Cup 26

Person: Jim Little

Drink: Medium brewed coffee, Hazelnut blend

Snowapocalypse 2011 descended upon East Lansing, which closed school and successfully interrupted my plans to head to Detroit for Cup 26 in the process.

I wasn’t sure how I was going to carry out the week’s coffee, but as I looked at the 11 inches of snow I’d have to trudge through, I remembered hearing a story about how Jim Little, the owner of H&H Mobil, voluntarily plowed my friend’s  driveway after the last major snowfall. Included in the story was helpful advice: “You’re a business major—if you want to know about customer service, he’s the guy to talk to!”

So I called up H&H and asked for Jim. I apologized for the late notice and asked if he’d be willing to meet for coffee the next day. He said he was at the shop from 7 am to 7 pm daily, so he would be around if I stopped by. I said I’d see him around 10:30. 

While this may be obvious, I would like to point out that I don’t typically hang out at gas stations. While coffee shops have some magnetic power that draws me in on a daily basis, gas stations are places I only frequent when my gaslight starts yelling at me. I find them dingy, unwelcoming, and overly fluorescent. When I do fill-up, I typically pay at the pump and quickly get on my way.

Nevertheless, there was something intriguing about sharing a cup outside my usual realm. My intuition didn’t let me down; Cup 26 was one of the most unconventional cups yet.

I walked into the station and found Jim talking with two customers. He said hello and I introduced myself before he pointed me toward the coffee and told me to help myself. With coffee in hand, we stood in an unoccupied corner of the store—between the bathroom and the pop machine—where he asked me outright,

 “Well, what do you want to know?”

Jim, like me, studied business at Michigan State. After graduation, he had his sights set on going back into the navy as a pilot, but the uncertainty of the Vietnam War prompted him to put his business degree to work instead. He heard about an opportunity to buy a new Mobile Oil station on the corner of Hagadorn and Haslett roads and decided to venture into entrepreneurship. He had previous experience working in gas stations and figured it was a good undertaking for a couple of years. He bought the shop, named it Hagadorn and Haslett Mobile (quickly shortened to H&H) and 41 years later, he’s still running the business.

Jim, who is in his late 60s, is in the store about 12 hours a day, five days a week, plus a handful of hours on the weekend. He told me his wife can’t figure out where he gets all his energy—I couldn’t figure out how anyone could look so happy after all that work.

But the longer I was in the store, the more it made sense.

I asked him if, after 40 years in business, his customers felt like family. He gave a knowing chuckle as he motioned me to follow him over to where two customers were shooting the breeze while their cars were being repaired. He interrupted them, “Guys, would you say I know most of the customers?” The hearty response from the man, later introduced as Chuck, said it all, “Oh yeah! This is a neighborhood store; everyone I know comes here.” The other man, ironically also named Chuck, agreed. It was clear they’d been loyal customers for years.

Jim and I walked back to the corner to continue our conversation, which was interrupted moments later when the general conversation in the shop turned to the impending boat season. Jim wanted to contribute his two cents to the conversation, which somehow shifted to talk about flying. Jim mentioned he liked to fly his plane to various vacation spots and the woman behind the counter chimed in that it was a fun plane to fly, but landing it was another story.

I made the assumption that she was Jim’s wife, and I was right. She had previously worked for the Mobile Oil Corporation; they met at the station. It was that moment when I realized why Jim worked so much. H&H was more than just his job and his business—it was his social life, his family, where he felt at home. I could see how. After just 20 minutes, the camaraderie in the shop won me over.

I was quietly observing the proceedings—taking note of how it oddly felt like I was in the middle of a sitcom—when suddenly, an employee behind the counter gets a call. There was a car stuck on the train tracks. With three other towing guys out on calls, it was Jim’s job to go get her moved. With the agility of a man half his age, Jim sprung into action. He rushed out of the shop to check on something, but ran back calling through the open door, “You want to come? You can see how I spend my days.”

I sprinted out of the store, completely caught off guard by the drastic change of events. I tossed my coffee into one of the bins by the pump as I watched Jim quickly look both ways before jaywalking across the busy street, holding back traffic so I could follow him across to the impound lot.

We jumped into his truck and were on our way out of the lot when he got an update through the radio. The car—luckily—was no longer stuck.

So we parked the car and walked back to the station. As my heartbeat slowly returned to normal, I asked him what he’s learned after 40 years in business.

“Work hard, stay healthy, have good luck.”

It was basic advice, but it’s advice that’s been good to Jim.

His business model is just as simple. Jim said the key to his business is to be there when people drop their cars off in the morning and be there when they pick them up. Say thank you, treat customers right, and offer a quality product. They don’t advertise: they don’t need to.

Our conversation ended when an older man, probably somewhere in his 80s, walked in and said hello. He’d brought his car in for service. Jim told him to grab a coffee; he’d give him a ride home in a second. It was evident this wasn’t the first time Jim had given him a ride, and I was sure Jim would go back to pick him up once his car was finished.

Walking out to my car, I reflected on the experience. I’d had a great time, but it wasn’t until later that day that the series of disjointed events at H&H made sense.

My neglected, winter-worn car was in dire need of an oil change. I could have had H&H do it, but old habits dies hard. Without second thought, I headed down the road to the franchise service shop I’ve been to at least a dozen times. When I walked up to the counter, the man asked if I’d been in before.

This happens every time. Never has anyone there remembered my name, offered me a ride, or asked about my family. They know me as a 1998 Jeep Grand Cherokee, not Megan.

That’s when it hit me, the moment Cup 26 made sense. As the characters in Cheers know, it’s nice to have a place where everybody—or at least somebody—knows your name. Especially in today’s increasingly technological world with self-checkout, pay at the pump, online banking, online shopping, email, etc.

Life is faster than ever, but it can also be isolating.

Jim’s story showed me the power of going out of your way to make a connection with someone—to say hello, to listen.

And I know I’ll be back to H&H. Because when life is going a hundred miles an hour and getting gas is the last thing I want to do, it’s nice to hear someone say,

"Thanks Megan, have a great day."