Redefining the Full-Service Car Wash Model
AUTO LAUNDRY NEWS | By Christopher Crawford
Located a short distance west-northwest of Washington DC is Loudoun County, Virginia. Bordered by the easternmost ridge of the Blue Ridge Mountains to the west and the Potomac River to the north, the area has experienced rapid growth over the last 30 years becoming an upscale bedroom community for educated professionals working in and around the nation’s capital. Historically a laid-back quite rural area of farms and small piedmont towns, Loudoun County was highly impacted when the Washington-Dulles International Airport first opened in the early 1960’s. This started the urbanization of the area and set off a high-tech boom that has continued until today. Now with an estimated population of over 413,500 residents, Loudoun is now the third-most populous county in Virginia. With a median household income of $136,268 (2018) it has been ranked 1st in the U.S. among all jurisdictions with a population of 65,000 or more since the year 2008.
The business and government center of Loudoun County is the town of Leesburg. Cited as one of the best preserved and most picturesque towns in all of Virginia with many excellent examples of colonial architecture dating back to the 1700’s, it is a great place to live and do business. Leesburg like the rest of the county has seen its population double in the last 20 years to over 60,000 with the surrounding farm areas being quickly transformed into new upscale housing developments and shopping and business centers. This rapid influx of new residents has created many excellent business opportunities in the service industry, including the development of upscale car wash and detailing facilities.
A couple of older car washes already serve the area, but with all of the rapid growth in and around Leesburg, there is plenty of room for more if a smart entrepreneur has a clear vision of what customers truly want, and is willing to spend the time and money to do it right. Such an entrepreneur with a vision is Greg Miller. Originally from Arizona, Greg went to Cornell to study hotel management, worked for the famous Arizona Biltmore Hotel in Phoenix, and later on his own did management consulting for many major hotel chains. In 1996 he was the co-founder of PM Hotel Group, a hotel management company that now ranks among the top 15 in the country. His decision to diversify his business portfolio came some 20 years later, as he explains:
Having built a long and successful career in the hotel industry, my career path has abruptly moved me into the car wash industry. As we entered our 20th year back in 2016, I found that hiring people smarter than me had worked so well that my own role within the company was no longer essential. Still serving in a strategic capacity for PM Hotel Group, I now had the time to focus my attention on an industry that always appealed to me – car washes. Here is where I see my hospitality background giving me a head start for my new path to success:
– A common and crucial aspect to both the hotel and car wash industry is cleaning. Did you know there are “ABCs” to the proper cleaning of a guest room? Well, there are and when it comes to proper cleaning in any industry, process matters. With my Cornell Hotel School background yearning to be utilized, I feel certain that we can systematize our car interior cleaning process to have the best outcome within a tightly controlled time frame. Much like my “Heart of the House Olympics” I hold to recognize the best of our hotel housekeepers, we will recognize and reward the champions of our BriteWash sparkling clean process and soon, the others of our team will follow.
– Customer interactions come unscheduled and minutes can turn to an hour before a hotel lobby has any activity. But rest assured, just as quickly as an arrival walks in the door (or drives into your pay lane as would be the case at a wash), you are on their time and, ready or not, must meet their expectations for fast and efficient service. Always be ready.
– Including many hotels, the service business in general could use hospitality training.
o To turn a workforce into a team with positive energy, passion and purpose, work needs to be fun. Unlike those operators who have a staff that simply muddles through their shift, the mindset changes when you get your team smiling and feeling like they are making a difference in someone’s day.
o Instead of just another transaction among a long day of more of the same, we see each customer as unique and thereby deserving of our finest effort. Beyond the Golden Rule, we should ascribe to the Platinum Rule – “Treating others as they want to be treated.”
o From the very moment of arrival to the last “Thank You for your visit” as they depart, we need to be the most courteous, friendly, and helpful establishment we can be.
