Story and photos by Angela Hawn
Stirling Pro One Stop isn't the sort of place internet browsers come across while surfing the world wide web. Owners Min and Julie Yoo don't have a website; they don't tweet and they don't advertise on Facebook. Perhaps that's because the lonely world of cyber space doesn't quite fit with the homey-style business Min's dad, Chong Yoo, started up 25 plus years ago. Or maybe the Yoo family just doesn't need it.
Neighbourly word of mouth seems to take care of most advertising for them. Short of visiting this friendly small-town gas bar and variety store yourself, the best way to find out more about Pro involves chatting with a local.
“I like to think we're a place everybody feels comfortable, everybody's on a first-name basis,” Julie laughs, acknowledging Pro's welcoming atmosphere has often been likened to the friendly bar on the TV show Cheers. “People yell ‘hi’ when they come in and it's the kind of place where everybody knows your name.”
And sure enough, as Julie busily sorts through video loyalty cards, a customer waves her out from behind the counter for a hug good-bye. Min excuses himself to go help an elderly woman find just the right brand of chewing gum and teases about Stirling rush hour at Pro.
If you're from the area, you certainly know the place well and everyone probably knows you. Just try putting a little gas in your truck or slipping in to rent a DVD without running into a familiar face. The Pro is every local's favourite destination when they've just run out of peanut butter or eggs or some other much-needed cupboard staple. This is the place you stop by after hours when that late-night craving for a bag of chips hits or you realize you don't have a lotto ticket for tonight's draw. Out of toilet paper? The Pro has some. Cold medicine? Same. Just ran out of fabric softener? Grab a bottle for the road or, heck, why not stay a while and wash your clothes in Pro's adjacent laundromat. Desperately seeking a little vinegar and baking soda for your kid's volcano science project? It's due tomorrow, you whine, as a Pro cashier clucks sympathetically and bags up your supplies. Whatever you're looking for, chances are you'll find it at Pro.
And more often than not, you just might come across that little much-needed extra you weren't expecting or even knew you were looking for, the sort of thing that can characterize an entire community and make you glad you live there. No doubt Pro One Stop's friendly aura causes many a first-time visitor to consider the local real-estate ads (also, incidentally, available on-site, right beside the check-out.) Quite a few people in this little village with a big heart rave about the hospitable "mom and pop" retail operation on the far end of town.
Take Dan Jacques, for example. Twenty years ago in the middle of a particularly bitter winter, Dan found himself en route to Ottawa General Hospital, seeking cancer treatment for his terminally ill wife, Laura. Already on a desperate mission, Dan felt his spirits plummet even further when the pair's vehicle broke down just north of Tweed.
“I can't remember now whether it was January or February,” he declares, lost in the memory. “But it was cold.”
A Tweed garage mechanic eventually diagnosed the problem as ice in the carburetor, easing Dan's troubles somewhat with the unexpected loan of his own truck for the next few days and insisting the couple use it to complete their Ottawa trip. Kindness, it seems, is alive and well in small-town eastern Ontario.
At the time Min's dad still ran Pro One Stop full-time. When Dan dropped by the store later and told him the story, Chong Yoo was mortified. Ice in the carburetor often indicates some water in the gasoline. Since Pro was the last place Dan remembered refueling prior to the break-down, the gas station owner felt responsible. Without hesitation he demanded his customer hand over the vehicle's extensive repair bill and promptly reimbursed him in full on the spot. Dan never forgot it.
“I think they're just a wonderful family,” he declares, the affection clear in his voice. “I've lived in this community for 25 years and I definitely think the place wouldn't be the same without them.”
Exactly the kind of sentiment Chong Yoo certainly sought to cultivate when he first bought the store and gas station way back in the early Nineties. A savvy businessman, the elder Yoo had managed retail operations his entire life, first in Korea and later in Toronto. The entire family emigrated to Canada when Min was 14, ending up in the Parliament and Gerard area of the country's largest city.
“It was a really rough neighbourhood at the time,” says Julie, noting her own parents made a similar move to Scarborough when she was 7. “Min's mom and dad were looking for a more family-friendly place to raise their children and they looked everywhere for a new business to buy before they finally found the store in Stirling.”
Julie recalls her father-in-law wisely opted to keep the staff in charge of running the store at the time. He figured customers might feel more comfortable with people they already knew well. And wanting to establish the community as his own new home-base, he also hoped to get acquainted with Stirling a little better through the eyes of his new employees.
So many years later, it's obvious that's exactly what's happened. Min steps out from behind the cash just long enough to show off the Pro team photo wall before turning to serve a customer. From baseball to softball to hockey and soccer, Pro has sponsored dozens of teams. Look closely at all the youthful faces smiling in Pro One Stop jerseys and you're sure to recognize Julie's and Min's own children amongst them. Turns out Stirling is a great place to raise a family.
“All three of our kids went to Stirling schools,” reports Julie with a smile. “We've always loved it here and felt so good about the people who live here.”