By Steve McLinden
FORT WORTH — Ray “Little Nacho” Sanchez, owner of Little Nacho’s Paint & Body Shop on Fort Worth’s North Main Street, has come full-circle in both his professional and personal lives. But those circles, unlike in the venerable gospel hymn, were far from unbroken.
Sanchez grew up in a loving-but-poor Fort Worth family as one of six children. He struggled in school, because his English was poor and teachers largely ignored him, even to the point of mistreatment, he said. So he opted out of high school and instead went to work for his repair-savvy dad, who ran a body shop in White Settlement, one town west of Fort Worth. Young Sanchez started painting cars and picking up other tricks of the trade by carefully watching and listening to his father as he dealt with customers, their cars and insurers.
The youngster quickly endeared himself to shop patrons and family friends, who dubbed him “Little Nacho.” After awhile, the elder Sanchez discovered his son could accurately estimate jobs just by eyeballing them and, similarly, had picked up the other shop repair skills by osmosis. In 1980, Sanchez’s father, now 95, had to sell his shop to neighboring business that wanted to expand, Angelo’s Bar-B-Que (now a famous Fort Worth eatery) to pay for extensive medical bills incurred for Ray’s disabled brother, who suffered from a club foot, mental disability and later, bone cancer.
So Sanchez opened his own collision center at 3007 N. Main Street near the city’s historic Stockyards District, graduating from a modest two-bay shop he had operated only a few hundred feet away. Over the years, Sanchez built strong relationships with customers, adjusters and other businesspeople. Little Nacho’s thrived until the 2008 recession, when suddenly people stopped fixing their vehicles for any price. The shop fell into debt and had to close — this indignity after Sanchez had labored 45 years in the business. Sanchez soon lost his home, too, and was taken in by daughter and then his son.
Sanchez regrouped and continued to dabble in the trade, and things were looking up when he decided to open a shop in a small rented building a block off the main drag in the town of River Oaks, another neighbor just west of Fort Worth. But this neighbor, said Sanchez, proved to be less than hospitable.
“They bullied me,” he said. “They tried to run me out of town.”
Town police and code-enforcement officers wrote him and his shop a total of 27 tickets over his five-year span for various “offenses,” many of them for laws that weren’t enforced at other town businesses, Sanchez said. Customer and visitor cars —even some insurance adjusters’ cars — were routinely towed from an adjacent alley and from in front of the shop, which had precious few on-property parking spaces, the owner said. Once, a policeman writing a ticket simply told him,“Mr. Sanchez, don’t you get the point? We don’t want you here,” Sanchez recalled.
Later, while at city hall paying a ticket, the shop owner was taken aside by a more sympathetic city employee, who told him, “Mr. Sanchez, I’m so sorry they are doing this to you,” Sanchez related. By chance, Sanchez later spoke with a prominent city resident who happened to be present at a city staff meeting several month’s previous when the subject of Little Nacho’s came up. A key River Oaks city official present that day said to everyone present, “We’re gonna run him out,” the resident recalled to Sanchez.
Sanchez did a little agitating of his own. In an effort to keep his detractors at bay, Sanchez ran for mayor in the May election in 2017. While he lost, Sanchez had hoped to send a message. But not long afterward, he was sent one back. A friend of the River Oaks mayor bought the building that housed Little Nacho’s and promptly gave Sanchez 30 days to vacate, which wasn’t enough time to move and store the paint booth and frame machine and all the other shop equipment, plus finish off customer projects, Sanchez said. So the new owner charged him $100 a day for 15 more days — well above normal rent.
Sanchez moved out but without enough capital reserve to find a new place. His long-time office manager, Diana Gonzalez, who has played key roles in keeping Little Nacho’s shop locations running smoothly, asked Sanchez, “What are we going to do now?” Sanchez responded, “God only knows.”
That’s when a miracle, as Sanchez calls it, occurred. Alerted to the availability of the former Advanced Plating chrome-shop building across the street from his old shop location on North Main, Sanchez called the owner and toured the place, which had been vacant for a decade and was in serious disrepair. Sanchez was quoted a six-figure sum to buy it. “I have $5,000,” said a distraught Sanchez, who brought along a green box containing a Rolex watch that he’d acquired in better times.
Sorry, no deal.
But days later, the owner had a change of heart. “I can’t get you out of my head,” he later told Sanchez. “And I can’t understand why.” Something had moved the man to not only offer Sanchez $50,000 to renovate the place, but to give him six months free rent, plus a sliding rent arrangement that Sanchez could honor until the loan was paid off.
“I asked him, ‘Why are you doing this for me; you don’t know me’?” Sanchez said. “The landlord simply replied,‘Come by my office in the morning and pick up the keys to your shop.’ I mean, have you ever heard of something like that happening?! It was God’s work.”
An overjoyed Sanchez reopened Little Nacho’s in April of 2018 and strapped a big banner across the building, reading, “We’re back!” His old customers found him and he is once more a repair-shop fixture on North Main. His trusted staff of six plus a few part-timers were hard at work on a shop full of repair jobs on an unusually cool Friday afternoon in early May.
Little Nacho’s does primarily general insurance work and always tries to save customers their deductibles in the process, if possible. The shop fills in work gaps with high-profile custom-car jobs. Those range from a 1952 Bentley Mark IV to a 1985 Chevrolet C/K 10 RWD, two of the many jobs-in-progress present during Automotive Repor’s May visit. Sanchez estimates his collision center completes around 20 jobs per month.
Shop reviews are glowing, with Little Nacho’s earning a 4.9 approval rating on a scale of 5 on Google Reviews.
“Guys here at this garage are experienced and knowledgeable about any and everything from bumper to bumper; they can turn an old clunker into a prestigious or a fast-and-furious ride in days,” noted a happy customer in April. Wrote another, “Little Nacho’s is the only place I take my vehicles! I’ve been a loyal customer for 10-plus years, and the owner and staff are a pleasure to do business with.”
Repair employees work on commission, which is much more of a motivator than pure salary, Sanchez said.
“If you are good, you’ll make good money,” he said. “Most of my people have been with me for a long time and they do a good job and I trust them.”
Son Steve “Stevie Ray” Sanchez, a former Marine and 1991 Gulf War veteran, serves as body-shop manager.
For dad Ray Sanchez, his full professional circle — as with every vehicle that leaves Little Nacho’s — is intact again, and he’s doing business at 2924 North Main this time, right across the street from where his extensive body-shop ownership career all began.
“I am blessed,” said Little Nacho. “So blessed.” •