Despite essential status, some San Francisco mechanics struggle during shelter-in-place


Photo: Camden Avery

Car repair garages are open and functioning citywide as "essential businesses" under the shelter-in-place mandate, to help keep the city's essential workers and delivery infrastructure in place.

But although the shutdown impacted repair shops citywide as business has slowed down, the degree of damage done varies widely, and is partly the luck of the draw.

Al Chan, who's worked for 25 years at Clement Auto Services (338 32nd Ave.), said he was keeping curtailed hours, operating between 10 a.m. and 5 p.m. now to adjust to reduced demand, and staying by himself until 9 or 10 p.m. to order parts and prepare for the next day.

But founding partner Tom Cheng, who started the business in 1979, is in his 70s. He had to step away from the business in mid-March for his own safety, and then suffered from a stroke, leaving Chan shorthanded.

"We are putting our life at risk," Chan said. "People need to get their vehicles repaired, they need to get to work to put food on the table."

In addition, Chan is now facing higher costs, thanks to an ill-timed 100% rent increase for their space despite the shelter-in-place order, along with a warning from the new landlord that nonpayment would result in a $150 daily fine.

"For something like this to happen to us," Chan said, "this is really bad." He said the business had applied for both major federal COVID-19 stimulus grants, but they were among the many small businesses that were refused.

Instead, Chan is running a GoFundMe to help pay the business's rent and expenses to see them through the shutdown, with the hope they'll be able to pull through on the other side. 

Ted & Al's Service Center (624 Stanyan) manager Buzz Nasey told a similar story.

"There was a bit of a precipitous drop in those first couple of weeks," Nasey said, and the demand for their AAA-partnership towing services remained low.

But Nasey said he expected the business to pull through, and jobs have been picking up as people stuck at home decide to get non-urgent work done.

"Mostly people are sheltered and viewing it as somewhat of an opportunity to drop the car off, as they don't need the vehicle," he said. After curtailing hours severely in March, Ted & Al's is back to being open daily, but closing at 3 or 5 p.m. instead of their regular 6 p.m.

Tiger Scooter Repair (941 Geary Street), which opened less than a year ago, has seen about a 70% drop in business, said co-owner Chris Varble.

"The numbers fell like crazy but we're still here, and it has been starting to pick up a little bit more. We're still barely scraping by but it's definitely not what it used to be."

Varble remained optimistic overall, saying they expected to be able to bounce back eventually.