Get the Look
Clean. Organized. Comfortable. Welcoming.
Customers rarely associate these terms with auto repair facilities, which have developed a hard-to-kick reputation as grimy, unkempt places that should be avoided unless absolutely necessary. Vernie Menke knows this. The 58-year-old owner of Menke’s Automotive Repair in Newburgh, Ind., grew up working in a shop that was a model for such negative stereotypes. That’s why he’s spent decades developing what is possibly the most spotless shop in the country.
“I’ve worked my whole life trying to change the image of the auto repair industry,” Menke says. “That’s been my goal.”
From its well-manicured landscaping to its home-like lobby and squeaky clean shop floor, Menke’s Automotive Repair instills confidence in customers and keeps them coming back. The shop attracts big business—its average repair order is $490—by taking care of its image in the same way it takes care of customer cars.
“Our clientele is (middle) to upper class, but that’s what we developed because of the type of our facility and the way we do business,” Menke says.
Menke and three other like-minded shop operators offered a look inside their impressive facilities to show what makes them stand out. Most often, the image enhancing upgrades are simple, affordable and can be mirrored at any shop.
Menke got his start in auto repair working in his father’s shop. And though he regarded his dad as a mechanical genius, the facility “was pretty much an absolute disaster.” He remembers heating a garden hoe to scrape layers of grease off the floor and seeing tools scattered everywhere. He thought that was just the way a shop was supposed to be, until landing a new job at another facility as a teenager in 1970.
“I walked into this shop and said, ‘Oh my God,’” Menke says. “Everything was organized, neat, not a tool out of place. The floors were spotless. I go, ‘Wow, this is the way it needs to be done.’ And ever since then, that’s the way I have been.”
Menke opened his own shop in 1977, changed locations once and has grown every year. He recently completed an expansion that bumped his shop from 7,200 square feet to 9,600. Maintaining that spotless, organized image has been a critical piece of his success, and he is always looking to enhance it further. Menke, who runs the shop with his wife, Barb, regularly walks into the facility looking at everything from a customer’s perspective. He’s obsessive about the impression his business makes, and it pays off.
Neat landscaping Thoughtfully placed flowers, shrubs, mulch and a well-kept lawn make the facility welcoming to customers before they step in the door.
Spotless shop floor The shop floor, which customers can view through a large window in the lobby, is cleaned with a buffer after every repair.
Classy lobby Customers are greeted with high-end interior finishes and upscale décor, such as chandeliers that create a hotel-like feeling.
Homelike lounge The customer waiting area feels like the inside of a house, with reclining chairs, a big-screen TV, a kitchen area, coffee bar and free Wi-Fi.
Beautiful bathrooms The restrooms are immaculate, always stocked and decorated to look like they belong in a family home. The Menkes clean the women’s restroom after each use.
Industry veteran Andy Hagin, owner of Hagin’s Automotive in Martinez, Calif., says that for decades, the dingy appearance of auto shops was acceptable. The problem, he says, is that it created today’s bad perceptions.
“My first job was to scrape the grease off the floor,” Hagin says, recalling his very first duty in the industry. “We gave ourselves a bad reputation. I think customers expect more now. They have a car that’s worth a lot of money. You don’t want to drop it off at a place that looks like it doesn’t even have insurance.”
Hagin says the image he tries to maintain is a combination of a mom-and-pop shop and a modern dealership. He spent 15 years working for Toyota before launching his own repair center in 1998 (it moved to its current location in 2004), and the investment the dealership made in its professional image influenced the way he thinks about his shop’s presentation.
Trim trees Majestic Redwood trees line the front of Hagin’s property, but they grew unchecked before he bought the shop, and branches dangled to the ground and cluttered the property. He trimmed the trees, which are now an eye-pleasing accessory.
Fresh paint When Hagin first bought the 5,500-square-foot facility, boards were falling off the exterior and it was painted in an ugly brown and tan. He repaired the damaged wood sections and covered the building in an attractive hunter green and cream. He touches up paint regularly to keep the shop from looking weathered and dilapidated.
