BEMIDJI -- The full name of the business has changed a few times, but the first name -- Kenny’s -- has been there on the corner of Fifth Street and Bemidji Avenue for 65 years. The mission hasn’t changed, either: Serve customers well and they’ll keep coming back.
Kenny Merschman opened the service station in the fall of 1954. He’s 90 years old now, and remained involved in the business until four years ago. Son Alan started helping out at the station as a 9-year-old, took over for his father in mid-1980s and has now been at it for 54 years. Alan’s son Scott and daughter Sarah Haman are third-generation family members at Kenny’s. Scott is part owner and Sarah is office manager.
“It was kind of cool to be able to work with my grandpa,” Scott said. “It’s a continuity … and it’s very rewarding.”
Kenny's truly is a family business, but it almost didn’t happen in Bemidji.
After Kenny returned from military service during the Korean War, he wanted to open his own service station. He had leased a Standard station in Fosston before the war. Kenny learned of an opportunity in East Grand Forks, and went there expecting to take it. But the person he was dealing with forgot to bring the contract, so Kenny headed home to Bemidji.
That night he read in The Pioneer that a new Standard Oil station was going to be built on the corner of Fifth and Bemidji. Three homes were being torn down to make room for it. Although it had been promised to another party, Kenny persuaded Standard to lease the station to him. Over the years, it has been known as Kenny's Standard, Kenny's Amoco, Kenny's BP and Kenny's Clark and Goodyear. Today, it's just Kenny's.
“Back then you didn’t own the station, you leased it from the oil company,” Alan said. “So the only people who have either leased or owned the station on this corner are my dad and myself.”
There was plenty of competition in the early years, with several stations downtown and dozens in the Bemidji area. Today, the only other true service station with gas pumps and service bays is Dick’s Northside, some 18 blocks north of Kenny’s.
“More competition makes you do what you do better,” Alan said. “If you go into a town where there’s only one person that does anything, they probably do a lousy job because they don’t have to do a good job to get the customers.”
A new type of competition began after 1974 when the state fire marshal made self-service gas legal. Today, New Jersey is the only remaining state where self-serve is not allowed.
That 1974 decision led to the emergence of gas pumps at convenience stores.
“It’s our hectic society today,” Alan said. “People want to get in, they want to get out quick. That hurt a lot of locations.”
Kenny’s does have three self-serve lanes, but it has retained one full-service lane that some customers prefer.
“It’s a little more expensive,” he said, “but it gets really busy at 40 below or in a heavy rain.”
The service and repair business also has seen changes, especially as cars and trucks have more technology.
“The small two-bay stations really have a difficult time,” Alan said. “They can’t cash flow the equipment anymore, they can’t cash flow the training for the technicians anymore. So it’s the nature of cars being more complex and people’s lifestyles changing that’s really driven the changes in our industry. You either stay ahead of the curve or you die.”
The Merschman family has been involved for all 65 years. Kenny and his wife, Audrey, got things started. Alan and siblings, Brian, Debbie, Cheryl, Caryn and Judy all grew up working at the station, and Brian was the lead technician until about three years ago. Alan’s wife, Karen, was the station’s bookkeeper when they were first married. Now, their children Scott and Sarah are keeping the family tradition going.
It all started with the station’s namesake.
“Grandpa Kenny set a good example," Scott said. “If you don’t expect it of yourself, how can you expect anybody else to do it?”