• Found Downtown: The honest mechanic
     | April 22,2013

    Last month my car turned 11, and to celebrate, I took it to Auto Craftsmen in Montpelier for a 44-point inspection. The woman at the front desk, Erica, asked for my phone number and told me to be ready to answer it at a moment’s notice during the day. “For you to get the best service,” she said, “we need to be able to contact you to tell you something needs repair. If you don’t answer, your car gets pulled out and you’re last in line.”

    OK, I thought. She’s serious. So when my phone rang later that afternoon, I picked it up immediately. It was Erica with a full diagnosis: my car was generally in good shape, but there were several items in need of repair. She told me that my catalytic converter had stopped working efficiently. The drum brakes were rusty, and a bent lateral arm was creating an unusual wear pattern on the rear left tire. She also suggested I try to change my air filter myself, since this was a relatively easy thing to do and might save me money.

    Later, when I went returned to the shop, Erica gave me a five-page document that listed all of the services my car had received, complete with before and after photos of my drum brakes. This was perhaps the first time anybody had ever explained anything to me in depth about my car, and I was riveted. I couldn’t wait to go home and show off the new vocabulary I’d learned. Does your car have drum brakes or disc brakes? I’d ask my friends, kicking their tires. I see that your “check engine” light is on. Maybe it’s time to replace that old catalytic converter.

    I love my car. Specifically, I love that it’s moved me across the country and back, that it allows me to zip south to Massachusetts at a moment’s notice to visit my 2-year-old nephew, and that it can function as a soundproof booth/karaoke nightclub.

    But I could do without its constant appetite for gasoline, the periodic job of changing its oil and tires, the times when things rattle inexplicably inside it, and the idea of putting any energy or effort into learning how to maintain it myself.

    Auto Craftsmen exists because of people like me who would rather ignore our cars and sit around eating snacks instead. The first thing you’ll notice upon entering the shop, located on Route 2, is that it provides a perfect environment for sitting around and eating snacks. The waiting room features couches, magazines, books, houseplants, and a countertop stocked with coffee, tea, crackers, and even fresh-baked cookies on occasion.

    And the indulgences don’t end there. After you reclaim your car from the technicians, you’ll discover a small gift waiting inside for you on the passenger seat. Often this is a token for a free soft serve ice cream at the Dairy Creme next door; at other times it’s Chap Stick or a tiny wind-up flashlight. Anybody who knows me at all knows that the fastest way to my heart is through food and presents, and I’d likely be a loyal customer even if these were the only perks that the shop provided me.

    But wait! There’s more.

    If you’re not as influenced as I am by free cookies and presents, there’s Auto Craftsmen’s Car Care Club card. This costs $119.95 — the value of about three oil changes — and includes four oil changes, a free state inspection, a car rental, and discounts on strut replacements, tune-ups, and a dozen other services.

    The shop might also win you over with its crew of Automotive Service Excellence (ASE) Certified L1 Master Technicians; or the fact that it uses G-Oil, a biodegradable motor oil; or that it sells hot-pink windshield wiper blades to support breast cancer awareness. As if that’s not enough, it organizes regular canned food drives to benefit the local food shelf and the Women’s Car Care Clinics to promote better communication between female car owners and technicians.

    The force behind all of the perks and services that Auto Craftsmen provides is its owner, Amy Mattinat. An Ohio native, Mattinat claims she has oil in her blood. Her first husband, whom she describes as a “motorhead,” was a mechanic, so she spent much of her early adulthood in repair shops.

    As much as Mattinat knows about the craft of auto mechanics, she’s equally versed in marketing and communications. In 2003, when she realized that it didn’t have enough business to sustain new growth, she began to study with a marketing consultant. “As soon as I became his student,” she said, “the business began to grow every time I implemented new ideas. It was fascinating to watch.”

    Mattinat claims to have two principal roles at Auto Craftsmen: to support her staff and to translate her technicians’ work into language that her customers can understand. “A good repair shop is one that’s going to communicate to you so you can understand what’s going on,” she said. “The only way people come to trust us is when they realize we’re here to take care of them.”

    The Women’s Car Care Clinics, offered at the shop mostly in January and February but also by demand in the summer, focus on the language barrier that often exists for female car owners. “So many of my customers — and especially women — don’t know the language of cars,” said Mattinat. “The clinic is all about educating women so they can understand what’s happening, they’re in control, they can ask the right questions, and no one is going to take advantage of them.”

    In short, a visit to Auto Craftsmen is akin to discovering a family of unicorns in your backyard or locating the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow. It is a wonderful thing to discover that there is, in fact, such a thing as an honest mechanic.

    Marija Zagarins’ column profiles independent businesses around central Vermont. She lives in Montpelier.

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