
Possart owns the small chain of 30 "Benzin-Kontor" gas stations in southern Bavaria, and Möderl is a lessee. When I drive up the next day, he is leaning on a pile of tires with a cigarillo in one hand and an after-hours beer in the other. In Maisach, some 30 kilometers from Munich, all is still well with the world.
About 13,000 people live in Maisach, and there are three gas stations. One of them is the one run by Möderl. Almost exactly 30 years ago his father Joseph came here, and he too worked for Dietmar Possart. After 16 years, as the Millennium rolled around, his son took over. He just sort of grew into it.
"Some people train as bakers, some as butchers; my thing is this gas station. It’s not an easy job, but every day is fun,” he says.
A day in the life
Möderl’s daily routine looks something like this: His alarm goes off at 5 a.m. and by 5:30 he’s in the gas station where the first line of vehicles is already waiting for him. Some people want gas, others to buy a newspaper, coffee or even a beer. The work day has begun. At 7 a.m. his wife joins him. For four years, she has handled shop sales while Möderl focuses on the garage and service. The system works “beautifully,” Möderl says, and keeps both of them busy until 5 or 6 p.m.
The relaxed way in which Uwe Möderl recounts his typical day makes me wish I had a gas station like his around where I live. He’s something of a relic from the past, from back in the days when mom and pop stores – not huge shopping malls – held sway. Maisach has a mall too but shortly before closing time its gas station is empty, whereas Möderl’s continues to bustle with activity.
Between 500 and 700 customers come here each day, and most of them are regular clients. That’s why Uwe Möderl isn’t afraid of the large gas station chains. He’d rather be an independent than "a servant" for some company like Aral or Shell, he says.
Keeping the customers happy
"When you approach the customers — nice, politely and in what I would call a normal way — they’ll thank you for it even if you’re sometimes a little more expensive than the competition." His wife Metke adds: "You get back what you give. Ninety percent of the customers come because of us." Relationships with the customers are friendly, in fact the Möderle’s use the familiar Du form of address with about half of them. If customers are worried about something "they talk to me about it," says Metke. Pastoral care is part of this gas station experience.
The couple says that running a business in nearby Munich would be unheard of for them because everything in Munich is "impersonal." "I would never open a gas station in Munich," says Uwe. "Never."
However, even for the Möderls, the business climate in Maisach has gotten a little less gentle of late. Selling gas alone doesn’t bring in enough to live on, so shop and tire service sales have become essential to shore up the figures.
Uwe doesn’t have a lot of patience with customer complaints about gas prices: "If I go to Munich for a beer, I’m going to be paying 4.20 euros just like everybody else, 10 euros for a pork roast — and 1.40 or 1.50 for gas, and if I don’t like it then I can ride my bike."
At his gas station, customers get service that can hardly be found anywhere else. If asked, Möderle will check the oil level, top up the water, and — for some older customers who have trouble with it — drive the car through the carwash. All for nothing. Just like it used to be back in the day. Germany isn’t a complete service desert after all.
But maybe Uwe Möderl is simply one of the last of his breed. The man at the gas station, like the one his parents and grandparents knew. Always there for his customers, even when it eats into his free time. Here is that rare fellow who’s simply happy with things the way they are.
He is also, of course, a guy for whom cars run on old-fashioned gasoline. But he’s not blocking out progress. "The future belongs to the electric car for sure, but by the time they’re being mass-produced we’ll be retired," he says.
Still, for Möderl a real car has either an otto or a diesel engine. "An electric car is like an electronic-cigarette. Either I smoke a cigarette or I don’t smoke at all."