What we’re trying to do is so much more than the bottom line. It’s about responsible growth, great service, creating jobs, and creating an environment that’s healthy for our community and healthy for our people. We want to add value to our neighborhood.”
Jason Yates, Yates Service, Inc.
by Kris Gilbertson
When John Yates, Sr. completed 25 years of service and retired from the Navy in 1960, he had a wife, Lena, and five young sons. Rather than move yet again, John and Lena established their home in the area. He attended the University of Maryland and they both worked to support the family. John put in nights and weekends at Steve’s Shell, at the corner of Montgomery and North Washington Streets. Just as he completed a Bachelor of Aeronautical Engineering Degree in 1964, the Gulf station at 834 North Washington came up for sale—and John bought it.
Lena was not happy. The family had never had much money and she’d envisioned his going from being an officer in the Navy to working in the airline industry, wearing a suit and carrying a briefcase. Now he’d bought a service station (back then it was a “gas station”), which wasn’t a desirable profession. But John prevailed in his belief that the best way to raise their family was in a family business. We can, he told her, all work together.
“And we worked,” says Jason, youngest son and the second generation of Yates Service, Inc. “It wasn’t like we just ran around and played. All summers, after school, Thanksgiving Day, Christmas Day. We came home and Mom had dinner ready. My mom did the paperwork, so we all worked—and it was a lot of fun.”
A Well-Spent Youth On Braddock Road
In 1977, John Yates bought the Braddock Road Mobil Station (at the corner of East Braddock and Mt. Vernon Avenue), where Jason could be found when not in school. “I always liked mini-bikes, go carts, cars, anything with an engine. With my dad having a repair shop and always being around cars and guys—not a lot of gals back then—it was a wonderful childhood,” Jason says. “Maybe a little too much cussing back in the day from some of the guys but other than that, I couldn’t wait to go to work with my dad.
“Dad always said you couldn’t come back and work in the family business until you had a college degree,” he adds. But after two years of college, Jason knew what he wanted.
“My dad said, ‘You know what? I always made that statement but I didn’t really believe it 100 percent. Come on back, love to have you, but you’re going to have to work really hard because there’s going to be a lot of smart people out there to compete against.’”
The Second Generation of Yates Service, Inc.
Working at Braddock Road Mobil, Jason began a series of expansions that included two additional repair bays in 1982 (and changing the name to Yates Automotive), canopies over new gas pumps in 1989, and bricking the station’s exterior and adding a copper roof in 1994.
“Did we have to do that? No,” he says, “but Old Town is a beautiful area, Rosemont is beautiful, Del Ray is beautiful. I wanted to work at a nice place and I wanted to change the perception of the service station industry. My dad taught me that a service station is just as important in a community as a doctor or a lawyer.”
He bought the station from his parents in 1986, the year he married Loren. Jason Yates, Jr., was born in 1987.
Yates Culture in Rosemont
“Our name is Yates Service, Inc.,” says Jason. “My dad started that. Yates is our name and service is what we do.
“My dad believed in taking care of his customers, no matter what,” he adds. “I used to work on cars—Buicks, Chevys, and Fords back then—and a customer would buy a Toyota. No one would work on Japanese cars hardly, no one knew how to, but Dad would say, ‘If Mr. Murphy or Jones bought a Toyota, we work on it. We may have to ask him for the manual to figure out how to do it, but they’re our customers, we take care of them.’
“And we did a really good job, we were known. My dad would say, ‘We fix whatever a customer brings in. Whether it’s a lawn mower, a weed whacker, something at home that’s cracked and needs welding or whatever, we take care of them. We are 100 percent a can-do company.’”
Another of John Yates’ family traditions was gardening in what is now the side parking lot of Yates Automotive. “My father grew up on a farm,” says Jason. “Now he had a chance to have a garden again, right next to the business, so he got a Rototiller—it was the oldest Rototiller you’ve ever seen. I think he got it at a yard sale.
