Car repair shop trying to overcome bad location to thrive
SALISBURY - ?Richard Kelly shook his head last year as he watched a man paint the name of yet another new business on the sign at 1103 Statesville Boulevard.
Ever since Leon's Garage left in the 1980s, the location had been "jinxed or had a curse on it," said Kelly, who every day for 33 years has run past the service station next door to WSTP Radio.
"I remember seeing them with the ladder and painting the sign and thinking to myself, as quick as these businesses come and go, the paint won't dry good before he'll be out of business," Kelly said.
At least 10 businesses offering car stereos, limousine rentals, motorcycles, detailing and more have all failed, he said.
But a few weeks went by, and Integrity Auto Repair remained open.
Kelly stopped by and met owner Mark Kraus, his wife Charity and their six children.
"I felt so sorry for them, with the reputation of that site," Kelly said. "I even had my Bible study class pray for them because I hate to see them lose their shirt."
A few months went by, and the number of cars waiting for service grew. Customers started bringing their vehicles back for additional work and referring friends and neighbors.
Kelly watched Mark Kraus work on cars from early in the morning until after dark, including Saturdays.
Kelly began to change his mind.
"He's really making an effort here," Kelly recalled saying to himself. "And sure enough, he's prospering."
Last week, Kraus and his family celebrated the first anniversary of Integrity Auto Repair. The kids gave away homemade cookies and lemonade.
"I'm just extremely proud of him," Kelly said. "He's been there as long as six or seven other businesses were there combined, so he must be doing something right."
In an industry where consumers are wary of being ripped off, Kraus said he pledges to run his shop by the golden rule: treat customers as he would like to be treated.
"Dealing fairly with people," Kraus said. "That's the main thing."
He estimates 95 percent of his customers have returned. They appreciate the shop's honesty, he said.
"We tell the truth," he said.
Tow truck driver Breck Orshal endorsed Integrity on a recent Saturday when he delivered Francis Coker's car to Kraus.
"As much as I drive, you know the good ones from the bad ones," said Orshal, who works for ABC Towing of the Carolinas. "And he's really good."
Coker's BMW broke down on Interstate 85 as he was commuting from his job with the U.S. Department of Homeland Security in Atlanta to his home in Baltimore.
After receiving quotes that he thought were too high to replace a broken alternator, Coker heard a recommendation for Integrity Auto Repair from a friend of a friend.
"This place is a miracle," Coker said.
A self-taught mechanic, Kraus got his first car, a 1974 Dodge Challenger, before he could drive.
He enjoys machines and solving problems, a good combination for an auto mechanic. The family has a farm in Rowan County - last year they sold bread and produce at the Salisbury Farmers Market - and Kraus recently came up with a contraption made from lawn mower parts that helps him steer the cultivator on his tractor.
Born in New York, Kraus grew up Roman Catholic in New Jersey. He moved to Florida with his parents and attended college. He said he had a spiritual experience at age 18 and became a born-again Christian, eventually joining a church similar to the Mennonites.
He met his future wife in Tennessee, and the couple moved to Rowan County to join Cleveland Believer's Fellowship and become missionaries in Turkey, where they lived with their children for two years.
They started farming when they returned. It went well, "but it is just super hard work," Kraus said.
Charity Kraus said it became impossible to make a living farming and homeschool their six children - Tabitha, 12; Elisha, 11; Josiah, 9; Abigail, 7; Nathaniel, 5 and Thomas, 1. Another baby is on the way.
As the family traveled Statesville Boulevard on their way to and from the farmers market each week, Mark Kraus said he kept his eye on the service station with the curved glass windows.
When the previous business failed, he discussed with his wife the possibility of opening an auto repair shop.
He leased the garage and built the business from scratch, investing between $15,000 and $20,000, including installing two new lifts and painting the shop inside and out.
When he opened in August 2011, "I felt like the Maytag guy who sits there and wait for the phone to ring," Kraus said. "I had to overcome the horrible reputation of this place."
Customers began to arrive, one or two a day. Now the shop sees five or six customers a day."Basically, we just persevered," he said. "Eventually you do get jobs and word of mouth will get out. You just have to prove them wrong."
Integrity offers everything inspections to electrical system diagnosis and repair. Kraus will fix all makes and models, foreign and domestic.
"Everything from Volvo and BMW to Mercedes," he said. "Some people don't want to touch those cars, but I like the challenge. It really stretches you."
Kraus has taken on an apprentice from his current church, Harmony Believer's Fellowship. The young man's mother comes twice a week to do bookkeeping.
On Saturdays, Charity Kraus and all the children spend the day with Mark Kraus at the garage. Charity Kraus and the two oldest boys - Elisha and Josiah - have learned to do oil changes, replace thermostats and flush brakes.
Charity Kraus prefers to work alongside her husband rather than in the office. It gives them time together, considering he works 10- and 12-hour weekdays, she said.
The shop has been successful in part because people are hanging onto their cars longer in the bad economy, she said.
Like the name says, Integrity Auto Repair will offer a fair price and honest work, Charity Kraus said, adding "We are not out to rip anybody off." To contact the shop, call 704-431-4004. Contact reporter Emily Ford at 704-797-4264.