Carmelo Rios was still relatively new to Lincoln Square Service in Chicago, IL, when the previous owner decided to retire and offered Rios the opportunity of his lifetime. "I came in as a manager, and five weeks later I became a partner," says Rios.
“A year and a half later, the ex-owner told me, ‘Look, I gotta get out. I’m just tired.’ I said, ‘it is what it is. Tell me what you want to do.’ So we made a deal, and that’s why I’m still here.”
The “why” behind Rios’ success may not be quite that simple. His dedication to quality service and customer retention has helped him grow a modern service business in a setting rich with history.
“We still have second- and third-generation customers coming down here from families whose cars we have serviced since the early ’80s,” says Rios. “They keep coming here even though the ex-owner isn’t here anymore. They still trust me, and they still trust the people who work for me. And they love this place.”
Lincoln Square Service was first established in 1928 as a gas station and generations of Chicago families have trusted their cars to the Lincoln Square crew — the shop services both domestic and import vehicles.
While customer retention is the backbone of the business, Rios and his wife Gloria (pictured on adjacent page), who runs the shop office, realize that building new customers is key to the future of the business.
“We have a lot of customers from Angie’s List,” says Gloria. “We always win the Super Service Award every year, so they see with Angie’s List that we have a good rating and that brings us a lot of new customers, a lot of people who are new to the area.”
Local legend also brings the occasional curious customer. “I had a customer who told me that he was going to come here because he found out that Al Capone brought his cars to this place,” says Gloria. “I was like, ‘Don’t tell me that! Is that true?’” Fact or fiction, the neighborhood legend has stuck and now the Rioses are revered in the neighborhood for their service-oriented mentality.
“That’s what it’s really all about — customer service,” says Rios. “It’s really something that you have to be born with, and I like it.”
Rios’ skills don’t end at his warm smile and patient demeanor, he really shines in the shop. Rios discovered his passion for cars early on and participated in a trade school in high school that allowed him to complete automotive training during the school day. “I fell in love with it,” says Rios. “My dad used to have old cars to work on, and my brother used to own a gas station and body shop, and I used to work with him. My friend had an auto recycling yard, and I worked with him, too.”
Rios came to Chicago from Boston in 1982 and finally landed at Lincoln Square Service in 1998.
The shop has seven bays and can accommodate eight additional cars in the lot on site. Being located in the heart of Chicago’s north side, space is at a premium, but Rios works together with other businesses in the neighborhood and is able to borrow the lot across the street for finished cars.
“I like the location,” says Rios. “A lot of great people are moving to the area. A lot of new people started moving here a few years back. There’s a lot of new construction, a lot of new cars. It’s a big change.”
While Rios intends to maintain the shop’s historic façade, he continually strives to keep the building up-to-date making updates to equipment and systems throughout the facility.
In addition to improving the facility, Rios also makes great efforts to keep his team of four technicians and one service writer as educated as possible.
The shop recruits employees from local tech schools, and with new technology coming every year, they need to keep learning. “We give them the opportunity to get started because if you don’t have the experience, other people won’t want to hire you. Carmelo teaches them and trains them so they can learn,” says Gloria.
In addition to quality, value is also important to the Rioses. “We charge $78 an hour,” says Gloria. “I did an analysis around our area, and we are $19 cheaper than the average of our competition. We want to keep it like that to help the city. I know a lot of people are not working now, and we understand that. But we want people to keep their cars in good shape so they can find a job and keep getting from point A to point B.”
In addition to keeping their labor rate low, the Rioses also give discounts to students and senior citizens.
This focus on the health of the neighborhood has paid off for Carmelo and Gloria, and while he still works 60-hour weeks, he knows what’s really important in life. The shop is closed on Sundays, so the Rios clan can get to the business of running their family — a balance that works for this dedicated shop owner couple.