Pain in the Ass

America's Service Station claims to be the auto repair exception.So how come the high prices, cheap parts and minimal service warranties?

When embarking on a sting, one wants company. It can be rather frightening to go it alone, and so I hope you don't mind the royal we, for I now become it. We just feel more comfortable that way. If it makes you feel any better, you may imagine us as we actually are, a solitary reporter, armed as necessary with a Houston Press expense account.

Our target was a questionable auto repair outfit, which meant that we needed first an unquestionable mechanic. Such a fellow is hard to find, but in what would seem the most unlikely of places, we think we found him. Ray Moon runs Beechnut Auto Repair out of a strip center on Beechnut, surrounded by small churches and blow-away businesses. He wears shorts and a blue shirt with "Ray" stenciled over the chest. He has a paunch and thick, dirty hands. In seven years the Better Business Bureau has never received a complaint about Ray's place, and in terms of customer satisfaction, Beechnut Auto Repair is ranked by the American Automobile Association as one of the area's top shops. Inside, a softball trophy sits atop the water cooler. The walls are covered with various certifications and placards, generally testifying that "Quality only happens when you care enough to do your best."

"We're nothing but a bunch of clichés, man," said Ray.

Phillip Tringali and Todd Hayes: People you swear by. Not at.
Deron Neblett
Phillip Tringali and Todd Hayes: People you swear by. Not at.

Working toward a better name for his industry and, he freely admits, more exposure for his business, Ray sometimes offers his services to the media. He knew just how to proceed. What we need, he said, is a good car. He likes Ford, so make it a Ford with low mileage, in general good repair.

This was quickly requisitioned. Our car was a Grand Marquis, silver and fat, just four years old. "Perfect!" said Ray, and popping the hood, he checked the car over from top to bottom. The coolant was dirty and low. He divined a problem with the mass air flow sensor. Otherwise, the Marquis appeared healthy enough, and having established this, Ray fished through a cardboard box until he found an old spark plug wire, with a hole burned through. He took the good wire off and put the bad one on. The car, in idle, suddenly felt like a panting dog. Ray explained that it was "a very easy problem, very common and straightforward," one that he had seen at least a hundred times.

The spark plug wire would serve as the basic skills test. The mass air flow problem was trickier. It would go for extra credit.

Our friendly mechanic waved as we departed. At first we felt absurd in our car, kind of old and stodgy, a bit like our grandfather. And then, at a filling station, as we watched the car gulp down $24.96, an African-American gentleman looked our way and said of our ride, "Ooh, that thing looks comfortable!"

We looked again. Yes, it was rather posh, wasn't it? The Grand Marquis was us, and we were the Grand Marquis. We climbed aboard again, realizing we just may have special talent for the role of sucker.

"We're the good guys in a bad news business," Todd Hayes insisted.

It was he who started this whole thing. The reputation of auto repair was such that Hayes thought he could make a bundle simply by repairing cars efficiently and honestly. In 1986 he began hiring what he thought were good guys and began setting up shop in high-income areas. The stores opened early and closed very late, and in most cases offered same-day service. Then Hayes began hiring restaurant people to run the stores, because who would know more about good service?

For 11 years Hayes balanced virtue and profit as only a Baptist businessman can. Things went more or less according to plan, and when Hayes sold out to his partners in 1997, he became a millionaire.

He left at the helm a crew of restaurant people. With national ambitions, they decided they needed a national name. Mobile Car Care was rechristened "America's Service Station," and as one of the partners later confessed, they were all happily unaware the acronym made them an ASS.

ASS seems to have traveled a long time on Hayes's momentum, despite an apparent shortage of marketing savvy. Within a community, only the Better Business Bureau and AAA track the customer approval of an auto repair shop; membership in either organization has thus become a stamp of credibility that customers look for. But as ASS partner Phillip Tringali told it, ASS couldn't see the value of either membership and so declined to join.

The logic goes that ASS had its own procedure for gathering customer feedback. Every customer would receive a questionnaire and a phone call. A special ASS hot line and e-mail address would accept complaints, and all complaints would be resolved within 48 hours.

With this process, the managers of ASS felt they could monitor their own customer approval rating. What did they need the Better Business Bureau for? The ASS slogan was "Service you swear by. Not at." The shuttles carried the words "When we take you for a ride, it's to work."

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