Super-Sizing the Flex Concept
Located in southeast Texas along the Gulf Coast, Greater Houston is the fifth biggest metropolitan area in the US and the county’s fastest growing region over the last decade. Covering some nine counties and an impressive 10,062 square miles, it is slightly larger than the state of New Jersey. With a rapidly growing population, currently around 7 million, the number of vehicles in the metro-area is increasing at an even faster pace than the number of residents, making the building of truly outstanding car wash facilities with top-notch service a real necessity.
A highly competitive market, the Houston-metro area has more than 200 car washes currently in operation, with some 5-8 new washes under development at any given time. To compete and survive in this challenging industry, car washes have to possess superior facilities and deliver superior service in order to attract and retain customers. One of the very best small chains in the area is the Wetzone Car Wash. First established in 2004, this operation is the result of the entrepreneurial spirit of two college friends, Jorge Canto, originally from Panama and Gilberto Arcay, originally from Puerto Rico. They both met while attending the University of Houston back in the early ‘90’s, and became roommates and lifelong friends. The business started initially as a small 4-bay, self-service car wash with an in-bay automatic. Their concept was simple, “give the customers more than they expect”, insure all equipment works 100% of the time, and give customers plenty of high quality soap and chemicals.
That simple concept kept the business thriving and growing, even through difficult times. Following the economic recession in 2009, several other local car washes were going out of business. The partners saw an opportunity to purchase a distressed Full-Service car wash that had closed due to the tough market conditions. The original idea was to convert the old full service car wash into an Express wash, however when the location was reopened for business, the demand for Full-Service was still there. Wetzone quickly adopted to the “Flex” concept to meet the demand, gained a loyal following of customers, and the rest is history.
With their success, they soon decided to acquire a second car wash, refurbishing and turning around another older existing facility that was down on its luck. As their popularity spread, they eventually became the highest-rated car wash company in Houston. With that accomplished, they turned their sights on expanding once again, this time building a new large facility from the ground-up. Taking their time to find the best location possible, they finally selected a newly developed site on a major road in a rapidly growing area. Jorge explains their concept, “This new location in the north Houston area is the culmination of our 24 years of combined experience in the business. One thing we learned the hard way is that marketing and advertising is expensive, and it’s also hard work. In today’s competitive market it is not enough to over-deliver and provide great customer service, you have to have something that makes people want to come into your business over and over again. The concept for this location was to use the site as our main marketing tool. We wanted an iconic design that would make people look and want to come in, and once inside, provide the amenities that would keep them coming back. We believe this site has the right elements that will insure success and continued growth.”
In order to achieve the truly exciting eye-catching design they wanted for their new location, Jorge and Gil contacted our company, Car-Wash-Architect.com. We are a highly experienced architectural design firm specializing in larger, more elaborate car wash projects designed specifically to take-on highly competitive markets and succeed. They appreciated our design philosophy being able to create car wash designs that are highly functional with great traffic flow, but still possess outstanding street appeal with enough eye-candy to get the customers in the door, and do it all without breaking the bank.
A description of the design process we undertook for his new wash is explained in the sections that follow.
Site Layout — The property selected by the owner for the project was a large 2.12 acre site located along a major divided 4-lane road in the northern part of Pooler in its new commercial retail district. Part of a new retail development, the site was directly on the road but could only be accessed through a service drive in the rear of the property. As experienced car wash operators, Michael and his general manager Jimmy Wilson had already established the best way to lay out the site by the time we were contracted to start designing the site and building. Their business concept also included developing a separate large 3-lane double bay oil change building next to the car wash in the future, which had to be incorporated smoothly into the overall design without affecting traffic flow. One of the biggest challenges at this particular site was the very large landscape setback requirements, the worst being the 50-foot setback on the side facing the 4-lane road. Combined with 15-foot setbacks on the sides, this requirement reduced the size of buildable area considerably, affecting the conveyor length and the size of the after-care area in the front. Taking their initial layout, we designed the building and the site simultaneously, refining and enhancing their ideas, and in the final design were to provide a highly functional layout with great stacking, superior traffic flow, and excellent ingress/egress to the site.
Building Design — Wanting something fresh and appealing, yet incorporating major design elements of the original car wash location to help establish brand recognition, the car wash that the owner envisioned was a super-sized full-service type with unparalleled luxury and service never seen before in the Savannah area. Wanting to raise the bar way above any existing or future competition, he wanted to build a very long tunnel filled to the brim with equipment, multiple drive-thru indoor detailing bays, a large retail area, and a very spacious, over-the-top, luxurious customer lounge featuring lots of windows to view all of the action.
