The shop around the corner
Family-run gas station serves students with snacks, gas and family values
On Thanksgiving Day 1975, Gabriel Atallah immigrated to the United States with his six brothers and four sisters amidst violence and volatility in Lebanon. It was the beginning of what would become a multifaceted civil war lasting 15 years, resulting in over 120,000 deaths.
Atallah, now the owner of University Convenience, was 20 years old.
Twenty-two years later, after losing his job in 1997, Atallah and his cousin were enticed by the idea of a family-run operation including both a gas station and convenience store. When they found a location up for lease near UB, they jumped on it.
It was on the corner of an Amherst neighborhood adjacent to North Campus. It was a Mobil gas station and has remained so ever since.
As Atallah continued to manage the store, he couldn't help but notice a growing trend of UB students frequently patronizing the establishment. He quickly realized this was going to be an even more popular destination for local college students than he originally envisioned and decided upon its name: University Convenience. It has developed into an unlikely pillar of the UB community.
After escaping brutality and obscurity in Lebanon, Atallah knows what it takes to surmount difficult obstacles. He believes in old-fashioned notions of what leads to achievement: hard work, meticulous attention to small detail, passion for the cause.
He makes it a point to impart what he has learned from his experience to the students with whom he interacts.
"I always tell them: 'Keep a fire in the belly,'" he said. "That's what I enjoy most about this store - getting to interact with young people all the time. I tell them my story."
The business is a part of the quotidian routine of many UB students. Nick Sarles, a sophomore business major and member of the tennis team, has been going to University Convenience since his freshman year and takes comfort in the family atmosphere. He considers himself a regular.
"It's close, convenient and the people working the counter are always kind," Sarles said. "The store portion is always clean, and the garbage cans right by the pumps are always empty. The guy who works there the most, the owner, is super cool and always cheerful, no matter what time of day or night it is."
Atallah, his wife Doris and three of their four children run the business with both care and caution. They form a gregarious staff that treats its patrons as friends and neighbors.
Inside the fluorescent-lit building, located at the intersection of Millersport Highway and Sheridan Road, are stacks of candy, chips, hygiene products, cigarettes, cigars, incense, household cleaning utensils and gum. There are refrigerators filled with milk, juice, Gatorade and beer. The store is open 24 hours a day and participates in the New York State lottery.
The family atmosphere of the store extends itself within the staff to the other employees who are not Atallah's family.
Tareq Eid, a cashier for University Convenience and an immigrant from Jordan, said he knows most of the student customers by name. The familiar faces make it "exciting to come to work," he said.
"I ask the students how they're doing; they tell me about how school is going; they ask me how my son is," Eid said. "It's very nice to know the customers as not just some random people. Back during the football season, I always worked on Sundays and would always give the kids that were Bills fans a hard time. I could always count on that."
Eid could also depend on reciprocity of pestering when it came to football. As a Cowboys fan, he often felt vexation over having to work on Sundays and missing the games. But customers would come in and provide him updates of the scores and, many times, a few gibes about America's favorite team.
"I always got the scores on my phone so it didn't really matter, but I never said anything because it was nice to know that these kids cared and were thinking of me," Eid said. "Even if they showed no respect for Tony Romo."
University Convenience occasionally sells oddball merchandise such as beanie caps and stress-relieving squeezable balls. Around Valentine's Day, Atallah sells glow-in-the-dark artificial roses and, around Easter, they give out Rosary beads. They make it a point to remain privy to the external world inside the internal world of their own environment.
Atallah, a resident of East Amherst, a hamlet of Amherst - the third-safest city in America in 2013, according to American Live Wire - didn't always have the luxury of feeling safe in his own home.
Atallah's father decided to move his family to America for safety in 1975 amongst war in his native Lebanon. When the family reached America, they settled in Rochester.
However, in 1982, Atallah took a gamble and decided to go back and visit Lebanon for a month. During that time, he met his future-wife, Doris, whom he brought back with him to the United States.
Upon settling in Rochester and starting a family, he began working for General Motors. He started with an entry-level job at an operational facility manufacturing Delco Products for General Motors automobiles. He continued to work for the company in a variety of different positions until the plant shut down the division in 1997.
Atallah and his cousin's jobs were outsourced to Mexico. That's when they started looking for the gas station.
University Convenience has been around for 16 years and has since been in the practice of remaining up-to-date on UB students' needs.
Recently, when Atallah learned about campus cash from one of his children, he decided it would be a good idea to get installed in his store.
"We have students come in here every day," he said. "So why not?"
However, Atallah has called the university on several occasions over the last few years and has not received a response, he said.
He believes because the store is open 24 hours a day, seven days a week, it would be "incredibly useful" for students to have access to a convenience store where they can use that form of payment.
Sarles agrees with Atallah and would like to see it happen.
"I think campus cash would be very good idea," Sarles said. "Since a lot of students, including myself, go there a lot, why not? It helps the students. A lot of college [kids] go there."
Since arriving in Western New York on Thanksgiving, Atallah remains thankful he has been able to run a business he enjoys, with people he likes and for customers he admires.
"I like having a lot of young, ambitious college students in here," he said. "Sometimes they remind me of myself."
For the students who frequent University Convenience, Atallah continues to remind them that people often have extraordinary reasons for doing ordinary work.