By Jill Thurston
“Anybody know a good mechanic I can trust?” That’s a question just about any vehicle owner asks at some point. People are quick to mention where they took their car last and why they won’t go back. When they find an excellent and honest mechanic, word gets around. Satisfied customers are a good barometer.
Word has been going around the South Hills about Chuck’s Complete Auto Service on McMurray Road in Upper St. Clair, which is celebrating half a century in business this year.
Longtime customers and new ones alike use words such as “integrity,” “honesty,” “great work at fair prices,” and “I love that he gives back so much to the community” to describe the garage that some of them have been taking their vehicles to for several decades.
Since his humble beginnings in 1970, when he was a one-person shop working 16-hour days to the successful, small business Chuck’s is today, owner Chuck Belliotti’s mission has never changed. “I wanted to create a shop that stood out for excellent work with a reputation for honesty and integrity.”
He will tell you he’s shocked at how quickly the 50 years have passed. Taking care of customers and doing what is right has been his standard then and now. Clients tell the story best.
Upper St. Clair resident Tom Gorman said he has been a Chuck’s customer “since dinosaurs walked the earth.” Tom hadn’t had his license very long in the early 1970s when he first went to Chuck’s. “He was kind and treated me well, and I started going there on a regular basis,” he recalls.
Over the years, Tom has come to appreciate that Chuck’s doesn’t upsell. He took a vehicle back to the dealership in the late 1990s.
“Back then, I thought factory dealerships might have a better handle on why the motor sounds weird or whatever, and may have a systemic solution. They said I needed ‘this and that’ and the cost would be between $800 and $900. The next day I took it down to Chuck’s, and just as you would expect, they looked the car over and said I didn’t need any of that stuff. What I did need was like a $100 radiator flush or something.”
A few years ago, he took his car in for a free factory recall fix and was diagnosed with additional repairs to the tune of more than a thousand dollars.
“I said I’d think about it. The next time I was down at Chuck’s for a tire rotation, I asked them about it, and they told me I didn’t need any of that. That’s why I continue to go there.”
Jeff O’Laughlin of Bethel Park, who became a loyal customer five years ago, likes that actual certified mechanics work on his vehicles. “I have found Chuck’s to be dealership quality work. In fact, you get better work done at Chuck’s compared to the dealership because, at Chuck’s, only a handful of certified mechanics work on your vehicle. If you go to a dealership, you have guys who don’t have those skills changing your oil or rotating your tires,” he said.
For more than 19 years, Chuck’s has been taking care of Upper St. Clair resident Louis Mittleman’s family cars. “He’s cared for one-year-old cars and 20-year-old cars for us. They don’t do more than needs to be done. They do exactly what needs to be done: a quality job at a fair price,” Louis said.
Both Chuck and his wife Lynn come from large families that instilled a hard work ethic in them. Chuck grew up in Carrick and graduated from St. Basil’s Catholic School in 1964. As a teenager, he would work on cars on the street outside of his house. His mom would get after him for cleaning transmissions in the family bathtub.
“We didn’t have a garage, so when I pulled transmissions out of cars, I’d take them up to my mother’s bathtub and clean them. She didn’t like that. When she put a stop to it, I finally got a big metal pan and did them outside,” Chuck said.
His neighbor owned a one-bay garage in Mount Oliver.
“I used to go down there after school, hang out and learn things. I decided that’s what I wanted to do.”
Chuck is basically a self-taught mechanic. “You could do that back in those days,” Chuck pointed out. “They called us ‘motorheads,’” he said with a chuckle.
Chuck, now 74, served in the U.S. Marine Corps from 1966 to 1972, six months active duty, and the remaining five and half years served in the reserves. Following his active duty, he owned a garage on West Liberty Avenue and a year later, in 1970, leased an Esso station on McMurray Road in Upper St. Clair. In 1972, Esso became Exxon. In January 1978, the name became Chuck’s Complete Auto Service, and in June of 1978, Chuck purchased the property from Exxon.
For his first three years in business, Chuck was a one-person shop, and he worked “seven days a week from 7 a.m. to 11 p.m.,” he said. His third year in business, he hired his first employee to tend the gas pumps so he could concentrate on car maintenance.
