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New local gas station hopes for repeat business

By: Art Garcia
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With sign-wavers at the intersection of Francisco Drive and Green Valley Road pointing the way, motorists are flocking to the Hilltop Market & Deli to fill up on gas selling at rock-bottom prices, starting at $1.69 9/10 for a gallon of regular. A fill-up comes with a courtesy cup of coffee or soft drink. Inside, the deli is under new management and is now called the Chicago Deli, with operator Michael Tenuto, 47, and his partner Julie Haller, 44, offering a taste of the Windy City with their most popular menu item, Italian roast beef sandwiches. All beef, skinless Chicago dogs and roasted chicken also are featured, along with regular deli fare. Amar Singh, 35, operates the station and market for an uncle who bought it a year ago at the urging of Singh and despite his own reluctance. The uncle, Ranbhir Golen, owns a 7-Eleven store and station on El Camino in Sacramento and has been successful with other ventures. “I pushed him to buy this place. He thought it was ‘dead’,” said Singh, 35, who runs Hilltop from 6 a.m. to 11 p.m., seven days a week. “But I wanted it.” Singh lives in Antelope but his permanent home with his wife and two children is in Santa Rosa. “My goal is to increase this business, whatever it takes to do it,” he said. Under prior ownership, Hilltop was known for high prices for gas “and everything.” The station and store had been there 18 years when Singh took interest and found the selling price “reasonable. I couldn’t match it in Santa Rosa.” Previous ownership became nervous when Safeway opened its supermarket and gas station in the shopping center across the street. Singh felt he could take on the grocery giant by undercutting its gas prices, and not by offering Joe’s Gas but the brand-name Union 76. The $1.69 9/10 price is a loss leader intended to gain image and identification while also pulling customers into the market and deli. (The Green Valley Safeway sold regular gas for $1.76 9/10 a gallon and regular at Costco in Folsom this past Sunday was listed at $1.72 9/10.) One of the first things Singh did was reorganize the store and rearrange displays, plus bring in native Chicagoan Tenuto to spice up the deli’s menu selections and become a draw of its own. He plans to add tables and chairs after removing a large island display in front of the deli area. Tenuto says he sells “a ton” of the Italian roast beef sandwiches, available as a quarter-pound mini sandwich for $3.95 or a three-quarter-pounder for $6.95. Both are soaked in a sauce made from a recipe of Julie’s grandmother. Dogs are priced at $3.95 with fries, $2.95 without; a roasted chicken three-piece box lunch of a choice of thighs, breast, wings and/or legs, plus a half-pound of mashed potatoes, cole slaw or macaroni, is $4.99. The chicken is roasted for 2.5 hours and “just falls apart,” avows chef Michael. He and Julie arrived in El Dorado Hills in September 2007, from 17 years in Oakland, where for four years he ran the The Golden Bear and Bar on Grand Avenue. He earlier operated a Bay Area delivery service that started out of his mother’s garage in Oakland, a courier business he headed for 17 years. With home prices down in El Dorado Hills, he and Julie purchased a house on five acres off Salmon Falls Road. His father has lived in El Dorado Hills’ Summit Village since 1991. Tenuto, who has a degree in business administration from the University of Illinois, with Julie, took over the deli last May from Amar, who was operating it. A Chicago native, Tenuto has found being in El Dorado Hills “a lot like being in Chicago. The people are fantastic. They’ve been receptive and open-minded. No one has turned down our roast beef taste sample,” he said. “I see me and Julie retiring here, not just for the schools but for the quality of life.” Julie has four children, ages 17, 14, 10 and 8, all given tasks at the market and deli, including waving the $1.69 9/10 a gallon gas sign arrows and washing windows. Tenuto has a 21-year-old daughter at Loyola Marymount University in Los Angeles, and a son, Mike Jr., currently attending high school in Pleasant Hill but who will move to El Dorado Hills next year. Meanwhile, Singh said that since the kids have been attracting motorists with their sale signs after he lowered the price, his gas volume is up 50 percent, double the previous sales level. Last Saturday, gallons pumped tripled. Before he took over Hilltop, gas prices at the station typically carried a 30-40 percent markup; Singh’s current profit margin is just 5 cents per gallon. Customers who come in the store to pay thank him. Market prices were lowered “a lot” but sales have been slow, perhaps because of the economy, he said. He hopes for more customers so his business will grow but also because “I just want people to know me, to say, ‘Let’s go see Amar,’ like they do in Santa Rosa, where I know customers by name, they know me, we talk about our families,” he said. “Not only talk about business but talk about our kids.” Kids are important to him. That’s why any students on athletic teams at the local high schools, middle schools and elementary schools can came to Hilltop when they win games and meets and pick up free Icees, an offer good all school year. “Kids like to come here,” Singh smiled. All he needs are their parents to join them. This bud's for you: Missing from last week’s column on tips for saving money on flowers for weddings and other events was the contact information for Angie Zimmerman, owner/designer of Heavenly Flowers & Events. She can be reached at 941-1171 and via e-mail: angie@heavenlyevents.net; web: www.heavenlyevents.net. Art Garcia is a career journalist who lives in El Dorado Hills and is editorial director of Media Mark, a professional writing firm.