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The pros and cons of the themed carwash

October 11, 2010
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In striving to meet customer needs, the carwash industry has a handful of operators who accomplish this with what some call theme washes and others call high-end operations.

Under either title, these washes promise new customer expectations for the carwash industry.

By offering entertainment, shopping, luxury and extravagance, these owners are raising the carwashing bar and forcing competitors to either increase their standards or be left behind.

The pioneer — Delta Queen, CA

In 1964, Frank Dorsa owned a carwash in Campbell, CA, but thought there had to be a better way to run it. He simply wasn't content with the plain building, inadequate equipment and sub-par standards.

By 1972 Dorsa began to develop his vision into reality.

While creating his second wash, Dorsa realized his facility would need to build up because of space limitations. He decided to be creative in his architectural design.

A few weeks later the residents of Campbell began to see what looked like a Mississippi river boat developing on Dorsa's plot of land — they were right.

The pros: You get success with a successful theme

Dorsa's second venture would soon become the first ever theme carwash. Delta Queen is a carwash housed inside a riverboat and surrounded by water on three sides.

Not only was Dorsa pleased with his new creation, but he quickly realized that his customers loved it.

Delta Queen was opened at a time when women were becoming a larger part of the consumer segment. Dorsa found that women appreciated visiting a carwash that was safe, affordable, modern and fun, especially if they had children in tow.

In 1977 Dorsa built a second theme wash based on a Victorian premise in Santa Clara, CA. The result was the same as the first: a hit.

It's over 30 years later and Dorsa's theme carwashes are still thriving. For a prospective theme wash owner this is a great sign and motivator.

The cons: Hindsight is 20/20

However, according to Dorsa, it's not as much the theme as it is the service that has made his carwashes succeed. If he ever chose to build another wash he said he probably wouldn't make it themed.

According to Dorsa, the added expenses associated with a theme wash don't suit the American culture of fast, in-and-out service.

Today there is so much competition in the carwashing sector that Dorsa said if an owner sinks a lot of money into a big facility, and someone builds a quality regular wash at a cheaper price down the street, the theme wash owner will probably incur a higher maintenance cost and in the end turn a lower profit.

The newcomer — Happy Bays, FL

If Dorsa seems like the old time realist of theme carwashes, Alan Norris could be defined as the unwavering optimist.

Norris is new to the theme carwash industry, but has seven years of regular wash experience under his belt. He recently opened Happy Bays, a 50s themed carwash in Sanford, FL, and is thrilled with the outcome.

Norris received his inspiration and theme idea from Shel Spivey, the owner of nine Happy Bays in various locations throughout Arkansas. To Norris, Spivey's carwashes seemed to be about seven steps ahead of other carwashes.

When Spivey mentioned franchising to Norris the floodgates opened for new ideas and innovative creations.

The pros: Rising above the rest

Norris wanted his washes to be completely different from the competition — to be recognizable, but more importantly fun.

Happy Bays fulfilled both those requirements by combining the familiar 50s theme with new technology that enhanced the wash experience.

Visitors are taken back to the 50s by the automated light show, including a disco ball, bubbles and a '57 Chevy and 55 Mustang that stick out from the wall and bop to the beat.

Norris disagrees with Dorsa on the significance of the theme carwash. Norris' facilities saw excellent feedback from the community, leading him to believe that the extra fluff  as he likes to term it, was worth the money.

And while Dorsa believes the theme carwash is what one might call, a dying breed, Norris thinks that if a potential carwash owner wants to break into the industry, theme is the way to go.

Norris said that a theme carwash is like a magnet and that its uniqueness separates it from the run-of-the-mill wash. He compared a theme carwash's recognition to that of McDonalds or Burger King.

Norris is a true believer in the benefits of a theme carwash and has plans to open two new facilities within the next 24-36 months.

According to him, anyone who can't perceive the advantages and positives of his or her theme wash hasn't done a very good job.

The cons: High costs of starting

Norris does agree with Dorsa on one point in particular.