– Just like hotels, car wash operators get tested by weather/seasonality and weekday vs weekend demand disparities. Wherever you can, you should seek to “grow the pie” thus making the marketplace better for all participants. But, when business is soft, that is when you must gain a market-share premium. To persevere in a turbulent economy, you must go beyond simply satisfying clientele…you must become their absolute favorite. In a moment, I am going to give you examples on how I plan to become that clear favorite via “created” advantages.
In any retail site selection, the adage of “Location, Location, Location” cannot be underemphasized. My first BriteWash site is located along a heavily-trafficked freeway with a new interchange and sitting right in front of an existing Lowe’s Home Improvement store that is expanding to become part of a new upscale neighborhood shopping plaza that itself is necessitated by area population growth. To illustrate the areas rapid transformation over the last 20 years, within 5 miles of the project location on Russell Branch Parkway, the 2020 population is now estimated at 133,992 residents, an increase of more than double, with an average age of 36.6 years. The estimated average household income is now $182,539, an increase of nearly $90,000 dollars since 2000. An important figure to note is the total number of vehicles in the area, some 92,992 with an average of 2.1 cars per household. Bottom-line, the area is becoming younger, better educated and more influent, and has plenty of cars that need to be washed.
However to rise above the whims of the market and beat the competition, I need more than just these “inherent” locational advantages. I need that extra-element that affords me a share premium when business is soft. To achieve this, I needed one or more “created” advantages, so I brainstormed a long list of possible advantages to build into my BriteWash design concept with my architect:
– Attractive exterior design (appropriate for the historic district and yet blends well with the modern design elements of the master-planned development it joins)
– Inviting lobby with interactive eye-catching design:
o Three (3) floor-to-ceiling windows providing a “show wall” into the car wash tunnel featuring a laser light / black-light enhanced visual of cascading foam cleaners
o Three (3) 65” 4K LED TVs broadcasting human interest shows on weekdays and sports on weekends
o Modern industrial interior motif complimented by hanging heavy-glass-dome fixtures, polished cement floors and exposed aluminum mechanicals
o Bleacher-style booth for kids to allow easy tunnel light-show viewing
o An attractive women’s restroom
– A sundry shop operation featuring a variety of tantalizing items:
o pre-packaged baked goods, snacks, chips, candies, cold beverages, and frozen snacks
o freshly popped corn available for free on weekdays from 3-4pm (timed for parent’s pick up of students and running after-school errands with kids)
o car-oriented products like hanging air-freshener, Armor-All wipes, Rain X, fix-a-flat, pet-hair-lifter, etc.
o A beer/wine bar envisioned as an extension of the cash-register area (focused on “Super Detail” customers whose selected services will require one or more hours to complete)
– Extended hours of operation all days of the week
– Special theme lighting inside the tunnel with appropriate holiday focus
– Decked out two (2) car garage for “Super Detail” customers is attached to the lobby and will be a focal point for all wash customers exiting the tunnel
– Eco-Friendly operations:
o Most sophisticated water reclaim system (90% reuse)
o Organic citric-acid products for cleaning instead of corrosive chemicals
– People-Friendly operations with an aggressive hospitality program that rewards associates for courteous and friendly customer interactions.
Much of the success of my first BriteWash project is due to the outstanding creative ideas and design of the architect that I selected. Having worked with many architects over the years while developing my hotel projects, I had a good handle of what kind of firm I needed. After reviewing my choices, it was clear that Car-Wash-Architect.com was the answer. They specialize in larger, more elaborate car wash projects designed specifically to take-on highly competitive markets and succeed, exactly what I needed to break into this market. Early on before being selected as my architect, they were my guide to the industry at the crucial stage of me putting up the risk capital to get started.
As we progressed through the design process, Car-Wash-Architect.com provided much-appreciated useful options. Some early important options were selections for tunnel equipment, vacuums, point-of-sale, and water reclaim. With their guidance, I chose MacNeil, AutoVac, DRB and SoBrite as my major equipment vendors. I also want to give a big thanks to Iron Fox, the local MacNeil equipment rep and installer, for their crucial educational input when I was just scratching the surface of my itch for car wash industry knowledge.
