It wasn’t to be. Kim is co-owner with her husband Kurt of Ann Arbor Muffler Brakes and Shocks on Jackson Rd. across from Vet’s Park. On July 5, 2021, they were awakened at about 6:30 a.m. by an insistent phone call.

Kurt got up to answer it and came back “barreling through the door” she says, to tell her “there’s been a fire at the shop.” He left immediately. When he got to the scene, he called her to report, “Kim, this isn’t good.”

The Mitchells say the fire caused $1 million in damage. It destroyed everything in the back of the building, including a repair bay, their office, and the bathroom.

Kurt’s dad opened Ann Arbor Muffler in 1957, three years before Kurt was born. He says he was “raised in the business.” But now the business was in ashes.

When the insurance investigator from Hastings Mutual came to check the damage, “Kurt found a melted gas can next to a melted trash can,” Kim recounts. “And Kurt said, ‘This is not our gas can. We don’t keep gas in an auto repair place.’”

The Mitchells say their insurance company paid more than half a million dollars in business expenses—but denied their property-damage claim. They tapped their savings and and took out a loan to rebuild. | Photo by Mark Bialek

As she relates it, the investigator kept asking him, “‘Did you hire anyone to start the fire?’ And finally after about a hundred times—and that’s not an exaggeration—Kurt literally said, ‘If you ask me that one more time, I’m gonna knock you on your ass!’”

The investigator also “wanted to know if all the guys from the shop would take a lie detector test,” Kurt adds. They ended up having “our manager do a lie detector test because he was the last one in the building.” He passed.

Someone at a neighboring business told Kurt that their outside security camera “caught someone going around to all our doors and trying to get them open,” says Kim. “He managed to get one of the side doors, which is a manual door, open.” He was told the video then shows the stranger “walking away really fast, and then flames come up.”

The Mitchells advised the neighbor to give the recording to the police, but they still haven’t seen it themselves. “Nobody has ever shown us the video,” Kim says. “Kurt’s asked, but nobody will get back with us.”

The Ann Arbor Fire Department determined the fire was “incendiary (arson) and [the case] was turned over to the Ann Arbor Police Department,” emails chief Mike Kennedy. “Due to it being a criminal case, we are unable to comment beyond that.” The police say the investigation is still open but inactive with no leads at this time.

The Mitchells say they got $500,000 to $600,000 from their insurance company. “They paid us for payroll” while the business was closed, says Kurt. “And they’re paying our continuing expenses: our electric bill, our health insurance, you know, taxes.”

But “they have not given us any money toward repair,” he continues. They drew on their savings—“some money and some stocks”—and took out a loan, “and that’s how we were able to keep things going” on rebuilding. They also “didn’t pay ourselves for about five months.”

“It’s very confusing,” Kim says of their insurance problems. “And they’ve tried to make it that way.” As part of the claims process, “our accountant wrote up how much business we lost,” Kurt says. “He handed in stuff from subcontractors plus a complete inventory of all the stuff that was lost. And the insurance company denied it. They didn’t even negotiate.”

So the Mitchells hired a public adjuster to deal with the insurance company. The independent expert doesn’t come cheap—“anything that I get from that insurance company [going forward], he gets 10 percent,” Kurt says. They nevertheless love their public adjuster. “They’re really there to help us,” Kim says. “And remember. The more money we get, the more money they get.”

They’re in arbitration with the insurance company now and have hired a lawyer at an hourly rate to do the paperwork. A mid-December hearing was rescheduled when the two sides couldn’t agree on a mediator. If the mediation fails, Kim says, “then it goes to the court.” They hope it doesn’t, though, because then the lawyer will switch to a contingency fee and collect 35 percent of any settlement.

On top of all this, the Mitchells can get only the functional half of their building insured by their current company. “We’re paying like twice as much, I’d say $8,000 more a year, to only insure half our building,” says Kim. “It’s kind of sad and crazy.” Fortunately, for the half still being rebuilt, “we were able to get insurance through our builder.”

Ann Arbor Muffler finally reopened October 1, nearly fifteen months after the fire. Though they’re working in only half of their former space, “business is great,” Kim reports. “We had a lot of customers that held off to get their cars fixed so that we could get our shop open.”

Now that they’re back, the Mitchells aim to stay in business “as long as we can,” says Kurt. “I would like to be there for another ten, fifteen years.”

When they do retire, “we would love to see it carry on in the family,” Kim says. Their grown kids don’t want it, but they’re hoping “another family member might get interested—you know, a little niece or nephew or somebody.”