Norris and Dorsa both assert that theme carwashes are expensive. In total, Norris said he probably spent $50,000 more on his theme carwash than he would have if he were opening a regular carwash.

The staple — Grand Prix Carwash, IL

Carwashing and car racing seem to go hand in hand. Therefore, a theme wash with a racecar premise would be an obvious partnership.

What makes the Grand Prix Car Wash in Deerfield, IL different is the creativity behind the theme. With employees dressed in race-inspired pit crew uniforms and video tracks of actual racing events, the race fan customer enters a haven of racing delights.

Juli Jacobs, co-owner and the director of marketing said the basic intent with Grand Prix, opened in 1997, was to make the carwash a destination rather than an obligation.

The pros: Customers choose more

Jacobs said she and her husband Keith wanted to bring some flash and splash to their wash. She disagrees with the adage that the theme carwash is a dying breed.

What a theme wash needs to prosper, according to Jacobs, is proper research and innovation. A theme wash owner also needs to realize that it will cost a bundle.

But, Jacobs notes that in the end it is worth the expense because a customer is going to choose a wash that offers something more over a standard, everyday operation.

The cons: Don't go overboard

The only warning Jacobs would give a prospective theme carwash owner is to not go overboard with the bells and whistles.

A carwash is first and foremost a service institution, constructed to attend to its customer's needs. A theme carwash that is more like Disneyland than a carwash will likely not provide the quality service that every customer seeks.

Initially, for added effect, Grand Prix employees serviced customers as a pit crew would: quickly. However, Jacobs realized from customer feedback that people will always choose a quality job over extra theme traits.

Bottom line, sometimes with theme carwashes, less is more concerning the extra hoopla, and more service means less dissatisfaction.

The White Elephant — Boardwalk Car Wash, IL

Every industry and trend evolves, and the theme carwash is no exception. Ideas that were once new can become dated and concepts and creations are expanded and built upon.

Nick and Anthony Spallone, owners of the Boardwalk Car Wash in Des Plains, IL, have taken the theme carwash in a new direction. In fact, they don't really consider their carwash a theme wash; to them it's a high-end operation.

Like Norris, the Spallones wanted to stand out from the rest of the industry. Nick Spallone decided a long time ago that if he ever built anything he wanted it to have the quality and aesthetics similar to the hotels in Las Vegas, specifically the Venetian.

On May 20, 2004, the Spallones achieved their goal when they opened the Boardwalk Car Wash. After spending approximately $5 million, the brothers became proud owners of one of the most unique and luxurious carwashes of today.

With lavish hallways, plush bathrooms and extravagant offices, the Boardwalk looks more like a hotel than a carwash. According to Nick Spallone, this was the exact goal the brothers had in mind.

The Spallone brothers were aiming for upscale, luxury and comfort with their high-end carwash. According to Nick, they wanted people to almost forget they were waiting for their car to be washed.

Well worth the expense

Was it worth it? Would they do it again? Absolutely, Nick Spallone said. This would be the only way he would do it.

Nick Spallone falls in line with the other theme wash owners on one thing; success is based on the quality of the job done.

He also said that in many instances, people will return to a carwash if they like the owner, regardless of the style or type of facility.

Whether it's the Spallone's personality, the quality of the job, or the distinctive style, Nick Spallone said that he is sure that his high-end carwash has expanded the types of people that visit his wash.

His previous regular washes never saw the diversification and culture that Boardwalk sees.

Standard makeover

In September of 2004 the New York Times looked at theme carwashes and their noticeable evolution.

The paper described the carwash as a "timeless symbol of America and the open road" and decreed that the carwash is "getting a makeover."

More than just a makeover, these creative entrepreneurs are reinventing carwash expectations and standards.

Regardless of the new look and entertainment at theme washes, one thing remains the same, customers are not distracted by the activity and fun, they still expect a quality wash.

The question theme washes raise is: why choose a regular wash, when for the same price, a customer can combine cleaning and entertainment in a single stop?

After all, isn't multitasking what America is all about?