Saturday, April 18, 2015

The Little Guys

Kurt Richter and Haik Hakobian of Haik’s German Autohaus
The Little Guys - PDFThe auto service market in Santa Barbara is a bit of a unique one. Its character is dictated by the size of the town. Perhaps a non-automotive story to illustrate.

On my first visit to this city eight years ago, I struck up a friendship with my seat-mate on the flight in. She invited me to see a friend’s band at Creek Side Inn that night, and we hung out with them after their set. The next night, the company I was interviewing with took me out for a night on the town, and we ended up at Dargan’s. Naturally, I ran into the guys from the band there.

My first and lasting impression of Santa Barbara: this is a small town. It’s easy to feel like you know everyone... and everyone knows you.

This dynamic tends to impact the way people interact with one another, and when it comes to car service, it’s especially true. This may account for the sizeable number of relatively small, independent specialty shops, with a fairly narrow focus. If you visit one of these shops, you’ll likely talk to the guy (mostly) who will be wrenching on your car, and who also might own the place. Haik Hakobian (pronounced “Hike”), of Haik’s German Autohaus, has been working on German cars since 1979. He talks about his shop in comparison to going to a dealer for service.

“In some ways, we don’t give as good of service,” he says. “We don’t give rental cars, we don’t even give rides, usually because there’s just two of us.” While there may be other perks at a dealer, such as car washes, Hakobian points out that he’s able to provide more “personal service.”

“When they go to a dealership, the mechanic has to come out of the back to talk to them.” Hakobian acts as his own service writer, so his clients can talk to the same person each time, and he feels it elicits more confidence from them. He also gets business from people who have bad experiences at dealerships.

“I think some of them are being driven away by some of the attitudes” of the dealership service departments, he says.

The Garage is a business that’s built entirely on word of mouth. Christian “Critter” Mooney is a specialist in British marques, and he’s one of the most trusted Land Rover wrenches in town. In contrast to L.A., which has much bigger shops, Mooney talks about the intimate nature of Santa Barbara.

The Garage is a business that’s built entirely on word of mouth. “Here it’s a very small community. Everyone knows everyone,” he says. “You’ve gotta keep your name very, very clean in Santa Barbara.” This prompts him and his partner, Bert Linau, a German car mechanic who works most often on Audis, to go the extra mile for their customers, with loaners and rides, and occasionally eating the cost of some service to help someone out.

Of his formative years, Mooney says, “We all worked at the dealer, and this is like a lot of people, so we got a lot of our schooling and experience from the dealership, and then after we left the dealership... all of us went to private shops.”

Some shops are actually just one person, as is the case with Der Volks Werks. Dana Steele has owned the business for 31 years, and used to have some help, but it’s just him, since his assistant went on disability due to health issues. If you bring your air-cooled Volkswagen to him, he’ll not only fix it, but he’ll also explain literally every little nut and bolt that he touched in doing so.

He sticks to servicing the cheap stuff, and enjoys his rapport with his customers.

“The people that own these cars work for a living, and they value labor,” he says. “I actually choose not to work on people’s cars that have more money, because they’re [bloody] pains in the [butt].”

Roy Miller is one of the more widely known mechanics in town, but he’s begun to wind down East-West Motors, which he’s owned since 1983. At this point, his business mostly consists of long-time customers, who have since become friends of his. With those relationships can come the fraught issue of charging his friends money for work.

“That’s a real dilemma for me,” he says. “My wife is so critical of me. She says, ‘You know, everyone loves you, and you do a great job on these cars. Why don’t we have any money?’” He tends to think more about fixing someone’s issue than about the business aspect of it, but the result has been a karmic bonanza.

“We’ve had some amazing things happen to us because of camaraderie with fellow car people, and it turns into something completely different.”

Jack Bianchi has a similar story, though he actually closed his shop in 2006. Now he mostly just works on his own cars and those of friends as a “hobbyist,” and occasionally takes on more specialized projects. If you’ve got a Lotus engine or anything involving a Grand Prix racer, it might be worth your while to seek out his expertise.

But he has fairly broad praise for the extant shops in town.

“The town supports itself, and there’s really very few bad shops, so if a guy rolls in a fairly new Porsche, I’ll send him to Henry [Hinck] up at Schneider [Autohaus],” also mentioning long- term relationships with Mike Brown and Julio Limon at Santa Barbara Auto Group.

“That’s that small-town stuff. It’s pretty neat.”

Things seem to be getting a bit more difficult for the smaller shops, though, especially in the lower Eastside industrial corridor where many of them are located. While there’s been a steady decline in the number of air-cooled VWs in town, Steele of Der Volks Werks stays busy, since the number of shops that service them has also dropped.

“A lot of other businesses that used to work on them have generally been forced out of business by land speculation,” he says, “and the lot being bought to be turned into a wine tasting room.”

The building he operates out of, on East Gutierrez, “has been perpetually up for sale,” he says, but because the property would need to be fixed up for that, “I keep on outliving landlords.”

Mooney’s shop, The Garage, has had its own share of uncertainty, with rising rents and the threat of a land sale by the owner. He says his type of business is also targeted by the city with Byzantine codes that make it difficult to establish a new operation before running out of money.

He believes there’s a strong need for the independent shops as a counterweight to the clout of the dealership groups.

“Mainly why we’re all here, these specialists that you see – we all worked at the dealer – ‘cause we don’t like the dealer so much,” he says. “A lot of our clients don’t like the dealer. A lot of people just hate going to the dealer, and they go there because they have to. And that’s the reason, to an extent, that we exist.” 

It may grow increasingly challenging for those businesses to survive if there’s no place for them, though. Mooney points out that with the success of the Funk Zone, there are well-funded investors looking to replicate it in his part of town. 

“Who needs to listen? That’s a really good question,” he says. “Because we’re not asking for any handouts from anyone, but we love what we do in Santa Barbara.”

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