“When he got tired, I would rototill. He’d get busy with customers and I’d be about worn out, so we finally broke down and bought a Sears 7-speed rototiller. But it was beautiful soil, and the most perfectly balanced garden you’ve ever seen. I’d ask him, ‘How do you know this, Dad?’ He said, ‘I grew up doing this.’ All from seed, he was a big seed guy. He’d put big baskets out, with tomatoes in them and peppers and snap beans in little bags, and sell them for, like, 25 cents. There are still people in the neighborhood who talk about it.
“He preserved tomatoes and every Christmas we had a bottle of his preserved tomato sauce. We have one left and we won’t open it. He’s been gone almost 30 years, had a massive heart attack.” John Yates, Sr., died in 1989.
Taking Yates Service to Kingstowne
In 1986, Jason and Loren moved to Fairfax. Commuting through the fast-developing Kingstowne area, they saw a growing need for services there. They took a plunge into a new business by building Yates Kingstowne Mobil, a service station with a convenience store (at the corner of Kingstowne Blvd. and South Van Dorn Street). It opened in 1997. Three years later, they added Express Lube at the station.
As Kingstowne grew, service opportunities grew. In 2012, Jason and Loren bought a car wash business around the corner on South Van Dorn Street and King Centre Drive. It reopened as Yates Kingstowne Car Wash & Convenience, with a full-service car wash, detailing, gasoline, and a big convenience store much like a corner market, including wine and an impressive selection of craft beers.
“I came from a station that was built in the 1940s,” says Jason. “To have Kingstowne Mobil* & Express Lube was unbelievable, but this thing (Kingstowne Car Wash & Convenience) was the Taj Mahal.”
(*In the early 2000s, Mobil stations in this region were bought by Sunoco.)
While upgrading the Car Wash & Convenience was underway, a much larger expansion of Yates Service, Inc. was also in progress.
In 2005, Jason Yates looked out at the abandoned gas station across Mt. Vernon Avenue from Yates Automotive, a property that had been boarded up for 30 years, and the businesses adjacent to it, including the Braddock Road 7-Eleven, and he envisioned a new identity for the Braddock Road/Mount Vernon Avenue intersection.
Having a son involved in the business – a graduate of UVA in mechanical engineering with a minor in aerospace – he leaned on Jason, Jr. to help in the design and building of Yates Corner. Jason, Jr. will be the third generation taking the business to the next level.
It took five years to develop detailed plans and instigate negotiations for the Yates Corner properties. It took two more years to navigate planning approval and get permits from the City of Alexandria. Because the project included Brownfield remediation of soil contamination and negotiation for four businesses, one of which was the 7-Eleven, some wondered how the process moved so fast.
“We did our homework,” says Jason, “and made sure we had plans done up properly. We had complete community support, which is huge. Our neighbors in Del Ray and Rosemont have been so supportive. I love them.
“Over the years they’ve seen what we’ve done. When I wanted to add two bays onto the service station, they went along with it. When we wanted to add a parking lot on the side—at one point there might have been a petition against us, but we went and talked to them, showed them plans and what everything was—and they came out and spoke on our behalf.
“We have relationships. We’ve got people who’ve been coming to us for 40 years. It’s the trust factor, to have that in your own neighborhood. We put the brick on, and the [holiday] decorations, the lights. We didn’t do it because we were plotting Yates Corner. We did it because that’s what we do.”
“A lot of work happened to plow the road before that two years,” says Lee Emery, an executive with Yates Service, Inc. “Jason was known. With all the different things, the City regulators got to know him. So by the time you get to [approval], you’re going, ‘Wow, that happened quickly,’ but it’s like the old adage: You’re an overnight success, and it only took 35 years.”
“What you’re saying, though, caused a little turmoil with other businesses at the time,” Jason adds. “They’re like, ‘How did he get that approved so well?’ Because I got the community’s buy-in first. When they come down with you, you’re not standing there alone. You’ve got the president of Del Ray, president of Rosemont, local neighbors writing letters, people in the community saying this guy’s good and this is a good project.
