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‘My flag needs to be raised:’ How Emily’s Garage is retooling the auto shop

Emily Chavez, owner of four auto shops across the Seattle area, is committed to helping customers—particularly women—hold their own in the male-dominated auto industry.

Key business takeaways

  • Creating a great customer experience can set your business apart, particularly when you’re addressing the needs of clients whom the competition overlooks
  • Diversifying revenue streams may bolster your business in a pinch (and a pandemic)
  • Don’t be afraid to challenge out-dated norms in your industry—or as Emily Chavez says: “My tools, my rules”

When customers walk into Emily’s Garage, a small chain of auto repair shops in Washington state, they ask the usual questions: What’s wrong with my car? How much will this cost? But occasionally they wonder, “Who’s Emily?” 

“A lot of people come in and they go, ‘Oh, you really exist? I thought it was just the name,’” said the garage’s owner and namesake.

Emily is, in fact, Emiliana “Emily” Chavez—the former tech analyst and entrepreneur who is challenging a male-dominated industry with four, woman-owned auto repair shops across the Seattle area. The branding is intentional; Chavez has put herself forward as the face of the company, partly because she wanted to recreate the personal relationship people once had with their mechanics, but also to put other women at ease. Everything about the Emily’s Garage experience—from the logo to the service providers—lets her customers know: You’re welcome here.

Women hold just 23% of jobs in the auto industry (and Latinx women only 3%)—one of the various reasons women may feel uncomfortable when seeking car repairs. And that was something Emily could deeply relate to. Despite her upbringing—the daughter of a mechanic, who grew up watching her dad fix his truck—she said her first visit to an auto shop alone was frustrating. “I was like, ‘I’m not an idiot,’” she said. “They didn’t even bother to understand who I was or my background. They just assumed I was a woman so I didn’t know.”

When she’d saved enough to start her own business in 2017, she vowed to overhaul this experience. Bringing in her expertise from the business and tech world, she has focused on creating a customer experience where women aren’t treated like they know nothing—and are even given the chance to learn.  

I want to give women of color the strength to know that they can do it too.

Emily Chavez

And there’s another reason she’s put herself front and center: As a Latinx woman, she wants to make a change, moving toward equity for women of color. “I felt like, as a minority-owned, woman-owned business, my flag needs to be raised,” Chavez said. “Because it’s still not common, and I want to give women of color the strength to know that they can do it too. I want people to know that about us and that there’s not an Emily’s Garage corporate overlord.” 

‘I feel like I’m living his dream’

From her first job out of college—helping truck drivers stranded on the roadside at a Kenworth Trucks, Inc. call center—Chavez later rose up the ranks as a program manager and data analyst at T-Mobile and Microsoft. For 15 years, she tracked the corporations’ customer experience all across the globe, until she thought: “We could do this at a micro-level, just as these big companies do.”

Her true inspiration, however, came from her family. Chavez grew up in a small mountain town in southern New Mexico, where her father and his eight siblings all worked blue collar jobs like auto repair or manufacturing. Her father never opened a shop, although he wanted to. “I realized, ‘Oh, snap, this is my background—this is what I was meant to do,’” Chavez said. “I feel like I’m living his dream.”

She’s borrowed other motifs from her father’s era too. The shop’s logo, decor, and even its insistence on customer service exude nostalgic comfort. “I wanted to take it back to those days when you knew your mechanics and you trusted them and you greeted them at the door by name,” she said. “It’s not like the big box experience, where you’re just a transaction. I wanted to have that hometown feel, but in the city.”

Her initial idea was a car inspection company, filling a service gap that emerged after Seattle cracked down on rideshare safety. There were thousands of Uber and Lyft drivers who needed inspections, and few ASE-certified mechanics free to complete the task. Emily’s Garage stepped into the void and completed 30,000 inspections for Lyft in its first year. 

