What looks like a van parked on a dusty lot at the corner of South Union and Belle Terrace avenues in south Bakersfield, Calif., is actually a thriving family business.
Red and white painted handmade signs beckon customers to Toads Lock And Key, where a family makes a living crafting keys the old-fashioned way.
Renee Fuller, the founder of the business, began cutting keys at the Sears key shop in 1980 and discovered she had a knack for it. "There were guys out there who had been locksmithing for 20 or 30 years and they would bring me locks," she said.
After working at a few other hardware stores, she started her own business and has leased the lot to work on in south Bakersfield for about 25 years, serving anywhere from 100 to 300 customers a day.
Along with creating basic keys, Toads makes house calls for people who lose car keys or need the transponder chips in their car keys reprogramed.
Horace Seao, or "Toad," said security chips break pretty often, locking people out of their cars.
"We have the most state-of-the-art equipment of anybody in town," Seao said.
Fuller's entire family is involved in the operation, including her daughter Christian Nicks, who learned how to cut keys by watching her family.
"People come here because our keys work," Nicks said, "We do it the real way."
And the real way is not the easy way.
To make a key, they begin with one of the many blanks they buy in bulk. Then, each point on that new key is ground down by sight and feel.
"It's something you can't learn in school, you have to actually do it," Toads locksmith Jerry Hamilton said.
But Toads uses newer methods as well.
Seao has taken classes to learn how to use new technology, but said he prefers the old-fashioned method over the newer laser-cutting machines they have available.
"You have to go slow," Seao said of the hands-on method. "With the automatic machine, you don't have the control."
Making a key can take 15 minutes to about an hour, depending on the key's complexity.
"It's like art," Seao said. "There's so much to it."
Larger stores in Bakersfield like Walmart and The Home Depot make their keys with a computerized machine that reads the original key and cuts a new one just like it with lasers, which only takes a few seconds.
Other places, like Floyd's General Store, use a combination of old and new techniques. Their machine grinds the new key by following the pattern of the original.
"We have very few that don't work right," store manager Arnold Wittenberg said. "It's just a matter of keeping the machine calibrated."
When it comes to price, a basic house or car key costs about $2 anywhere in town, but for Toads' customers, it's about service.
Shelia Spencer, a customer for 15 years, said she goes to Toads because if anything is wrong with a key, she can get it replaced for free with no fuss.
"He always treats customers nice," she said.
Copyright 2012 - The Bakersfield Californian