We started our design process by identifying the major design elements of their original location. There were only two identifiable features that stood out on this modern style building that would establish brand recognition: first, a unique large metal gable roof with glass clearstory over the Wash Tunnel—the building’s primary design feature—with all remaining areas of the roof flat and bordered by a level raised parapet. Second, all of the walls utilized split-face block. Both of these design elements would be utilized at the new site to establish brand recognition.
As a highly experienced building contractor, the owner had come up with a basic layout sketch of exactly how he wanted to lay out the interior. The only design challenge was how to incorporate all of these rooms he wanted (and to size them correctly) in a building with size limitations due to the large setback requirements and the space required for the future oil change adjacent to it. We also had to find innovative ways to break-up the boxy “L” shape of the building required to fit all of these rooms in order to add interest and road appeal to the exterior design. Our design solution was to once again utilize a large metal gable roof with glass clearstory as the primary design feature, but to place it over the Customer Lobby instead of the Wash Tunnel, and to extend it out front as a large covered porch with two massive columns. This change allowed this roof feature to be much larger in size than before and more striking in appearance from the street, as well as to provide the Customer Lobby with a very high cathedral ceiling. The ceiling peaks at an impressive 28 feet at the center. Combined with the already large size of the Lobby (48’-8” x 32’-4”), and numerous over-sized windows on three sides offering unobstructed views of the Wash Tunnel, Detailing Bays, and Covered Patio and after-care area, this provides customers with a dramatic, very spacious experience every time they visit.
To add interest and height to the rear side of the building (facing the entrance and stacking lanes), a smaller version of the metal gable roof was placed over the Wash Tunnel entrance. The remaining roof area is flat with a single-level parapet wall surrounding it. The long flat walls of the boxy structure were broken up by alternating areas of split-faced block with stucco-finished walls recessed in 8”. These areas were further delineated by painting them contracting colors.
The interior of the building is setup similar to many other full-service car washes, only at a much larger scale and considerably more spacious. Rooms created for wash operations, detailing, and employee areas are also much larger and more functional than typical full-service car washes. The Wash Tunnel is a very roomy 22’-0” wide x 118’-0” long inside, and the Equipment Room is a huge 14’-0” x 66’-4”, giving plenty of room to accommodate the wash support equipment and allow expansion in the future. The three-lane Detailing Bays are over-sized as well, at some 50’-0” wide x 60’-0” long, and include an adjacent large Vacuum Room, Storage Room, and additional employee Restroom. Employee areas include a large towel cleaning room, breakroom, and two restrooms.
That concludes the description of the site and building, along with the design process we used to achieve it. To better understand the project and the concepts behind it, we posed a number of questions to Savannah Car Wash’s owner, Michael Wakely, about his design requirements, management ideas, and equipment selection. His answers appear in the sections that follow.
What’s your background? I was a Regional Manager covering the East Coast for Jiffy Lube International. In 1994, I bought an existing Jiffy Lube location and built it up to a seven-store chain, which I later sold to a large franchise. I bought my first car wash location in late 2004 after years of co-development with a competitor wash. Savannah Car Wash was the biggest wash in town, so when it came up for sale in, I quickly concluded that a car wash business had much greater financial return opportunity than oil changes do in the long term. The original manager and assistant manager at my first wash, Jimmy Wilson and Pedro Cardenas, are today my two general managers, so our management turnover is pretty low. Since selling my Jiffy Lubes, I have started my car wash expansion plans by opening this new center in Pooler. I also plan to build two more full-service car washes in the future, for a total of four in the Savannah Market.
What’s your business philosophy? I believe that excellent customer service is the cornerstone for any long-term business survival. At Savannah Car Wash, our managers provide positive customer interaction to ensure each customer’s experience is a memorable one. For our customer’s comfort, we invest heavily in the appearance of our Lobby with large flat screen TV’s, free wireless access, refreshments, and modern furniture and up-scale ambiance. We focus heavily on good financial stewardship in our business, treating each part of the business as separate profit centers. The Detail Center, the Car Wash, and the Lobby are all tracked separately for labor costs, product costs, and individual expenses. Over 50% of each manager’s compensation is based directly on the overall profit of the center he is responsible for. By doing this, we end up with our managers having an “owner’s mentality” to watch controllables as closely as I do.
Why is your car wash so big? Bigger is Better! Every convention or meeting we went to as we prepared to build we heard, “We can do that with half the tunnel length,” or “Have you seen our 60 foot tunnel?” Everyone tried to talk us into a smaller tunnel. We have a lot of competition in our local market, so we needed to make a big impact and really stand out to attract new customers. And I think we did it—a two acre property, 10,700+ square foot building, 9 vehicle interior detail area, 12 space after-care area under canopy, and a long 145 foot tunnel.
