By CRAIG FREILICH
CANTON – Kuno Oil, a tiny startup 20 years ago, has grown into a string of convenience and grocery stores and an oil and gasoline delivery business employing up to 100 people.
Today, Parishville, Colton, Canton, Russell and Waddington are served by Kunoco Food Marts. In some places, the Kunoco shops are the only food stores in the community.
And many St. Lawrence County locations get heating oil, diesel, gasoline and kerosene from Kuno Oil Company, Inc.
Entrepreneur Steve Kuno of Hannawa Falls began in the oil business shortly after graduating from St. Lawrence University, working for Peoples Oil owner Dave Wiest.
“I went to work for him as business development manager, and I got a lot of experience quickly. They had a good retail base of home heating oil, gas stations, and fast food. I worked there about four years, and then it was sold to Griffith. I worked three more years with them. That gave me another dimension to the business.”
Stayed in North Country
“They offered me a promotion that came with a transfer, and I declined,” said Kuno.
“I always wanted to be on my own,” he said, noting the transfer would have meant pulling up stakes and leaving the North Country.
Kuno said he liked the North Country, right from his first days at SLU. “I liked the clear skies, the nearby mountains and lakes. And it’s actually sunnier here than in Baldwinsville,” the community northwest of Syracuse where he was brought up.
So in 1990, “I started this company with my wife. She was working at Clarkson and kept the money coming in” while Kuno Oil was getting underway.
He met his wife, Jacquie, when they were studying at St. Lawrence University. Steve graduated in 1983, and Jacquie the following year. They married in 1986.
“I hired one woman from Peoples Oil, and I had one truck. I started making phone calls ands visits” to drum up business, he said.
“I wanted to supply motor fuels and heating oil. I put in a tank here, which was split between heating/fuel oil and kerosene. Doris Smith had been running Smitty’s” -- a small store just up the road from Kuno – “and I leased a tank from her for gas and diesel.”
First Store in 1993
“In 1993, she wanted to get out of the business. I had some convenience store experience with Peoples and Griffith, so I bought Smitty’s and hung a Kunoco sign on it. That was our first retail outlet.”
The Smiths also owned a place in Russell that had been closed – “a garage and a small store. After a fire there, they didn’t open it again. So in about 1998, I bought it, knocked down the old store and put up a new one” – the second Kunoco Food Mart.
About a year later, Kuno says, “I put together a deal with Bill Collins where I leased Main Street Mobil in Canton and bought the Colton location” at the intersection of State Routes 56 and 68, where another Kunoco Food Mart operates.
And in 2000, he opened in Parishville, another “smaller community not served by a food store or a gas station,” Kuno said.
And just a couple of years ago he got into the grocery business in a larger way, acquiring Marshall’s IGA in Waddington, now called the Kunoco Food Mart IGA.
Depending on the season, his businesses employ between 75 and 100 full- and part-timers, especially during the peak tourist months in the summer. He says there are seven to 10 employees per convenience store, and 20 to 25 at the Waddington IGA.
Fuel, Retail a Good Mix
“The fuel and retail are a good mix,” he said. “The stores do better in the summer, when local people are out and about more and people are traveling. When that slows down, the oil deliveries start picking up.”
“It’s not uncommon in this industry to have that kind of balance. Merriman’s in Norwood, for instance, probably sells more lumber in the summer, and then has the fuel oil business.”
However, sales of fuel for construction machinery and logging have slacked off in the economic slowdown, but business in general is good, he says.
Kuno got into the retail business “as a necessity. The majors (fuel companies) became less and less interested in dealing with independent dealers like gas stations, and they made a concentrated effort to control retail sales with company-owned locations. I took my lead from them, and we’ve been able to make a go of it.”
Quick Dinner Meals
He also takes pride in a “quick-dinner” line that he developed for the food markets that he calls “Dash ’n Dine.”
“We were obviously looking for opportunities to meet customers’ needs,” Kuno said.
“I know as a parent how we drive our kids here and there, and sometimes it feels like we’re living on burgers and fries. I got together with chef Bill Jennings, who was instrumental in developing deli-prepared foods like lasagna for Wegman’s,” a regional supermarket chain.
“With his help and others’, we developed a line of quality foods in a variety of entrees in packages people could take home, heat up in the microwave, and it wouldn’t be overdone or taste like leftovers.”
They make prime rib, baked chicken, stuffed pork, meatloaf and lasagna entrees, with two side dishes, such as garlic mashed potatoes, roasted rosemary potatoes, cabbage noodles and sweet potato sticks. The meals are cooked up daily in Kunoco’s Kitchen, at the Colton Kunoco Food Mart, and then transported to the other Kunoco Food Mart locations.
“They’ve been fairly well received. Some stuff worked, some didn’t.
“We tried selling them at VideoRama in Potsdam, but since the video store wasn’t owned or controlled by Kunoco, the health department said there would have to be daily USDA inspections.” That wasn’t practical, Kuno said.
He is looking for other distribution outlets for the meals, in Potsdam, Canton and elsewhere. “We certainly have an eye open for the opportunity to expand.”
Pride in Local Ownership
“For 20 years, we’ve been able to stay ahead of the bill collectors, which not everyone has managed to do. This is a small business, so it might not seem like much, but we’ve never missed a payroll, never had a check bounce.
“We pride ourselves on the fact that we’re a locally owned company. We employ local people, and what we manage to retain as profit mostly stays here.”
Now, Kuno is putting up a new office building next to the old converted transmission shop he uses as office space now.
“I’ve learned you never can build big enough,” said Kuno as he sat in his old, small office and contemplated how fast his new office building, in progress next door, will be filled up.
“We’ve tried to anticipate things with a couple of extra offices, and we’ve made the offices a little bigger” in the new building on County Route 27, which becomes Park Street when you get into the village.
“This started out basically as an old transmission shop, and we’ve added on, and added on, and crammed in. It got to the point where we said either it’s all going to fall out or fall in.”
The old building has been Kuno Oil Company “universal headquarters,” as Kuno wryly puts it, since he started the heating and motor fuels company in 1990.
He is also proud of the support he is able to give to local organizations, from local sports teams, the hospitals, fire departments, “walkathons, swimathons, bikeathons, jamborees. We can’t be a huge player in all of it, but we do what we can.”
And he is happy to have been of service during the ice storm of 1998. “The people who work for us went above and beyond,” he said, pumping fuel when others couldn’t, and even helping supply power company and other emergency crews.
He gives much credit to his staff, from Terry Hamilton of Canton who answers the phones and greets people at the office, to the people who deliver the fuel and perform installation and maintenance of heating equipment, to the people who work in the stores.
“We’ve been very fortunate to attract and maintain a good solid core of people. Many of them have been with us a long time. That’s as beneficial as anything we’ve done.”