Like any good early-stage founder, Ben McFarlin visited his potential customers directly when he wanted to test out a new business venture and FinTech idea.
His customers just happened to be pumping gas.
Long before the pandemic, McFarlin was looking to innovate the driver’s experience at the pump, and so he volunteered to fill up people’s cars in exchange for customer feedback and stories.
By streamlining the payment process and keeping drivers inside cars, he saw an opportunity to tackle ‘slider crimes,’ or theft that takes place when someone ‘slides’ into a car while a driver is fueling or leaves a car unattended.
The solution came in the form of an app, Gas Valet. With a patent-pending authorization system and method for service transactions, drivers can pull up to a Gas Valet attendant and pay for fuel, tire maintenance, or items from the convenience store without having to leave their vehicle.
Customers themselves do not have to download any app; instead, attendants walk them through a contactless payment experience.
The Atlanta-based startup got off the ground at a station at Cascade Road in Atlanta but has found a home over the past year at a Shell station on the corner of Powers Ferry and Roswell Road in Buckhead.
While the company was founded in 2017, Gas Valet’s ability to provide peace of mind during the rise of both gas station crime and COVID helped the concept take off in 2020.
The “secret sauce,” McFarlin found, was streamlining the financial transaction process and finding specific gas stations up for innovation.
With 23 years under her belt as Shell franchise owner, Smita Patel had already been rethinking the entire gas station experience for her Buckhead Atlanta clients.
Patel recently renovated the convenience store to a 3-story location to include a restaurant, a more welcoming interior, and parking upgrades to allow for more advantageous arrangements for customers and employees alike. Ultimately it is about seeing the corner convenience store become more like a retail shop.
The location is also starting to imagine what gas stations of the future will need to look like.
Ultimately, the convenience store will have a lounge location for drivers to enjoy WiFi and a bit of a rest break while their electric vehicles (EVs) charge outside.
The addition of Gas Valet has helped drive even more traffic. Anecdotally, both Patel and McFarlin say they know repeat customers who consistently drive across town specifically for the Gas Valet experience (which is quite a feat given the horrors of Atlanta traffic).
To help reduce friction and fees on the payment side of the process, Gas Valet works with Atlanta-based FinTech software company Worldnet Payments and the hardware company bbpos for contactless options.
The streamlined payments approach has helped the team service 28,000 cars over the last year.
McFarlin recently brought on JoNesha Aiken as operations manager to help scale the business.
That scale could come as more gas stations look for software-enabled contactless solutions for safety and convenience.
While the payments technology behind the scenes is crucial, McFarlin told Hypepotamus that finding the right customer-facing attendants was an early challenge for the company.
The key, he said, has been bringing on those with brand ambassador or valet parking experience.
As independent contractors, attendants use the app to not only book shifts, track tips, and check past transactions.
And those friendly and knowledgeable faces have certainly helped grow business. When Hypepotamus took a tour of the location during the late Monday morning rush, a mix of new and loyal customers were lining up at the pump.
Innovating the way drivers navigate a gas station is no small feat. Neither is launching a consumer-facing business during the pandemic. But one big takeaway from visiting the location: team camaraderie and transparency are critical for such an early-stage company.
One year in, the Gas Valet team has not only worked through early-stage FinTech startup bumps but has also become part of the fabric of the local community.
Featured photo (from left to right): Gas Valet attendants Adam, Daka and Estaban with Ben McFarlin and JoNesha Aiken