Until 15 years ago, Chuck’s had gas pumps and tow trucks. He met many customers at those gas pumps, including a pretty brunette in 1978, who would become his wife. She’d stop at Chuck’s once a week to put gas in her pickup truck before work.
“She was ahead of her time,” Chuck admits. Yes, she was. Few women were likely both a draftsman and a tow truck driver, but Lynn Belliotti was both. She worked nearby on McMurray Road as a draftsman for a civil engineering company and drove a tow truck in the evening for a friend who had a AAA contract. Driving the tow truck came pretty easily, Lynn said because she’d driven a dump truck for her father, a home builder. Eventually, she bought her own tow truck, and as Chuck tells it, “It came to the point where I needed another truck, so we talked, and I hired her.” And as Lynn tells it, he asked her three times before she said yes.
The two were married in 1984 and continued to build a solid business for loyal customers.
Two of those customers, Deborah Mendenhall and her husband Jim, moved from California to Pittsburgh in 1995. They were sure they blew the turbo on the family Volvo coming through the Rocky Mountains. For years, Deborah said their mechanic in Fullerton cheated them. Deborah asked her new neighbors in Upper St. Clair the million-dollar question: “does anyone know a good mechanic?”
She was referred to Chuck’s. She remembers telling him, “It’s blown the turbo. We’ve done it before. I know it will cost $1,500. Go ahead and order the part and let us know when the car is ready.”
“Chuck called me two hours later and said, ‘you’ve blown a $10 air hose.’ I was astounded. He had the opportunity to cheat us out of a lot of money. I even gave him permission to, and yet he didn’t. I knew I had found something rare. Until that moment, I believed that an honest mechanic was like Bigfoot. You hear a lot of sightings, but no one you know has ever seen one. I will never go anywhere else,” Deborah said.
It’s standard that Chuck’s mechanics will call you to explain what they have found and the cost before performing any work. Customers are told what should be done, what needs to be done and what must be done for safety reasons, then they can decide. They maintain the latest equipment, computer hardware and software and information systems to service and repair vehicles.
Marcia Donnellan of Bethel Park grew up in Upper St. Clair, and her father, Ronald Stesiak, “always used Chuck for car repairs, and they became friends,” she remembers. Ron, who now lives in Carnegie, started taking his cars to Chuck’s in the late 1970s.
“We went to church fish fries and played racquetball together. Every car I had he worked on. He did a good job, and everybody had loyalty to him. He never soaked you. That’s why he’s been in business for 50 years,” Ron said.
Ron isn’t the only customer-turned-friend. Bill Narr of Bethel Park, a patron for 20 years, was impressed with Chuck’s from his first visit when mechanic Doug Devlin spent 20 minutes on the phone explaining the problem with his brake pads. Chuck impressed him as well.
“I want to make a note of how special Chuck is as a person. Every time I came in, he genuinely expressed interest in me, my life, my family. Not in an intrusive way, but with genuine interest. He’s trustworthy, and he goes out of his way to get to know his customers,” Bill said.
Recently, Bill was in the market for a car for one of his kids, and Chuck gave him sound advice on which cars on his list not to purchase. Bill and his wife were about to look at a vehicle when Chuck called and suggested they stop at the garage and check out a car in the shop that Chuck’s had serviced for about eight years. It was one of the vehicles on Bill’s list, and when the owner was ready to sell, Chuck connected the two. Chuck was happy to help.
Reflecting on what has made the business successful, Chuck credits his employees. “The main thing was we had good help all of these years.”
Two employees have been working there for more than 40 years, including recently retired ASE Certified Technician Dave DiMarco, who started his career with Chuck’s in 1977. ASE Certified Technicians Doug Devlin, an employee since 2004 and Sean Sutton, hired in 2015, have been with Chuck’s for a combined total of 21 years. Tech Assistant and Tire Technician Ed Deuerling began in 1995, and receptionist Jamie Healy joined the team in 2015. Jamie is the “face” of Chuck’s now, according to Chuck.
“I answer the phone now, and people say ‘Oh, hi, can I talk to Jamie?’ She does a fantastic job.” His wife Lynn started in 1979. She keeps the books and manages the office.
Chuck will say one of the hardest things for him was when he gave up “turning a wrench.” He said he stopped working on cars about 35 years ago when the shop had seven tow trucks that were always on the road.