Despite her early success, Chavez decided to expand her offerings to repair and maintenance, with two new shops in Everett and Tacoma, Washington, so the business’ future wouldn’t be tied to Lyft. It was a fortuitous move: When rideshare demand plummeted in the pandemic, and the company pulled out of its contract, Chavez powered through to amass a whole other list of clients, including Hertz and Enterprise. She also relied on the power of word of mouth to supplement her direct client list—customers would walk in off the street and then recommend the garage to their family, friends, and community.

A vehicle for education 

Since the moment Chavez opened her first retail auto shop, she’s been dedicated to creating a welcoming environment. If a customer has a complaint, for example, the mechanics offer to bring them back into the shop and explain the issue directly. “Most shops won’t let people come anywhere near the back,” she said. “But I want them to understand what they’re paying for, why the estimate is what it is, and the problem. A lot of customers really appreciate that. So a big part of it is educating customers on their vehicles.”

Another one of Chavez’s priorities is creating an atmosphere where people of marginalized identities feel safe. When a customer steps into Emily’s Garage, they wait in a clean lobby with colorful art on the walls, “not like a grimy shop,” Chavez said. If you call to make an appointment—although you can also do that online—you won’t be patronized or harassed. “All my service providers are women,” Chavez said. “I want that voice on the phone to be a woman.”

Even the name is part of the experience. “We were very strategic when we came up with the name,” she said. “You see A1 Auto, you see Tony’s or whatever—they’re all these masculine names. And I wanted something that stuck out.”

Carving this niche has paid off for Emily’s Garage, and not just in the way it’s rebounded from COVID-19. Chavez said she’s noticed that word of mouth brings in more women, LGBTQ customers, and others whose needs she sought to meet in her business model. “It’s exciting because I feel like I can make a change,” she said. “The automobile industry is a hundred-year-old-plus industry, and it’s male-dominated. When we started the shop, we said we want to do it differently.”

Chavez relishes those moments in the shop when a woman opens up—or even when a man can’t believe she’s the owner: “All the sales reps that come in are men, but few and far between, there’ll be a woman who comes in, and she’s just jazzed. It’s just so cool. They’re my biggest fans.”

Her tools, her rules 

Emily’s Garage also emphasizes teamwork and work-life balance—something that Chavez says is often sidelined in the industry. Most shops pay flat-rate wages, meaning mechanics are compensated by the job. As a result, they end up competing to complete as many jobs as possible, reluctant to help someone or share knowledge in case it gives another an edge. 

Chavez avoids flat-rate pricing for this reason, she said: “In our environment, I want it to be collaborative. I want everybody working together and saying, ‘Hey, I’m stuck on this. Can you help me?’ And there’s no problem with a master tech helping a B-level tech. I want collaboration, you know? And that tends to be how women are. We like to collaborate.”

In this way, it really is Emily’s Garage: What Chavez says goes. She said technicians have had to adjust to a workplace that’s radically different from others: “I’ve had guys come in that are so set in their ways. Even though they have all the skills, their attitude is, ‘Well, I’ve been doing this for 35 years, so I know better than you.’ And I’m like, ‘Well, yeah, and you don’t know this shop better than me.’ My tools, my rules, you know?”

 If our employees are happy, our customers will be happy, and that’s proven to be a really good model.

emily chavez

Also outside the norm, employees at Emily’s Garage work 40 hours a week, and the shop is closed on weekends to ensure the team gets a break. “I don’t want to have more money in my pocket,” Chavez said. “I’d rather have more money in their pockets so they’re happy with their jobs. I want to have a good work environment. If our employees are happy, our customers will be happy, and that’s proven to be a really good model.”

Already, Chavez has built four shops in two and a half years, but the dream doesn’t stop there. She envisions auto shops up and down the West Coast—the Emily name, welcoming her customers home.

The information above is provided for educational and informational purposes only. It is not intended to be a substitute for professional advice and may not be suitable for your circumstances. Unless stated otherwise, references to third-party links, services, or products do not constitute endorsement by Yelp.

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