John Kelly
John Kelly
Columnist

The Watergate Exxon’s famously expensive gas

Jahi Chikwendiu/WASHINGTON POST - Robbie Aiken, on his way to Dulles International Airport and almost out of gas, argues with a gas attendant, Mo, about the station’s gas prices at the Watergate Exxon in February.

The World’s Most Famous Gas Station sits right next to the world’s most famous office building. The Watergate Exxon it is called and TV reporters from around the globe troop there — to Virginia Avenue NW where it eases into Rock Creek Parkway — to babble about how expensive gasoline is these days.

It’s the perfect location for their live reports, since they can be certain that no matter what the average price of a gallon of high-test is in Washington, it will sell for at least a dollar more at the Watergate Exxon. And because the Exxon station sits across the street from a more-or-less reasonably-priced Sunoco station, this is extremely noticeable.

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Gas prices are rising, but — when adjusted for inflation — they aren't as bad as they seem. So why do rising prices drive us so crazy?
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Gas prices are rising, but — when adjusted for inflation — they aren't as bad as they seem. So why do rising prices drive us so crazy?

On a recent morning I pay $5.70 for a single gallon of Exxon Supreme. Expensive, yes — I could have gotten it for a dollar less across the street — but I think of it like one of those perfect melons the Japanese pay $200 for, or a tiny spoonful of Beluga caviar: an indulgence.

Plus, I want to try to answer the question that everyone has when they see The World’s Most Famous Gas Station: What the *%#@! is going on?

Alas, no one in the station can help me. The man at the cash register is cool when I introduce myself. Yes, he knows this station has become an object of attention, of ridicule even. People in China have heard about this station. People in England. I sense he is weary of this notoriety.

He is not the boss, he explains. He suggests I call the boss, while making it clear with a shrug that it is unlikely I will actually speak to this man.

A mechanic enters from the service bays. “You need your Mini fixed?” he asks, nodding out the window to my car, which now holds a gallon of precious WMFGS fuel. “I can fix.”

I don’t doubt this. The Watergate Exxon is crowded with vehicles in various states of repair. It seems to have a clientele who get their cars fixed but bypass the gas.

I bid the gentlemen good day and continue my quest.

I call Dan Gilligan, president of the Petroleum Marketers Association of America over in Arlington, to pose a question he says he’s been asked at least 50 times: Why is gas so expensive at the Watergate Exxon?

Gilligan chuckles. “What I always say is: He doesn’t want to sell much gasoline.”

Next I call ExxonMobil’s HQ. “I think the most important thing we want people to understand is that we no longer own the station or set the price of gas there,” Exxon spokeswoman Claire Hassett says. She explains that in 2009 Exxon sold most of its stations, including that one.

Surely, I think, the new owner can tell me why gas is so expensive. But it turns out there is a rather tortured recent history to the Watergate Exxon. The person who bought it three years ago is Eyob “Joe” Mamo, the gas station king of Washington, who is either a shining immigrant success story or a cutthroat monopolist.

Just because Mamo owns the station doesn’t mean he runs the station. It is operated by the same outfit that operated it in Exxon’s day: Metroil Inc., a company run by a man named Roland Joun.

Joun is unhappy that he was not offered the opportunity to buy the station and so he sued Exxon. He lost, appealed, then, just last month, lost the appeal. Joun has a contract to operate the station and must buy his gas from Mamo.

Says Mamo: “In my opinion, in protest of the fact that he did not buy the station he jacked up the price significantly.”

And then I do hear from Roland Joun, who tells me Dan Gilligan is right: He doesn’t want to sell much gas. Joun is locked in a mortal struggle with Mamo, whom he accuses of jacking up the wholesale price he must pay. (Mamo denies this.)

Joun says the more gas he sells, the more money he loses.

“I’m going to be charging six or seven dollars, whatever it takes to let me stay in business,” Joun says. “The only way I can recoup our rate is to sell less volume and make more money.”

If Joun does charge $7 a gallon, the Watergate Exxon may get even more famous.

kellyj@washpost.com

 
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