Few businesses in the Mission go as far back as 1926, but Erie Auto-Truck
Repair, named for the street where it first resided, does.
“Erie might be one of the oldest surviving companies in the Mission,” said 53-year-old owner Ray Cashman on a recent Tuesday.
“And we never changed. It’s still a car and truck repair.”
He attributed the repair shop’s endurance to good, honest service and his father’s long-ago decision to buy land in the Mission District.
His father, Eugene Cashman, bought the repair shop in 1955 and moved it to 17th and Harrison streets for 11 years before he was able to buy land nearby on 18th and Harrison.
“My father developed this auto repair very well. [He] bought land on 18th Street in 1966 from the profit, constructed a building, and moved the business here,” he said, adding that he began to work part-time with his father in 1969 at age 14.
Erie now occupies a 5,000-square-foot building on the corner of 18th and Harrison streets, enough space to repair some 10 multipurpose vans at once. More open-air space adjoins the front of the building.
Cashman’s small office is situated on the front right corner of the building. He sits behind a desk equipped with a computer and telephone. One wooden chair is reserved for his guest.
“This land and the building were my father’s major achievement in developing Erie,” said Cashman, who had just finished carrying out an engine check on one of four Comcast vans. “I was lucky when he transferred this business and his skills to me in five years from 1976 to 1981.”
He said ownership meant he could lower prices by 20 percent.
Erie charges $95 per hour for labor for individuals, and $85 per hour for fleet clients.
“It really makes us competitive,” he said as one of his two employees worked nearby. Competitors who still rent their spaces charge $110 an hour (and up) for labor.
Celica Salon Inc. on Capp Street charges $128 per hour for labor. The rate at San Francisco Auto Repair Center on Florida Street is $120 per hour.
Celica Salon manager Thelma Sanchez said rent costs do contribute to her shop’s higher labor costs. However she considered the charge average and said she has no plans to lower rates.
Other shops’ rates are more competitive with Erie’s. J&L Automotive Repair owner Joe Xiao said he charged $95 per hour for labor to lure more customers.
“Our price is cheap because we long to get more clients. Besides, business is slow recently,” said Xiao, who just took over the auto repair in 2007.
Cashman, who lives in Marin County, said he doesn’t worry about other competitors. “The players aren’t really different from when I started this business back in the ’70s.”
In 1976, Cashman, who had just graduated from the University of California Los Angeles in business, began to take over the shop in what he calls a period of “transition” years that lasted until 1981.
“I really wanted to run this business,” he said. “I was young and lacked experience, so my father handed it over gradually to me. In the transition, my father who built the business had a hard time letting it go.”
In the end, Cashman was able to keep his father’s customers, and still mainly depends on word of mouth.
“We didn’t do much advertising,” said Cashman, who added that reviews on sites such as Yelp helped.
“I’ve been going to Ray for years and I have never been less than totally satisfied with his work and his honesty,” one reviewer, Suzanne C, said. “I never have felt like he tries to take advantage of a woman who doesn’t know much about cars.”
Cashman said half of Erie’s current clients are firms such as plumbing, carpentry and carpet-cleaning firms. He also has a contract with the U.S. General Service Administration to regularly check vehicles belonging to the federal government.
Cashman said the 1990s were his most profitable years, thanks mainly to the dot-com boom.
“This area was a more vibrant business place at that time,” he said, adding that Erie employed five workers until 1999.
But business began to slow in 2000 when the city’s dot-com industry crashed, Cashman said.
“People left this area, business activities dropped, and we started losing customers.”
And when the Sept. 11, 2001, attack happened, the economy only got worse, he added.
Cashman said things improved slightly starting in 2005, but that in the past two years the mortgage crisis has again dragged down business.
“It was really tough in 2008.”
Cashman cut three jobs in the past eight years, including one in 2008.
“It was hard to do but I had no choice,” he said. “But no matter how difficult, I have never been tempted to sell this repair shop.”
He said he would continue to run his business as he and his father have for the last half-century.
“I have no specific strategy to survive this economic downturn,” he said. “Not advertising … Being honest to clients, giving them our best works and charging reasonably are pretty effective to maintain loyal clients.”
Cashman said he plans to retire after 10 years and offer his three sons the opportunity to take over the business. Chris Cashman, 21, is a college student; Michael Cashman, 18, just finished high school; and stepson Tryfon Stathopoulos, 28, has a job unrelated to auto repair.
Should they decline to take over Erie, Cashman said he would sell it outside the family.
“That’s the way a business continues to run.”