On The Road

Surviving the pandemic as a small business

This is normally a column about auto repair, but I’ve had quite a few requests to describe what it’s been like to run a small business during a pandemic.

As an essential service, we have remained open throughout this crisis. My heart goes out to all of the small businesses that had to close or operate under a multitude of restrictions.

I’ve been running the business without my father’s help for 31 years, and this has been the single most difficult thing I have had to do. I’m looking forward to the day when things calm down. Keeping my staff and customers safe was the most important thing on my mind when this all started. Even before the shelter-in-place order was issued for the Bay Area, we had started cleaning more than ever before.

When the shelter-in-place directive was announced March 16, I became sick to my stomach. The first thing I did was check to make sure we were an essential service. Once I knew we could stay open, I met with my staff to discuss many possible scenarios and tried to stay positive. I told my employees we just needed to weather this for a month and then everything would be OK. Unbeknownst to them, I was extremely worried and under a tremendous amount of pressure. Would this be the end of our 59-year legacy?

The next day, I stood on the street corner of our shop – and it was eerie. The once-bustling intersection was empty. Doing my best to stay calm, I walked back in the shop and started calling customers to let them know that we remained open for service, taking all of the precautions possible and would even pick up the cars of those feeling vulnerable.

New normal

We experienced a decline in business those next eight weeks. We constantly changed strategies to better interact with the public and work on their cars in the safest possible way. In the beginning, it seemed difficult and tedious, but after a while it became the new normal.

Throughout the first three months, we did not always have enough cars to work on, but I got creative and found odd jobs around the shop for my employees. I was also able to work on my own cars, thus fulfilling the prophecy that a mechanic’s car is the last car to be worked on. One of my proudest achievements during this crisis is that I did not have to lay off any of my staff.

Throughout the pandemic, we have experienced ups and downs in the amount of work. In the beginning, there were fewer cars because people were scared to leave their homes. After the first three months, it almost seemed like things were getting back to normal. However, as we enter October, business seems to be slowing a bit. As the work ebbs and flows, so do my emotions. It makes me see how vulnerable all small businesses can be.

This has been the most difficult time of my career emotionally, physically and financially. The support we have received from our customers and the community has made all the difference – and for that, I am eternally grateful. When I talk to our customers, they always ask how we are doing. Their empathy means a lot and makes me want to work even harder.

We are weathering the storm one day at a time. We will get through this.

Matt Pataky owns Sunnyvale Foreign Car Service, 15 Pioneer Way, Mountain View. For more information, call 960-6988, email This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. or visit sunnyvaleforeign-car.com.

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