BY DAN COOK
Balloonist and Stop N Go owner Kent Couch (left) and star employee Edward Alonzo, in the signature white uniform, offer treats for customers and dogs.
// Photo by Dan Cook
Kent Couch’s aerial exploits have been chronicled for the world to dissect and ponder. Known as the lawn-chair balloonist, Couch has pursued for the past decade an esoteric hobby. He attaches huge helium-filled balloons to a Bi-Mart lawn chair and ascends into the stratosphere to see where the winds will carry him.
His most recent flight took place on July 14. This fifth trip was perhaps his least successful. The contraption stalled above Madras because of bad weather, forcing Couch and his fellow traveler, Iraqi pilot Fareed Lafta, to bail. The pair plans to ascend again this fall in Iraq to raise awareness about Iraqi orphans.
But even a failed flight is expensive. Couch estimates the trip, paid for by Lafta, cost around $15,000, about double the price of his earlier excursions due to skyrocketing helium costs. The Iraqi flight may cost even more given the travel involved.
Leaning back in his swivel chair in his cramped office at the Shell Stop N Go mini-mart he owns on the eastern outskirts of Bend, Couch explains how excellent customer service pays the freight for the flights.
“Here it’s all about the service,” Couch says. “Anybody can run a gas station or a convenience food store. We do things differently.”
Couch does not come across as a risk-taker, although he regularly takes them in his business as well as in his ballooning. Quiet and affable, the 52-year-old father of five and grandfather of four has an aw-shucks air about him that belies his inner drive.
Couch spent 20 years with Safeway. Customer service was a way of life there and Couch paid attention. He started as a bottle boy in Pendleton at 15 and moved up the ranks to store manager. When Safeway relocated him to Redmond, he felt at home and soon yielded to his inner entrepreneur. “You get to the point where you say, ‘I can do this myself,’” he says. He purchased the Stop N Go in 1997. He liked the concept. Folks come in for one thing — gas — and buy something else — soda, beef jerky, a lighter. Or they want to grab something from the store and they decide to gas up. Size-wise, it was more manageable than the independent grocery stores he had considered purchasing. The location was right — a large intersection on the road to Burns. He bought it and immediately began to restructure it around customer service.
With an average of 3,000 customers a day, Couch and his team have plenty of opportunity to practice their strategy. It’s a place where everybody knows your name. “Sometimes I might forget someone’s name, so when I see them coming, I go ask one of the employees. Someone always knows,” he says.
Couch puts money into research and rewards. Every week for the past decade, Couch has paid mystery shoppers to transact business at the Stop N Go and report back. Highly rated employees get bonuses of at least $25 a week. Shell Oil also conducts its own mystery-shopping program. “We’re always in the top five in the nation with Shell,” he says.
Then there are the old-fashioned uniforms. The 36 employees wear snappy outfits that Couch pays for and has laundered. The gas-pump jockeys (who wash your windows) sport crisp white suits complete with caps, a throwback to the 1950s. Couch says they cost $600 each but they set his crew apart from other stations. “Our uniforms are part of our brand,” says Couch. “It costs us quite a bit, but it’s worth it.”
Couch constantly adjusts and expands his store inventory based upon customer input. Although not a beer drinker, Couch knows that a lot of his regulars are. His first response to this customer demand: the Beer Cave, a highly stylized beer cooler featuring just about any brand of beer. This spring, responding to the latest beer-drinker trend, growlers, he opened a small growler bar. Encouraged by the strong response, he unveiled a greatly expanded growler bar in August. It was an instant hit.
Couch has dabbled in other businesses over the years; he built the Sisters Market in Sisters and subsequently sold it, and he ran a powder-coating business in Bend for a few years. But for now, he’s concentrating on the Stop N Go — and balloon flights. No better way to escape the pressures of the job than relaxing in a lawn chair at 15,000 feet.