A familiar figure stands just outside the door to at 1220 Big Bend Blvd., just a rock’s throw north of Highway 40. He squints into the sun rising over Richmond Heights, his trademark pipe clamped between his teeth, and the sweet, pleasant aroma of Captain Black tobacco perfumes the lot.
“Been smoking it since ’73,” Kirby Fowler said. He’s the owner and operator of ZX along with his son Jason, a communications major who graduated from Southeast Missouri State University in 1996.
“He’s always out there,” Jason said.
“It’s good,” Kirby said. “Of course, we went through a dry time when the bridge was down.”
All of you Big Bend enterprises north of Warner Avenue and south of Clayton Road whose business went through a dry time when the bridge was down during construction on Highway 40, raise your hand.
“We knew it was coming," Kirby said. "We planned for it. Cut our hours. Closed on Sunday.”
Good planning. That’s how you stay in business for 38 years and counting. So has having exit and entrance ramps for the east and west lanes helped business?
“Absolutely,” Jason said.
“It’s better than when they started the construction,” Kirby said.
The price of gas fluctuates drastically, sometimes daily. Does their business fluctuate with market trends?
“Resistance to the trends is what has made it a good living for us,” Jason said.
People may wince and gripe about the price of gas, but they do it as they’re pulling up to the pump.
Kirby is the common denominator at 1220 Big Bend, even if the brand names on the sign have changed. It was a Clark station from 1973 to 1996. It became a Texaco for a couple of years, and a CITGO for a couple more before settling under the ZX brand.
Since 1884, to be exact. They started out making wagon wheel grease when the U.S. began its westward expansion. They handle the ZX brand, which stands for Zephyr Express, a name many of us of a certain age will remember.
The new bridge may have brought new customers, but Kirby and Jason have an abundance of loyal regulars. You can tell by the way they greet people by name and are greeted right back the same way; by the way Kirby waves goodbye to folks who paid at the pump; by the number of people who come inside to pay for gas or buy a pack of smokes and then stay for a couple of minutes to visit.
Kirby and Jason don’t do all the work themselves. They have two part-time employees and one full-time employee who works evenings.
Have they ever had a garage?
“No,” Kirby said. “I don’t want no part of a garage. I don’t want to get my fingernails dirty.”
He has a friendly manner—you like him in a minute—and his southeastern Missouri drawl gives his jokes and jests an affable turn.
So what does the future hold for Kirby?
“I’ve told Jason that I’ll be here bothering him when I’m 80 years old,” he said. “And his response always is, ‘Dad, I’ll be glad as long as you stay out of my way.’”
“I don’t do much, I just come in early,” Kirby said.
“He hobnobs with the regulars,” Jason added. There is a real affection between father and son. You can feel it when they go back and forth like that.
Kirby has pretty much turned over the operation to Jason.
Does Jason want to take over the business?
“Yeah, I’m not a desk guy,” he said. “This is a great business. It supports two families. I look forward to seeing our people come in here. They’re kind of my friends.”
Do the Fowler men have any kind of advertising slogan?
“I’ve always told Jason that we need a gimmick,” Kirby said. “But he’s always responded that I’m gimmick enough.”
Yeah, the pipe-smoking, customer-schmoozing Kirby. It works for them.