“We got theautomotive shop, a restaurant, a dry cleaning and laundry, and a 7-Eleven approved. The bank believed in us, the neighborhood believed in us, my wife believed in it, out team believed in it, and here we are. I’d never built a building. I had bankers up here when we were going to do the restaurant, and they go ‘What do you know about the restaurant business?’ I said, ‘Hire really good people.’”
If the approval process moved swiftly, construction beat it by half. Ground breaking in October 2012; building completion in October 2013. Yates Corner 7-Eleven was the first business to open, in 2013.
“People don’t want 7-Elevens in their neighborhood,” Jason says. “They didn’t want this 7-Eleven. What was here before was very rundown, even dangerous, but a 7-Eleven is like a corner store. People need to get a cup of coffee in the morning, pick up some milk on the way home, or they need Tylenol for a sick child at 2 AM, we’re here. It’s important to have it if you can run it properly and keep out the bad stuff. It’s a big task and my son has been super responsible for the success of that store.”
Jason, Jr., was also instrumental in designing and organizing Yates Dry Cleaning & Laundry, even getting certification in dry cleaning processes. And in October 2015, Lena’s Wood-Fired Pizza & Tap opened for business (see sidebar).
A Family Legacy
Yates Corner and the Kingstowne businesses are Jason and Loren Yates’ sterling successes, but there have been projects through the years that have not reached completion, which can be expected in business. Yates Corner, however, embodies a dream Jason had through the years:
“I dreamed about the day people would be able to go down a beautiful sidewalk that’s 15 feet wide, and now it’s happening. On a corner that was desolate, that had nothing, you didn’t even want to walk by it. Now it’s vibrant and we’re feeling it. I got it built, and people can see little kids on their bicycles, and Mom and Dad walking the dog, pushing the baby carriage, and they’re going to the Metro, not just coming here, but it made it so nice.
“We invested every dollar of our money, and borrowed a ton of money, to do this. There’re no other investors. It’s my wife, my son, and myself. And by doing that, we can stay true to our beliefs, which are service, quality, and consistency.”
Yates Corner is at the intersection of Braddock Road and Mt. Vernon Avenue, next to the Braddock Road Metro Station. The building houses Lena’s Wood-Fired Pizza & Tap, Yates Dry Cleaning & Laundry, and an extension of Yates Automotive, with three levels of parking. Yates Corner 7-Eleven is across the parking lot.
The Yates Corner building runs on geothermal energy, with 28 wells that pump water 24 hours a day. It is air conditioned throughout, including the dry cleaners, upper and lower repair bays, and detail shop. The waste oil that is taken from the vehicles being serviced is used to heat the upper and lower auto repair and detailing bays, and heat all the building and the dry cleaners. Building design stresses great lighting and air management systems to provide fresh air throughout, plus sound systems installed in all working areas, so team members can choose their music.
Lena’s Wood-Fired Pizza & Tap
401 E Braddock Rd., Alexandria
Lena’s Wood-Fired Pizza & Tap was inspired by and named after the Yates family matriarch. As a military wife from an Italian background, Lena understood how important love, stability, and good food are to a growing family. Every meal she cooked was an event looked forward to and remembered.
Lena’s Wood-Fired Pizza & Tap was designed as a place where busy people can feel welcome with family and friends. The kitchen specializes in authentic Neapolitan pizzas straight from their wood-burning oven, other Italian specialties, a wide selection of craft beers, as well as a full bar.
Outside the cozy interior, Lena’s year-round patio is equipped with gas heaters and cozy blankets, and calls out for hot specialty drinks like the spiced cider. Lena’s food and comfort, both indoors and on the patio, have been praised by Washingtonian magazine, WinMag.com, Zagat.com, eater.com, redbricktown.com, and the Washington Post.
On February 3, the Washington Business Journal honored Yates Service, Inc., with its 2017 Family-Owned Business Award. This award goes to the top multi-generational, family-owned businesses in the region for overall excellence, innovation, ethics, and philanthropy. Yates Service, Inc., is the first Alexandria business to be so honored.