By STEPHEN FLANAGAN JACKSON
Vehicle repair shops are a dime a dozen in the South Shore area. That is no surprise in this auto-oriented society in which we live. But one full-service auto repair center stands out from all the others in more ways than one.
In no particular order, the first thing you notice about At Home Auto Care, located on the Tamiami Trail in Ruskin, are the two, small, frisky, mop-haired doggies who greet customers upon entrance into the reception area. Bailey and sidekick Carly are not your typical, growling, hostile junkyard guard dogs. Sweet, kind and affectionate, the two mascots light up the place instantly with their baleful eyes, perky ears and bushy, wagging tails—a pair of cuddly balls of cotton! Just like their owners, the dogs come in daily Monday through Friday from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. Bailey, a Maltese, is older at three and a half years and bigger. His smaller, one-year-old companion is a Bichon Shiht’tzu.
But a person does not go to At Home Auto Care to see cute canines. You come here for parts, repairs, and service: whatever ails your vehicle. The next big, pleasant surprise is the physical condition of the shop–from the grounds outside to the interior reception area to the large, ample, service bays in the rear. If no one told you differently, you would think from the looks of the place that you were at either an elite private physician’s office or a top-level executive suite. In the reception area, the waiting room is so well-appointed with furniture and decor that you are hard-pressed to feel you are in an auto repair or mechanic’s shop. Likewise, if you glance into the service area, it is immaculate. No grease and no oil stains on the floors. You could probably eat breakfast off the floor of the service bay area, it is so clean. All tools are well organized. And the team of servicemen and mechanics go about their chores like busy bees.
It is not only the karma exuded by the At Home Auto Care facility and staff that impresses a visitor. Once the rubber hits the road in the sense of the actual repairs and maintenance that prompted you to bring your vehicle here, you are presented with a job well done and a fair bill with no hidden or unexpected charges. This generates other characteristics not noted in many repair shops: trust and integrity in the job as well as in the costs for parts and labor. The shop is old school when it comes to basics, but it is also high tech when it comes to diagnostics and repairs.
Visiting with the owners of At Home Auto Care at their location on 2003 U.S. 41 in Ruskin, exactly one mile south of S.R. 674 (College Avenue) it is obvious that all the positive attributes exemplified by the shop flow from the experience, workmanship, and personalities of owners Julie and Lee Davis, the transplanted snowbirds who have made the Ruskin area, and their shop, home for some 40-plus years.
Julie Gale Davis shared some of the past, present, and future aspects of the Davis’ business and life near the banks of the Little Manatee River, a stone’s throw from its beginning site, and even now merely a long walk or a short drive down US 41.
Davis recalled, “We started our business in 1991 at 1801 Kofresi Ct., just between Shell Point Road west and the river, then also the site of our home. We eventually sold that place, which is now known as Pirate Point Resort. “
In the years prior to that, Lee Davis had been working as a mechanic for another shop, when he was unexpectedly laid off by his place of employment. “Our home was zoned commercial at the time, so we decided to start our own automotive repair shop,” recalled Julie.
“ Lee worked out of the garage between our house and a studio apartment. We had to come up with a name, and we wanted something that would start with the letter A, so we could show up first in the phone book. You remember those don’t you?
“What better than to name it At Home Auto Care, which we found to be very appropriate,” said Julie.
So, with the help of others in the area, especially one special person, Charlie Dagen, who would send customers to the Davis’ newly-opened business if the shop where Dagen worked could not handle it, the Davises started making it, one spark plug, one broken radiator hose, one timing belt at a time.
Julie explained that Lee was very good at diagnosing cars. “After a little while we had enough customers to expand. We built a garage next to the home. It started as two bays with two carports and a little office. Over the years we continued to expand that place by adding a roof and lifts outside, closing in the car ports and moving the office up front.”
Home, office and shop were at that location for 16 years until the Davises sold that property during the housing boom in 2005.
“We built our current shop on 41 S. from the ground up in 2007,” said Julie. “ Funny story. I believe the Field Restaurant was located on the property we are on now, and that is where Lee and I first met, having lunch at the Field Restaurant. That was in 1984. “
When the Davises moved to the new location, “Everyone wanted to know what we were going to call it,” said Julie. “I responded with, ‘At Home Auto Care’ of course, even though we were not at home anymore.
“So when planning the office area, I tried to make it so you felt as at home as possible. We make fresh baked cookies; the dogs, Bailey and Carly, are there to greet you. We keep our business spotless. We offer courtesy shuttle service within a reasonable distance. We try to make our customers feel as though they are not just customers but friends, also.
“ We work on all makes and models, including most Euros, Asian and domestic and also diesels 1 ton or less. We have a very good Euro tech who loves working on them. We have great employees who work for us, including Bree Regis Temme, Alex Bell, and Nick Camacho. We are blessed to have them as part of our team.
“We do all mechanical automotive repairs from tire repairs, new tires, oil changes, batteries, fluid flushes, tune ups, ac repair, brakes, computer diagnostics, replacement of engine and transmissions, etc. We are a full-service repair shop.”
Lee has been in the automotive business since he was 18, and he is now 72 years old. He moved here from New Jersey in 1984. Prior to helping her husband start and run the business, Julie handled several different jobs, including house cleaner and waitress.
Lee was born in Chester, Pennsylvania, and moved to New Jersey with his family when he was in high school. Julie grew up in Wisconsin and moved to the Ruskin area in 1976 with her family when she was a junior in high school. Neither went to college. “We went to the school of hard knocks and just plain old working hard,” said Julie.
Lee and Julie Davis are both members of First Baptist Church of Ruskin. You know when you enter their establishment that they are believers as their walls are tastefully adorned with uplifting scripture.
Discussing their auto repair shop, Julie commented “this line of business can be quite challenging and difficult at times. There are a lot of stigmas that this industry has to overcome. The biggest issue is the trust factor from customers. Auto repairs shops have received a lot of blows with negativity. Believe me, I don’t like spending my hard-earned money on repairs on anything either, but it happens. We always try to do the best we can. We keep up with the ever-changing technology. I tell people that being an auto tech is like being a physician. The difference is that typically the body has all the same parts and automobiles change every year. This industry is constantly changing and (fewer) people are willing to get into the field.
“We feel we are fair in our pricing and do a quality job for you. Yes, there is always going to be someone who thinks you charge too much or charge more than someone else does. We have a joke at work that some people have an ‘ever since you disease,’ which reflects some customers’ attitude of ‘ever since you worked on my car.’
“I love it when I get letters from customers or great reviews online from customers thanking us for our work. I do appreciate them. With more and more people using the internet now, we do get our bad reviews at times. All I can say is we do our best. Do we make mistakes at times? Absolutely, and we fess up and take care of it. There is no perfect person in this world.”
Julie added, “As the years have passed, we have seen a lot of changes in the Ruskin area. Development is going crazy, but this has led to us having new customers each and every day. The day will come when we will have to retire, but until then we keep moving on and repair vehicles to the best of our ability.
“You can find us at 2003 S. US Hwy 41 in Ruskin, at our website athomeauto.net or on Facebook At Home Auto Care.”