Cars in the lot “My Philosophy is that when I go to a restaurant, if there’s not cars in the parking lot, or the bathroom is dirty, I won’t eat there,” Hagin says. “I do the same thing with my business.” Hagin will strategically park staff vehicles and customer cars to make the shop appear full at all times. He always keeps a couple of spaces available close to the building for easy customer access.
Deep-cleaned throughout Hagin says his shop had attractive features when he bought it, it just wasn’t apparent because a layer of filth covered everything. Every inch of the building, inside and out, was deep cleaned and is now kept that way. “When you come in, it’s more like a dealership or a dentist’s office now,” Hagin says.
When Dave and Mary Kemnitz purchased their current shop 13 years ago, they were shocked at its condition. When it rained, it was impossible to walk through the parking lot without getting full of grease and oil. Abandoned vehicles littered the parking lot. If a customer was brave enough to enter, the lobby didn’t improve the experience much.
“Inside the office it was so dirty,” says Mary, co-owner of D&H Enterprises in Concord, Calif. “It wasn’t a place where a woman could come in, sit down and relax.”
The couple immediately got to work improving the image of the two-building business. Within a year, the turnaround was so impressive that the city recognized the cleanup by presenting the shop with a “green business of the year” award.
Now not a day goes by without a customer compliment, Mary says.
Cleared clutter A large shed was built on the property to contain used oil, filters and parts to prevent unsightly clutter in the shop. The shop also clears cars that customers decide not to repair by fixing and donating them through an independent program that Dave and Mary started.
Perfect parking lot Since moving their business to the property in 2000, Mary and Dave have repaved the parking lot twice. The lot is regularly cleaned to avoid a buildup of oil and grease.
Glossy floors The shop floors are seal coated, and cleaned regularly to maintain a high sheen.
Modern office The bright, color-coordinated office is stocked with a coffee bar, always-full cookie jar, and comfortable seating. Free Wi-Fi is available.
Jack the dog Mary and Dave say a huge part of the shop’s image is Jack, their golden retriever. Jack is a fixture at the shop and is used in marketing materials as well. He takes the customer experience to the next level.
“He’s definitely the main attraction,” Mary says. “If you’re in distress about your automobile, he seems to pick it up and senses it and comes over to make you feel better.”
Swedish Automotive hardly looks like a repair center. Its ultra-modern design, vast expanses of glass, and hidden parking lot all go against common auto-shop perceptions.
Owner Dave Winters says the building was originally slated to be a church. He worked with a designer and city officials to repurpose it as a new location for his auto repair business, which he’s run since 1983. Much of the design, such as its L shape that hides a parking lot in the rear, was developed to meet city codes. But Winters also wanted it to be a facility unlike any other, one that offered a high-level experience that exceeded customer expectations.
“We work really hard to be the vanguard of that experience of sending everyone out with a smile on their face saying, ‘Wow, those guys just blew me away,” Winters says.
Hidden parking lot The city of Seattle required the building to be built to the curb, with the parking lot concealed in the rear. The design makes the structure more attractive from the street, and customers are routinely impressed by how clean it makes the property appear.
Positive reading material Winters is very careful when selecting reading material for his lobby. Magazines are current, clean and family friendly. Titles such as National Geographic and Vogue make the cut. Anything with explicit language does not.
Glass everywhere Winters says between the huge windows on the wall and the stretches of glass on the ceiling, there’s not a dark spot in the building.
Impeccable work bays A broom and dustpan hang in each bay. Messes are cleaned right away to avoid tracking anything through the building. The shop floor is visible from the lobby, so cleanliness is crucial. “For a lot of people, when they get their cars worked on, it is really nerve wracking,” Winters says. “It’s the equivalent of going to the dentist or worse. If you can do anything to calm their nerves and make them feel like they’re being handled by professionals, that goes a long ways.”