This year’s Shop of the Year Winner has a long-standing reputation as the go-to place for vehicle repair and service. But, as we explore in our full feature of Master Mechanic High Park, it always ensures to look after the community, especially in the last year
Josie Candito, owner of Master Mechanic High Park (middle), is flanked by business partners and shop technicians Mike Tavares (left) and Rui Silvestre (right).
Master Mechanic High Park has received a long list of accolades.
Just this fall, it was recognized by Now Magazine’s Readers’ Choice as Best Car Service in Toronto. It won all five automotive categories in the Toronto Star’s Readers’ Choice Awards.
And now MMHP has been recognized as the CARS magazine 2021 Shop of the Year.
The shop, nestled in a busy west-end Toronto neighbourhood just off Dundas Street West, east of popular High Park, is owned by Josie Candito, an accountant by trade who fell in love with the automotive aftermarket.
After joining Master Mechanic’s head office in 1992, an opportunity came up for her to own her own shop in the franchise. In 1999, the doors opened and she hasn’t looked back.
“I guess I had the entrepreneurial spirit in me; to be on my own,” Candito said. “When you’re talking to customers and you’re building something, I guess there was something in me that I just loved it. And when this location came up, I just loved the area.”
She believes her accounting background set her up to be a successful shop owner, despite not having any formal training as an automotive technician.
“Having those skills is definitely a must,” Candito said. “I guess one thing I understood was the numbers.”
And once she was in the business, she realized the rigours of being a service advisor and technician. “I have nothing but deep respect [for those jobs].”
Candito has two business partners, Mike Tavares and Rui Silvestre. Both are also technicians in the shop. Silvestre was recognized in 2017 as the CARS Technician of the Year.
“Rui is just one in a million. I’ve never seen anything he can’t do. He is a big part of the business,” Candito praised. “And the support Mike gives — he’s just so supportive, so calm. We just click as a trio. The top of the leadership board is strong together, so it trickles down.”
Indeed, Candito said she does everything she can to ensure her staff enjoys coming to work.
“At our shop, everybody’s important. We’re all equal. Nobody’s better than anybody else. We all work hard, and there’s no feeling of ‘I’m superior to anybody,’” she said. “Obviously, there are leaders. But nobody’s just sitting in the back room. We have to lead by example. And not only in our community, but for our employees. We all have to be role models. So those are all things and I’m very particular about.”
Furthermore, Candito ensures they’re properly trained to serve any client who walks through their doors.
“You have to be able to repair the car to keep the customer happy. So you if your mechanics can’t repair [or] your technicians are not repairing [vehicles] properly, well, you’re going to have comebacks. So if you’re not training then you’re not advancing,” she said.
Candito works with Mark Lemay, owner of Auto Aide in Barrie, Ontario, to ensure her techs are up to date.
“Technology is going [forward] and you’re just standing still, if you’re not investing in them, you’re not going to move forward, you’re not going to be able to diagnose, you’re not going to be able to [repair] those cars,” she said. “So you always have to keep forward. Not just one year — it’s always a constant.”
Master Mechanic High Park, at the corner of Howard Park and Dundas Street West in Toronto.
But just as she looks after her staff, Candito prioritizes looking after the community around her.
“My personal goal is to be part of the community. I come from very humble family. My parents are immigrants and seeing how they struggled, I always wanted to make sure that I could help them and the community,” she said.
Candito works with The Redwood, a women’s shelter to help empower women to start over again. Many of them are in programs to get them involved in the trades.
She also works with local non-profits like the Parkdale Food Bank and Stone Soup Network, which shares products and services with those in need. She works with local schools and supports community groups like Black Lives Matter and Indigenous causes. She’s even sponsored a child who needed speech therapy.
“Any group that comes forward to us, we help. Anybody, I can help, I will,” she said.
When COVID-19 hit, she did what she could to encourage people to shop local and support local businesses that were struggling due to restrictions and lockdowns.
“It’s so important to remember to support local. We support each other as business leaders. Remember, we need to support each other,” she said.
One important thing to Candito was to ensure her shop stayed open during the height of the pandemic so they could continue to serve the community.
She doesn’t do it for the recognition or to win awards like Shop of the Year. She does it because, as she tells her business partners Tavares and Silvestre, she feels it’s the right thing to do.
“This is who I am and they know I’m different, and this is me,” Candito said. “They supported me 100 per cent. It was important to me. And if you want the community to invest in you, then you need to give back. You need to be there for them.”
From left, Darko Jakovljevic, Brandon Leal, Michael Tavares, Tenzin Wangdu, Josie Candito, Dima Zhovnovach, Rui Silvestre, Pablo Olivera, Ian Ahunin, Nathalie Vega, Daniel Da Costa, Helen Shumilin and Charlie, chief dog officer (front)
She is also deeply involved in the industry. Candito works on committees to mentor people in the industry, surveying members and increasing membership with the Automotive Industries Association of Canada.
The way she sees it, it’s important to be a member because the aftermarket is at a critical juncture.
