[Times photo: Bob Croslin]
Manny Bonotan likes being an independent gas station owner, one of few in the region. He takes pride in calling the shots -- and in being able to beat the big guys' prices.
ST. PETERSBURG - At first, it looks like something's missing. The only thing on the pumps at MaNNY'S gas station are the numbers that show the price and amount of gas pumped.
No slots for credit cards, no touch-pads or display screens. The pumps are relics from the 1970s - mechanical, not computerized like nearly all the others. If they break, and they occasionally do, Manny grabs a screwdriver and fixes them himself.
His customers have to walk inside the cramped little store to pay (unless Manny knows you personally), and if you pull up after 7 p.m., the station is closed. It's also closed on Sundays, they don't sell lottery tickets, and it's not near a major intersection.
But business is brisk at the corner of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Street and 26th Avenue N.
As the price of gas throughout the country has crept to record levels, MaNNY'S, one of the few independent gas stations in the Tampa Bay area that's also not part of a chain, manages to stay at least 2 cents cheaper than almost everyone else. Sometimes 3 or 4 cents cheaper. (With a sly grin, owner Manny Bonotan, 67, explains that the "a' in MaNNY'S is lower case, "So people will come in and ask why. Then I gotcha. Maybe you'll buy something to eat or drink.")
Friday morning, the Citgo, Mobil and Exxon stations a few blocks away were selling regular unleaded for $1.73 a gallon. MaNNY'S was selling for $1.71.
Surrounded by quarts of motor oil, packs of cigarettes and a box of headache remedies, Bonotan said it's not just the professionals who do a lot of driving - the lawn maintenance crews, cab and delivery truck drivers - who are pulling in to save a little money.
"I drove about five miles and passed seven or eight stations to come here," said Julie Bouchard, 35, who was filling up her 1999 Chevrolet Astro van Wednesday afternoon. "That 2-cent difference adds up when you're on a budget. And I have four kids."
Part of the reason Bonotan can sell for less is low overhead. MaNNY'S is literally a mom-and-pop operation.
Bonotan and his wife, Connie, work the cash register. Their only employee is a mechanic who works in the garage attached to the store. And then there's Tarzan, the couple's 7-year-old Pomeranian, who serves both as official greeter and station mascot.
Like the old neighborhood druggist or the cop on the beat, the couple know just about everybody who comes in.
"How's your mother doing?" Bonotan asked one customer. "Did she finally quit smoking?"
That's part of the business, he said.
"I love to talk to the people who come in. At least say hello and ask how they're doing.
"That's my job, too."
Lately, more customers are talking about money. Throughout the day, several people moan to Bonotan about the rising cost of gas. But, they usually add that they're grateful he is cheaper.
"The prices are like airplanes," he said. "They'll come down."
Bonotan, who moved to the United States from the Philippines in 1980, bought the six-pump station in 1996. It used to be owned by BP.
And that leads to the other reason he can sell for less.
To supply the more than 400 people who pull into his pumps every day, Bonotan buys 7,000 to 8,000 gallons of gas every four or five days from a broker, who in turn buys it from local reserves.
Bonotan said he can sell for slightly less because the major oil companies typically sell their excess gas at lower prices than they sell it to their own franchised dealers.
All gas, by federal law, must have a specified octane level. But the major companies try to separate themselves by promoting certain additives that help engines run cleaner and more efficiently. Bonotan says the gas he sells has those additives.
"It's the same as everyone else's," he said.
The number of gas stations nationwide has declined by 17 percent in the past 10 years, according to industry figures. In Florida, nearly 100 stations, most of them small, closed in the past year. The trend, say analysts, is toward megastations that also offer in-house fast food restaurants or grocery stores.
Bigger, brighter, cleaner, safer.
But MaNNY'S continues to go it alone.
"There are a number of people in Florida involved in petroleum distribution that would love nothing more than to break away from the large oil companies," said Jim Smith, president and CEO of the Florida Petroleum Marketers Association. "They don't like a big company telling them how much to spend on lighting, what sales promotions to do, where they can park their cars.
"And, of course, you have to buy your gas from the company. Is the gas at a Citgo different from the gas at BP? Only based on the sign out front."
The fact that Bonotan owns the station "means he can thumb his nose at everybody," Smith said. "The only times he'll ever be in trouble is if we have a shortage. Then he's the last one on the totem pole to get the product."
And so it was Thursday afternoon. The regular gas pumps at MaNNY'S had red and yellow bags covering their handles.
"I wish we had bigger tanks," said Connie Bonotan. "I used to cry when this happened. Now I'm used to it. We'll get a supply in, but it won't be until tonight."
Still, it's not profits from gas sales that keep the station going. Although Bonotan said he could stay in business without it, the repair shop brings in the most money. Even the profits on his food and beverage sales are more than his gas profits.
The fact that he's holding his own against the oil giants has not gone unnoticed.
"We were approached several times by BP to sign with them," he said. "But I don't want to because then they'll dictate when to close, to open, what signs to put up. . . . And you can only buy gas from them. They control the price.
"I know the station doesn't look as nice as the big ones, but I'm proud of it. I own it.
"A lot of independents got swallowed up by the big companies. I want to be on my own."
And he still has time for his other career. Several times a week, Bonotan teaches ballroom dancing.
"He plays a lot of golf, too," said his wife, who was on her knees dusting off bags of corn chips on the snack display. "I'm dying here. Me and Tarzan."
Connie looked up and smiled, and Manny rolled his eyes.