Why is your Detailing Center so large? We have tripled our detail sales over the last six years and see plenty of opportunity in the detailing business for the future. We moved our Detail Bays next to the Lobby so that our customers can watch what goes on in the Detail Bays, which has led to more understanding of the detail services that we offer. We jazzed it up with a big seven-foot “Big Ass Fan”, Italian tile floors, central vacuum system, exposed roof beams, and Extratech covered walls. Detail customers are treated specially by having a different exit from the Lobby and exiting the property through a different driveway. The customers love it and our detail business has exceeded our expectations and continues to grow every day.
Why is the Tunnel so long? It’s all about the show! In a highly competitive market with limited disposable income, we know our customers want to see value for their hard earned money. We added numerous “viewing areas” in the Tunnel where the customers can see their car completely covered in presoak chemicals, the tri-color polish, and Rain-X sealant. We use the same amount of chemicals but allow it remain on the vehicle’s surface longer so the customer see the value they are getting. The customers enjoy it and feel that we are very serious about getting their car clean.
Why did you build your own facility? I’m a licensed contractor and I have an experienced crew that has built a lot of Jiffy Lubes, several funeral homes, large office buildings and several historic remodel projects together over the last seven years. We are an old-fashioned style construction company that actually employs tradesmen and do most of the work ourselves. By building this wash, we feel like we get a better quality building at a slightly cheaper price—and a good thing is if we have any problems down the road, we know what is behind the drywall.
Why did you hire Car-Wash-Architect.com to design it? They had considerably more experience designing car wash projects and working with wash equipment manufactures than any other architect we could find. Specifically, they designed a towel room for washing and folding towels that moved our washer out of the Tunnel and into a much more organized place. They also insisted on a massive flagpole, and it turns out because of signage restrictions, it is our best attention getter. Our original center had a peaked roof over the entrance and exit to the Tunnel. They moved this design feature to accent the Lobby and it has turned out to be a distinctive exterior feature that really added character to the building.
Why did you choose Sonny’s? We had Sonny’s equipment in our existing tunnel and enjoyed the accessibility of parts and the support we got from Sonny’s. We do our own repairs and maintenance on equipment and decided to install our own equipment. My manager, Jimmy Wilson, and my construction team installed all of the equipment. With the experience of installing the Tunnel, there is not much that can go wrong in it that we can’t replace or repair ourselves, and we enjoy not having to relying on outside service people. Ron Lick and Anthony Analetto from Sonny’s both visited the site and provided great guidance when we had a question.
Best piece of equipment bought from Sonny’s? The Spyder Wrap combination was the best piece of equipment we bought from Sonny’s. We had ours built with double jog electric big-man wraps entrance and exit, poodle tire brushes, side brushes, foam tubes, and front-to-back mitter curtain. We used the big-man wraps entrance and exit to address the increased numbers of SUV’s and pick-up trucks. It does an excellent job totally cleaning the car in a relatively short distance.
Why did you choose a Sobrite Reclaim System? We chose Sobrite because their equipment looked very durable and they were truly knowledgeable about getting a clean result at the end of the water reclaim cycle. Bryant Ruder, vice-president of Sobrite, spent countless hours on the phone with my project supervisor, Mike DeCaire, helping him install and start-up the system. We are so happy with their system that we are looking to put a Sobrite system in our original location as well.
Why did you use Hydro-Flex? This is the first time we have used the Hydro-flex Aqua-Lab MD chemical dispensing system. We love the consistent titration of the chemical application on cars. We have a problem with water pressure in Savannah so the water pump system is great for us. We mounted it on a piece of aluminum diamond plate so it not only helps to better organize our Equipment Room, but it looks great as well.
Why did you go with ISI computer system? Integrated Services Incorporated (ISI) was the supplier to Jiffy Lube for POS systems when I was a Franchisee, so I had worked with a lot of people at ISI before. The Point of Sale system was pretty similar to what we had used in the past and is very user friendly. The initial cost and the ongoing maintenance cost are much more manageable than competitors.
Why do you use Zep Vehicle Care for your products? We use Zep Vehicle Care because we feel like we get a lot of support from our Zep representative, Victor Buffo. He helped us with plumbing of all our chemical lines and provided a lot of input on what was working in other washes. The quality of the product is strong and we like the benefit of continued development of the chemical line.
The new Pooler location of Savannah Car Wash opened in early May of this year. The general reaction from customers has been, “Wow, this is really cool!” They love it because of the large, open, very spacious feel of the interior and the high ceilings, along with the ability to easily observe all of the action in the detailing department as employees work on their vehicles, and be able to watch their car progressing through the Tunnel at all stages of the washing process. Michael Wakely adds that at least three times a day our employees hear, “This is the nicest car wash I have ever been in.” I think that statement alone says it all.
Christopher Crawford is with Car-Wash-Architect.com. He will be writing additional articles in upcoming issues concerning designing and constructing new car washes, as well as renovating existing ones. You can visit his company’s website for more information about the services they offer, or call them at (561) 212-3364.