“They are looking after us,” Candito said. “They were essential to keep us an essential service when [COVID-19] was all going down. They’re the ones advocating to keep our data to ‘Your Car. Your Data.’ to make sure that, in a few years, we don’t lose all the 500,000 people [who work in this industry] if we can’t get information anymore. So this is huge.”
Candito can’t point to one thing that makes her shop stand out in the community. It’s a combination of a number of little things.
They call customers, email them and keep social media accounts up to date. “It’s a combination of new technology with a little bit old school,” Candito described.
She pointed to the famous Maya Angelou quote: “People will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.” For MMHP, it’s ensuring the customer leaves with the right feeling.
“The second you answer the phone, the second they walk in that door, how do you make them feel from the first impression? Something even as basic as a phone call can turn a customer the wrong way,” Candito said. “For example, it’s tire season right now — we would never turn away a tire repair this time of year, it doesn’t matter how busy or what time it is. Even if someone came in at six o’clock, I’m not going to leave someone stranded at that time.”
She takes the perspective of the customer. Automotive service has long been known as a “grudge purchase.” They’re giving their money to their local shop instead of putting that money towards a vacation or something special they want to buy. So the onus is on the shop to make sure that the customer’s money is well spent and that they have the best experience possible.
Her team has bought into that vision of customer care. “It’s just the sum of a million things that make you stand out and make people believe and trust you. You want people to know that you’re transparent, honest, fair, you’re attentive to them, that they can trust you, that they feel safe.”
A mural on the outside of Master Mechanic High Park
Providing a safe space is important to Candito. For example, auto repair shops don’t have a good reputation for serving female clients, even though they account for a majority of automotive aftermarket sales. She’s seen male service professionals be dismissive of female clients. Candito makes sure that women feel respected and safe in their shop.
“You want your staff to be friendly. Business owners need to be role models. We need to care,” she said. “50% of your customers are female — how are we making women feel when they walk in? Do we talk differently to a male than we do to a female?”
Furthermore, she heard the LGBTQ community had reservations about visiting a repair shop due to outdated perceptions. So Candito made it clear to her team to always be welcoming of customers and to treat everyone the same. Her shop is a place in which everyone no matter their background can feel comfortable.
And that goes for employees. The shop environment hasn’t been a traditionally welcoming space for women to work in. She can speak to that with first-hand experience.
“I never looked at the noise. I try never to talk about the obstacles because there are tonnes,” she said. “As a woman in 1999 opening a shop — you could imagine. So I try not to think of that. So I ignored the noises, I shattered the ceilings and I looked past the comments.”
She did all that because she loves what she is doing. And that is important for any business owner, let alone a shop owner.
“You have to love what you’re doing. Because if you don’t love what you’re doing, it’s going show,” Candito said “And especially if you’re going to be a business owner, understand it’s even going to be more work [than being an employee]. If you think you’re going in reverse and you’re going to work less hours, it’s not. It’s a 24/7 job.”
The Master Mechanic High Park team celebrates after being named the 2021 Shop of the Year
Running the business
Perhaps it’s the accountant in her, but Candito admits to fretting over every single detail. The shop sees 60-70 cars every day, with 600 invoices a month. Having strict processes and procedures in place, she noted, is the key to her business’ success.
“We have a process in place for every situation,” she said. So in case anyone has a question on how to do something, chances are there’s already been some thought given to the answer. “That helps keep the shop in tip-top shape.”
This also acts as a bit of a succession plan. If something were to happen to Candito, the team would be able to keep the business running strong and well because of the systems she’s put in place.
In fact, it has already been tested. Due to health issues, Candito has been away from the business for the entirety of the COVID-19 pandemic. Being a high-risk individual means she can’t physically be in the place she loves the most.
Being away from her team has left a bit of a void, but her “soul” is there every day.
“The team always makes me feel like I’m there. I may not be there but I’m there. My soul is always there,” she said.
She did make the trip in to visit her team to accept the Shop of the Year Award, which included a $2,500 prize pack from Milwaukee.
Master Mechanic High Park’s popular sign which is usually filled with fun or inspirational messages that are popular with passersby
The shop’s sign out front has become a community talking point as Candito regularly posts inspirational or funny messages. People will come into the shop as they’re walking by to compliment the messages posted.
“When I started with it, I thought, ‘Oh, If I cheer one person up, I think that would be great. And then it evolved into something that went viral so many times and has made so many people feel amazing,” Candito said.
The sides of the shop have murals that can’t be missed by drivers going by the shop. Candito is known for her love of dogs — her rescue dog Charlie is the shop’s chief dog officer — as her social media pages are littered with dog photos.
She makes it a priority to stay up to date with how to connect with people. That’s where people are these days, Candito pointed out.
Note how there was not a mention about its social media pages being filled with cool cars, techs fixing vehicles or what’s happening inside the shop.
“Our social media’s a little different. I never show cars, to be honest. It’s a lot about what’s happening in the community, shout out to local businesses, a lot of dogs, some ‘Caturdays,’ a lot of dogs again,” she said with a laugh.