“We would make 200 to 300 calls a month back in the day. One thing I liked about that was we were helping people. When you went out, you never knew what you would run into. We’d find them in creeks and over hills and everywhere,” he said.
Once the gas pumps were removed, and the tow trucks sold, he concentrated on daily operations and marketing.
He and Lynn have a strong sense of community and are committed to supporting it both through effort and financially. They are longtime Bethel Park residents; Lynn was actually born in her family’s Bethel Park home. Their first charitable contribution was to Make-A-Wish. The couple remembers first hearing about wishes being granted on the tow truck’s radio after a call in 2001. The radio host was telling stories of kids gravely ill and how to fulfill their wishes.
“We both thought the same thing: We have to do this.”
Every year since Chuck’s donates the amount needed to fulfill a complete wish for one child. That total contribution since 2001 nears $70,000.
That amount from a small family-owned business is “extraordinary,” said Stephanie Pugliese, Director of Development for Make-A-Wish Greater Pennsylvania and West Virginia, which has fulfilled up to 700 wishes per year.
“Their donations have been so impactful. Every year for 19 years, Chuck and Lynn have brought joy and hope to one child and to siblings, parents and grandparents who see the smile that child has that they didn’t have yesterday. We could not do what we are doing without Chuck and Lynn and others like them,” she said.
Chuck and Lynn’s charitable generosity doesn’t stop there. They participate in several neighborhood walk-a-thons for VisionWalk, a national organization that fights blindness. The business collects prescription glasses from their customers for New Eyes for the Needy, sponsors several charitable golf outings and buy shirts for local kids’ ball teams.
One winter, as they were driving to work, Chuck and Lynn passed the local charitable organization South Hills Interfaith Movement in Bethel Park. They noticed a snaking line of people waiting outside in the cold for the food bank to open. They realized that even in comfortable neighborhoods, people fall on hard times, so Chuck’s became a financial donor and began collecting food, clothing and school supplies year-round.
Steadfast SHIM supporters for years, Chuck and Lynn epitomize SHIM’s very vision of neighbors helping neighbors, said James Guffey, executive director of SHIM.
“Whether through their financial support or their support through food drives, Chuck and Lynn understand that the affluent South Hills communities also have families that struggle to make ends meet and are there to help. Their generosity is an example for others to follow, and ... we entrust all of SHIM’s vehicle maintenance to them. Their commitment to quality customer service makes us feel like we are one of their family. The world could use more people like Chuck and Lynn.”
Military veteran organizations are close to Chuck’s heart, having served for six years. Chuck’s has donated almost $15,000 total to various charitable causes supporting veterans over the years.
Lynn says this is just her husband’s nature. “He’s a people person. He loves talking to people and helping people.”
Sometimes husbands and wives find it difficult to work together, but Chuck and Lynn complement each other.
“The things he doesn’t like to do, I do. We work very well together,” Lynn said.
They treat people the way they want to be treated, and the same is expected of their employees. In fact, the couple has an interesting way of hiring based on this expectation. “
We hire based on personality. Everyone can be trained,” Lynn believes. “Auto repair shops have gotten a bad rap for so long, we’ve always tried to change that.”
Chuck agrees. “You can’t teach personality, but you can train mechanics, and it’s always been successful. We haven’t had to hire many people over the years.”
To keep the family atmosphere, Chuck and Lynn take their employees and their partners to dinner every quarter.
“They (the partners) are a big part of the business, too,” Lynn explained. “We want an open line of communication.”
Chuck’s goal has been to treat everyone like family. During the COVID-19 stay-at-home orders, like many businesses, Chuck’s volume dropped by about half. He kept his employees working, though, painting the shop. Typically during an economic downturn, like in the 1980s, auto repair shops do well because people want to hold on to their vehicles, Chuck said. This was a different sort of slowdown, with people asked not to leave their homes. Now that Allegheny County is moving from yellow to green, Chuck said business is coming back. Open Monday through Friday 8:30 a.m. to 5:30 p.m., the shop typically services 15 to 16 cars daily.
Many customers will sigh with relief when they learn that the Belliottis say they are not sure they could ever retire. For the past two years, they have been voted a Neighborhood Favorite Business Award by NextDoor, an online service for neighborhood information and referrals. And the Belliottis say they will continue to focus on the excellent customer service and high-quality work that earned them that award from customers to keep it that way.