Blending old-fashioned fun with innovative projects, Steve Ek built his shop into a neighborhood hub.
FIXING A MEAL: Steve Ek, owner of Ek Automotive in Chicago, often makes lunch for customers in his on-site kitchen. Photo by Michael Boyd
Steve Ek was growing concerned about a Facebook friend. Her father had died recently and she wasn’t doing well.
As social media friends often go, this person was really more of an online acquaintance—a friend of a friend. But that didn’t stop him from extending a hand. Ek wrote her a message: “I understand your father died, and I’m going to guess your eating is probably a little off. Can I make a meal for you?”
She replied, “yes,” and came to Ek’s shop, Ek Automotive in Chicago, to pick up the food. They chatted, and then she left.
Three days later, the woman called Ek and said, “Would you believe my check engine light came on?” She asked if she could bring the car into the shop. Ek laughs when he tells the story, “What are the odds of that?”
Actually, they’re pretty good in Ek’s case. He makes an effort to connect with people, and the approach draws customers through his doors. Through a series of neighborhood-oriented efforts, including community events, a graffiti-art initiative, and regular lunches with customers, Ek has created a local affinity for his business, which has paid off in sales.
Movies and Mojitos
Ek grew up 500 feet from where his shop stands today in the Edison Park neighborhood.
“It was just a good, solid, family neighborhood … this was hometown America,” Ek says.
Ek opened his shop in 1991. As a former technician, he knew he was good at fixing cars. His other strength was talking to people.
“I genuinely really like people,” Ek says. “I love talking to people.”
Gradually, the shop started to gain steam. Ek and his crew learned how to work efficiently out of his 1,600-square-foot space. And Ek’s ability to communicate with customers brought in a steady stream of neighborhood patrons.
Today’s Edison Park, however, is different from the Edison Park Ek grew up in—more bars and restaurants than family homes. But that doesn’t bother him.
“I’m [still] totally in love with it,” he says.
That love drove Ek to come up with a way to give back to his neighbors: community events. Since 2010, Ek has hosted a series of events at the shop. He provides food and drinks. Anyone can attend. The primary goal is fun.
“It’s like everything else I do,” Ek says. “It’s for the customers. It’s for them to enjoy.”
For each event, Ek thinks up a unique theme. For one of the most successful events, “Movies and Mojitos,” he rented a projector and screen, and mixed mojitos for anyone who was over 21. More than 75 people came to watch “Grease” and “Fast Times at Ridgemont High” in Ek’s parking lot.
“All you had to bring was your lawn chair,” Ek says. “It was a beautiful night.”
Among other events, Ek had a remote control car night, where attendees drove remote control cars around Ek’s shop floor. Another was a “jam session,” which finished with a local rock band playing late into the night.
Ek says it is difficult to directly determine how many event attendees become customers. What he does know, however, is that since he started hosting the events, he has seen a big jump in revenue. During the last three years, annual sales have increased by roughly $175,000, to a total of $800,000—a considerable jump for a 1,600-square-foot shop.
“It’s usually bars [that] have promotional nights for liquor,” Ek says. “Why can’t I have just a promotional night for me?”
Around the same time Ek started hosting events at the shop, he came up with an idea for a bare wall on his building.
Graffiti was a problem in the neighborhood. Ek had never had his building vandalized, but other businesses had. Ek knew he wasn’t going to make graffiti go away, but he wanted to give kids a place to do it safely.
“I had this idea, because I do fancy myself an artist,” Ek says. “If I could just give these kids a place to express themselves, then they would.”
Ek hung a sign on the blank wall stating that it was now a community wall. Kids could tag it however they liked, with a couple exceptions: no profanity and no gang signs.
The idea took off. Kids stuck to the rules and reported to Ek any time someone broke them. The project even earned the shop some publicity in a Chicago magazine. During the summer, Ek would look out and see 15 kids at a time painting the wall.
Eventually, local artist and firefighter Mike Agostinelli painted a mural on the wall in honor of Chris Wheatley, a friend and fellow Chicago firefighter who died battling a restaurant fire. Surprisingly, the next day when the kids saw the mural, they decided as a group that it shouldn’t be touched. One of kids even told Ek that his dad had been a pallbearer at Wheatley’s funeral. Years later, no one has painted over the mural.
Ek says the Wheatley painting has brought positive attention to the shop, and no doubt some new customers.
“Last summer there was actually a fire truck with all the firemen standing there and somebody taking pictures,” Ek says. “Someone left flowers not that long ago.”
Lunch with Steve
Jill Doherty, president of the Edison Park Chamber of Commerce and a longtime customer of Ek’s, says that his innovation drives his status in the neighborhood.
“He’s excellent at creative, new ideas,” Doherty says. “Anything he can give back to the community, he does.”
Ek’s latest initiative: “Lunch with Steve.” Started in February, Ek invites three customers to the shop and cooks a free lunch for them (he has a kitchen in his office). Interested customers sign up, and Ek fits them in where he can.
“I love to cook, and I love to talk, and I love my customers,” Ek says. “So I thought I could put all these three together.”
Ek says this type of event is an easy way for shops to set themselves apart.
“You want to be more than just fixing cars. … I think it’s what separates you from the rest,” Ek says. “It brings you up to a whole new level. That’s why you want to do something like this, because you care and you want to be at a different level.”
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