I know that I still have much to learn ahead. Fortunately, I like to take on new challenges. The more I get to know the car wash industry via networking and from the stories I’ve read in Auto Laundry, I find that I share an essential personality characteristic: people in the car wash industry are self-reliant and willing to pay the price for success (nothing ventured nothing gained). At nearly 60 years of age now, it is unlikely I will be making another big start-up beyond this one. Motivating me today as it did when I welcomed my very first hotel guest in our first new hotel in 1996 will be this same thought: To always be a good steward for the industry and to leave it better than how I found it…
SITE AND BUILDING DESIGN
The site selected for the project on Russell Branch Parkway is located in a new shopping center at the main entrance with roads on three sides and a parking lot of an existing Lowes Home Improvement store on the other. The entry/exit was restricted to a single location (northeast corner), and the possible building layout limited by large building setbacks and landscape and utility easements. Although the site is well over an acre in size, it is roughly square in shape, and when combined with these large easements and setbacks, limited the conveyor length to only 111 feet. Traffic flow and ease of operation dictated the final design and layout of the overall site. Seeing a greater need for more finish and detailing lanes, the design only allowed two fully-covered payment lanes with a total stacking capacity of some 18 vehicles, but for this site it should be sufficient. The only flaw of this layout is having to make an 180 degree right-in turn to go into the Wash Tunnel. We eliminated this issue by adding an extra 10 feet to allow vehicles sufficient space to straighten out prior going on the conveyor.
The interior building layout is an exceedingly efficient and functional design with no wasted space anywhere. Interior rooms are very spacious featuring high ceilings and numerous large windows to allow excellent views of both inside the Wash Tunnel and outside towards the finish/detail lanes to view all of the action. The architectural design of the exterior of the building is a very attractive modern version of Colonial, a theme specifically dictated by the architectural approval board of the Town of Leesburg in order to get it approved, and a design that fits in well with the historic architecture of the area and the other buildings being designed in this new shopping center. To achieve that look, the CMU walls are finished with a base of traditional red brick with upper sections done in painted clap board with wood trim, numerous square columns with brick bases, many large multi-mullion windows, traditional Colonial moldings, decorative metal railings, and a sloped metal roof with raised battens. The key architectural feature and focal point of the design is a large tower at the center of the main front façade. All paint colors utilized are those associated with traditional Colonial styles, specifically white, and light and dark grey.
Based upon the population, demographics and economics of the area, as well as what research revealed what potential customers are looking for in a car wash, the owner decided to go with a full-service car wash model, although one modified with manned handheld payment tablets and having customers ride the vehicles all the way through the Wash Tunnel and park it themselves at one of the four the finish/detail lanes, or in the Detailing Garage for more serious detailing services. Customers can then enter the large, well-equipped Customer Lobby with an upscale interior design and sports-bar appearance to comfortably wait for their vehicles to be finished. Drinks and finger food will be served.
The overall quality of the design of the facility, combined with exceptional wash equipment, is truly outstanding and superior to any other car wash in the northern Virginia area. When coupled with excellent management and great customer service, it should prove to be extremely popular with local residents and a major success as a business. In addition to this site, Greg Miller has two more BriteWash locations already on the drawing board and is looking forward to breaking ground sometime in mid-2021. The next of three will be in Fairfax County, Virginia at a site with multiple big box retailers (Super Target, Walmart, Costco, Home Depot, Best Buy, Costco, Dicks, etc.) and a dozen popular sit-down restaurants. The pad recently became available as the developer looks to replace an under-utilized old bank branch. The third of the three locations will be just south of regionally popular and historic U.S. Route 50 Highway connecting northern Virginia to the U.S. Capitol and on to the Naval Academy in Annapolis at another newly developed shopping center.
Christopher Crawford is with Car-Wash-Architect.com. He has written a number of major articles for this magazine over the years concerning the design and construction of new car washes projects. You can visit his company’s website for more information about the services they offer, or call them at (561) 212-3364.