On an island changed by tide, time, and the ups-and-downs of the Shore tourism industry, one landmark has remained since the 1930s: the Lavallette Sunoco station on Route 35. It was the island’s first filling station and, after peaking with about eight, will soon be the only one remaining.
Paul Kelly, owner of Kelly’s Sea-Bay Sunoco and Service Center, has owned the gas station and service center for 35 years, pouring blood, sweat and tears into what has become one of the island’s most trusted businesses. He bought it from the Sunoco corporation itself, which is where the storied history of the property began.
The Pew family – the wealthy owners of Sunoco, also known as the Sun Oil Company of Philadelphia – decided to build a summer home in Mantoloking in the 1930s. Their preferred method of travel: a sea plane from Philadelphia to the island. The trip in was easy, but there was nowhere to fill the plane for its trek back to the city. So, naturally, a Sunoco station popped up nearby.
“They would have people bring gas cans back up to their sea plane so they could fly back,” said Kelly, 60, who landed his first job at the station as a teenager, pumping gas.
Back then, he said, he was interested in becoming an architect after some inspiration from mechanical design teachers at his high school. But the summer job at Sunoco offered a unique perk: being around cars, and with the help of a neighbor who restored and customized vehicles, Kelly soon learned the tricks of the mechanic trade.
Kelly’s first job as a professional mechanic was at the JC Penny store in the Ocean County Mall, when it used to have a service station attached to the department store. From there, he moved to a Toyota dealership (Japanese cars have always been his favorite, though his current second-in-command at the station is a BMW fanatic) but soon found himself back in Lavallette, after the station’s former manager asked him to moonlight by fixing a few cars after work.
“One night in 1982, he came in and told me Sunoco wanted to sell the property, but he didn’t want to buy it,” Kelly recalled. “I got in touch with Sunoco. I had saved enough money to buy the business, but I didn’t have credit yet or enough money to buy the property, so my parents bought the property and leased it to me for what their mortgage was.”
From that time forward, Kelly, then 25, worked day and night pumping gas, repairing cars and building relationships up and down the island. Back then, he said, there was a lot of competition in terms of filling stations and mechanics.
“There were two in Normandy Beach, myself, a bunch in Seaside Heights and a couple in Seaside Park,” he said, eight total. “Through the years, the properties were sold for developments, condominiums, and some decided to just get out of the business.”
Recently, Kelly learned that the Lukoil station in Seaside Park would be giving up its fuel business to focus on the service station and towing business along, leaving his Sunoco the last station standing between Island Beach State Park and Point Pleasant Beach.
The business has had its ups-and-downs over the years, but for Kelly, it has always been a goal to make the station a success.
“I had years here when I was ready to give up,” he said. “I kind of lost a little bit of my 25-to-35 youth because all I did was work. It got the point where I didn’t feel healthy because I was just working and going home.”
Once the business began running more smoothly, Kelly brought on staff members who have taken it to another level.
“What I love now is that my staff is wonderful, we work as a team, we’re on the same page and we have no drama,” said Kelly, whose sons, both attending Monmouth University, come home to work at the station each summer. “I never wanted to just get rich quick. I wanted to be here for the long haul, and now I’m servicing cars for my customers’ children who they came in with a baby carriage 35 years ago.”
In a few years, Kelly will face what has caused his former colleagues to quit the business: state environmental requirements that new tanks be installed, regardless of whether the current tanks are safe. Kelly said he and his wife weighed their options: using the land to start a different business or selling to a developer, but felt the Sunoco story had not yet been fully written.
“We have a great piece of property, so we could turn it into any kind of business, and we came back thinking we’d be the only one here now, and more importantly, it would really be a disservice to the island if we shut down because people would have nowhere to go,” Kelly said.
Moreover, the business has sentimental value – it brought Paul and his wife, Laurie, together during those early years.
“She was from Kearny and she went to a Sunoco station up there,” he said. “So when she moved here, one of the main reasons I met her was that she liked the product. Someone told her to go to Sunoco, and that’s how I met her.”
Kelly said Sunoco has been a stellar partner, providing both financial and technical support, even when it comes to big-ticket investment like the impending tank replacement. He’s had offers to switch to BP, Mobil, Shell, Liberty and others, but has always turned them down.
Most importantly, Kelly takes pride in the trust he’s been able to build with the island’s residents and visitors over the years.
“It’s not the easiest industry to be in,” Kelly admits. “People aren’t happy to come in and buy gas, or be faced with a $1,000 car repair bill. So you need to make it as pleasurable as possible.”
There’s no hard-sell – no car dealership gimmicks like free oil changes that turn into wasteful repairs, he said – and his staff is always friendly and helpful to customers most in need.
“We constantly work on our image – the right point of sale, the right advertising, a clean shop,” he said.
Asked what his favorite story about the station has been over the last 35 years, Kelly said it is the culmination of hard work.
“My favorite story is that we stuck it out, worked hard, and now it’s paid off. It’s actually fun going to work now.”