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Riverside hotrod entrepreneurs adapt to survive economic slump

Lucy and Isaac Gallardo in their Riverside auto body shop alongside the prize winning 1971 Camaro their crew restored on the Speed Network reality show “Car Warriors.”
Lucy and Isaac Gallardo in their Riverside auto body shop alongside the prize winning 1971 Camaro their crew restored on the Speed Network reality show “Car Warriors.”
Steven Cuevas /KPCC
Lucy and Isaac Gallardo in their Riverside auto body shop alongside the prize winning 1971 Camaro their crew restored on the Speed Network reality show “Car Warriors.”
Lucy and Isaac Gallardo talk to a customer in their Riverside auto body shop.
Steven Cuevas /KPCC

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Despite tough economic times, some entrepreneurs are thriving in some Southern California cities, including Riverside, where a custom auto body business is banking profits.

The recession has shaken lots of Inland Empire cities. San Bernardino just filed for bankruptcy; a few newly incorporated cities may actually dissolve.

The picture is a bit sunnier in Riverside. Unemployment is still high, but the city is holding its own thanks to a stable housing market and big employers like UC Riverside.

It is also home to scrappy young entrepreneurs like Isaac Gallardo who are motoring on in hard times.

On this day, Gallardo watches as a worker in his auto body shop gingerly strips the paint from a car door in preparation for a custom $4,000 cherry-red paint job.

“These are fun to do but there’s only a little market of people that are willing to pay what it takes to do something like that,” said Gallardo.

Gallardo owns Inland Empire Auto Body and Paint in Riverside. The business specializes in custom detail and body work, like transforming grandpa’s sedan into a pavement-grinding low rider. Or, in this case, returning a beat-up 1971 Chevy Camaro to its original glory.

That’s what Gallardo’s crew did for a recent appearance on the Speed network reality show “Car Warriors.” Inland Empire Auto edged out a competing garage from Orange County.

The black and orange ’71 Camaro is on display in the Inland Empire Auto garage. It’s dazzling. But on this day, it won’t start. Gallardo sits the behind the wheel pumping the accelerator as the engine wheezes away. He is, after all, a body work guy not an engine guy.

The TV appearance earned Gallardo high-fives from customers - but not a lot of new business. The Inland Empire’s famed hotrod culture is as fickle as the engine in that prize-winning Camaro.

“In 2006, I mean people still had money to do a lot of the customs so that was bringing us some money,” recalled Gallardo.

“But when everything just hit, we realized people just can’t afford to do a paint job or put new rims on. So we did a couple insurance jobs - and we're like, ‘Well, these people pay,’” said Gallardo.

So he went after collision jobs. Wreck your front end in a fender bender? Inland Empire Auto will pound out the dents.

“So that’s when we started seeing bigger tickets. OK, it’s a $3,000 job instead of $500 to do a bumper or airbrush on a tailgate,” said Gallardo.

There are always going to be people that get into accidents, said Lucy, Gallardo’s wife.

Isaac Gallardo runs the garage; Lucy runs the numbers. The young, 20-something couple opened the shop six years ago. Soon after, the economy cratered, people stopped spending – and banks stopped lending.

A lot of those banks still won’t lend says Michael Stull, no matter where you’re trying to start up a business. Stull directs Cal State, San Bernardino’s Inland Empire Center for Entrepreneurship.

“But it’s only exacerbated out here because historically we haven’t had as robust an infrastructure of ‘angel investing’ and venture capital. I think that’s kind of real bad combination for local companies,” said Stull.

Lucy Gallardo said to open the garage in 2006, she and Isaac threw in everything they had: about $5,000.

“And we’re people of faith, so we just knew that no matter what if you work hard, we’re just gonna have to do whatever we have to do continue to keep the doors open,” she said.

But it’s a constant hustle.

The Gallardos drum up business at community events and through social networking. They’ve managed to turn a profit and expand the shop.

Michael Stull says the Gallardos embody the entrepreneurial spirit that can transform the Inland Empire into an economic hotrod.

“I need a job; I’ll replace that job by becoming a business owner. I don’t have a job,” said Stull. “I may as well cash in the retirement and take the plunge and go for it.”

Isaac Gallardo comes from a family of risk takers. His parents crossed into the U.S. illegally more than 20 years ago with their 8-year-old son in tow.

“Did the whole thing, through (Tijuana), jumped over the border and everything and I still remember that very clearly,” he recalled.

Gallardo said the experience instilled a drive that’s kept his Riverside garage humming.

“My mom was big on education but their work ethic was instilled in me as well,” said Gallardo. “They told me to go to school, but I see how hard they worked - so the combination of both is what pushes through our business.”

And it’s what sustains Gallardo’s auto body shop in hard times when a lot of people would rather just live with the dents.