MENDOCINO — The cliffside town of Mendocino has long been known for its rugged coastline and quaint bed and breakfasts drawing sightseers from around the country. But lately, tourists are flocking to a new attraction in the seaside hamlet north of San Francisco for something you won’t find on the chamber of commerce’s can’t-miss list.
“We’re live in Mendocino, California, and we’re at the station that has the highest gas in America,” Ernest Walker, visiting from Texas on Thursday, told his friends on a Facebook livestream after pulling up to the pump at Judy Schlafer’s Chevron station on Main Street — not to fill up but to snap a photo of the price tag.
“That’s right guys,” he said while pointing his phone at the ticker for premium gas. “Bam! $9.94 per gallon.”
A gallon of regular is only 31 cents cheaper.
Walker’s wife Debbie said their son who is a recent UC Davis graduate warned them about the station so they filled up for $3 a gallon cheaper nine miles away in Fort Bragg. “Mothers are trying to figure out their next gas bill.”
Dubious notoriety is growing for the only gas station in town, one that is earning scorn from locals in the tight-knit community and guffaws from out-of-state looky-loos. As gas prices across the country climb to near daily records and drivers are crushed by $100 fill-ups, Mendocino’s fuel depot has become a lightning rod for outraged drivers who say they have no clue if the local station is setting a fair price or gouging them for an essential good.
“I don’t give a diddle what the next guy down the streets thinks,” said Schlafer, the station’s 71-year-old proprietor who is fielding calls from fed-up drivers across the country. “I’ve gotten really hard.”
On a recent Thursday, nearly a dozen people headed to the station to take pictures of the unprecedented price tag — $9.63 a gallon for regular. Justified or not, the rising numbers are an ominous symbol of the times with a global oil market gone haywire, inflation surging and the country teetering toward a recession.
On Thursday, the few road trippers who stumbled across Schlafer’s station and actually bought gas left in a state of disbelief.
“I was shocked,” said Dan Sinykin, an English professor on a cross-country trip who had no idea how expensive the gas was until he pulled up and saw the price on the pump — Schlafer doesn’t post the price on a sign like most stations. He ended up paying nearly $50 for five gallons to keep his Subaru running.
Mendocino’s lone fuel stop has become a viral sensation — featured in news hits spanning Fox News and the New York Post — but the headlines are only the latest turn in the station’s over 100-year history.
The station attached to Schlafer’s auto repair shop first opened as S&E Garage in 1914, according to Mendocino historian Jane Tillis, as the burgeoning town was in the heyday of chopping down coastal redwood trees for lumber. Well into the 20th century, the fuel depot was an integral part of the economy.
Locals say that changed when Schlafer took over ownership from her ex-husband in the early 2000s.
“Twenty years ago everyone used it. They were priced competitively. Then all of a sudden she jacked up the prices,” said Gary Poehlmann, a contractor living in Mendocino for four decades. “She’s obviously giving everybody the middle finger.”
Now the station caters almost exclusively to people in a pinch after long drives up the California coast and tourists unaware that they can cruise 15 minutes north to Fort Bragg where gas is nearly 60% cheaper.
“I think I filled up a can for my lawnmower once,” said Tangerine Steinbrecher, who moved to Mendocino in 1996. “I don’t even do that anymore.”
Drivers pulling through Mendocino often ask: Are these prices legal? According to the Attorney General’s office, they are. Unless there is a state of emergency that covers gasoline prices, the oil industry and gas retailers are free to set prices as they wish.
Joe Hespelt, who works with Schlafer fixing cars, said his boss should not be faulted for charging more. Everything from the pricey boutique hotels to sandwiches is more expensive in Mendocino, he said — why not gas? “I don’t think we steal from anybody,” he said. “They’re still getting a product.”
Schlafer is quick to defend her gas prices, explaining she has to charge more because her pumps aren’t part of a convenience store. Without backend profits on cigarettes and candy bars, Schlafer said she needs to charge more for gas.
She said her latest delivery of fuel skyrocketed from $30,000 to $50,000 for 8,800 gallons. While she would not provide a profit margin, the difference between what Schlafer pays for gas and what she charges pencils out to roughly $4 per gallon. On average, California gas stations charge drivers 56 cents per gallon on top of their own costs and taxes, according to the California Energy Commission.
“I’m an independent woman. I’m on my own with no help,” said Schlafer, whose office door is adorned with red lettering reading “Boss Lady” and anti-vaccination manifestos posted on the window.
She’s “fed up” with the expletive-laden hate calls from strangers and the blaring headlines in the media.
Schlafer knows that her business model is increasingly putting her at odds with the town’s other 800 residents. But she said she is going to march forward with high prices and a thick skin to fend off criticism.
“I’ve been called a lot of different things,” said Schlafer. “It hasn’t changed me one iota.”