It’s no secret that the carwash business is booming. In fact, the title of a recent article from www.jacksonville.com proclaimed, “Car washes becoming as common as rain in the summer.” The article goes on to observe that while carwashes used to be quiet businesses here and there, now they appear to be popping up on every corner. Of course, a large part of this can be attributed to the recent explosion in and success of express locations, causing these institutions to become carwashing chains.
However, Shell Grossman, owner of Bixby Knolls Car Wash and Detail Center in Long Beach, California, and her husband Sheldon, who formerly owned it alongside her before his passing, made a decision decades ago to invest their time and attention into only one carwash and to keep it that way.
“One’s all you need,” Grossman deems. “But, I know that there’s a lot of businesses that are buying and they’ve got many, but then you need a lot of supervisors and managers, and it takes people. It takes good people. The difference between us, primarily, and express is the labor. We do have a big labor force. And, it takes that [labor] to give the service that we need to give.”
Now, Bixby Knolls Car Wash and Detail Center — a full service hand wash — is celebrating its 40th anniversary, and its labor force is key to its success.
All for one and one for all
In 1966, Sheldon Grossman got into the carwash business by purchasing his first wash. Over the next decade, he proceeded to buy two and build one more, but it wasn’t until 1977 that he and Shell, his new bride, bought a fifth carwash and renamed it Bixby Knolls Car Wash. Within the next year, the two Shells, as they were often called, sold off Sheldon’s two other carwashes in order to devote their time and attention solely to Bixby Knolls.
“We kind of treated the carwash like a child, putting our attention and love into the carwash and each other,” Grossman explains.
They grew the carwash in stages. In the 1980s, they added six self service bays to the lot, and eventually they also added both a detail center — which is the largest one in the area, according to Grossman — as well as an express exterior wash. Recently, they even put in a self-serve pet wash. In covering so many bases, this carwash is truly unique for this day and age. But, as Grossman notes, at one time, Bixby Knolls had no competition; now it does, and it has to keep up with its competitors, but she’s a firm believer that competition is healthy.
“The self service really works well with the full service because those who don’t really want us to touch their car or [would] rather do it themselves or don’t think they can afford a full service use the self service. And, it’s open 24/7, so they can come anytime,” Grossman explains. “It’s not too common, to tell you the truth. People thought it was an odd thing for us to do. We thought it would just appeal to a different type of customer. And, fortunately, we’ve had the space to do it.”
In addition to owning and operating the carwash, the Grossmans have been very active in both the local and carwash communities over the past four decades. Not only have they been longtime members of the Chambers of Commerce for both Long Beach and Signal Hill, California, but Sheldon was also a charter board member of the Bixby Knolls Business Improvement Association.
Furthermore, while the Grossmans have also been members of both the International Carwash Association (ICA) and the Western Carwash Association (WCA), their involvement didn’t stop there. Sheldon was not only on the board of directors for the California Car Wash Association (before it became the WCA) for eight years, but he also served as its president for two years. Later, he was a board member of the WCA for four years, and he also served on the board of directors for the ICA.
Bixby Knolls is a community business, Grossman notes, and therefore, it’s been important to both Shell and Sheldon to be involved in both the local and carwash communities. Locally, for instance, Bixby Knolls donates to nearly every charity that asks. As far as the carwash community is concerned, the Grossmans have always been ardent trade show attendees. “We always learn something, and if not, [we] are reminded of something that [we] do know, but have forgot or are not using. So, we always come back inspired, and we’ve kind of just kept reinvesting our time, energy and money in the carwash to make it thrive and make it wonderful for our employees and for the customers,” Grossman relates.
Focusing on friendliness
“The Bixby Knolls Car Wash and Detail Center is dedicated to enriching our customers’ lives by consistently meeting and exceeding their expectations and providing outstanding and timely service with a clean car in a safe, environmentally-friendly surrounding,” reads the carwash’s mission statement. Customer service — and thereby the customer experience — is central to both the carwash’s modus operandi and its success over the last 40 years.
“We want to make the experience fun — one where [the customers] leave feeling better than they did when they came in,” Grossman explains. “We really focus on friendliness — smiling, saying ‘hello’ to customers and making them feel welcome — because the biggest compliment a customer can pay you is to leave and tell their friends and family to come here.”
But this sort of customer service doesn’t come naturally. Grossman routinely takes the entire company out to dinner at a local restaurant where they discuss best customer-service practices. For instance, Grossman says, “I get very detailed, like [talking about] smiling and [explaining that] most Americans like to be looked in the eye. Some cultures don’t, so we talk about that [too]. And, body language [is also something we discuss].”
Furthermore, since a significant percentage of the staff is Hispanic, the entire conversation is translated into Spanish so that everyone in the room understands it.
In addition to friendliness, Grossman avows that you need to be a good listener and take all customer complaints seriously — even if it’s simply misinformation on the customer’s part — in order to make him or her happy, which is key.
“Each customer has a different expectation. Some think if the windows aren’t clean, the car’s not clean. [For] others, it’s the tires. So, everybody has a different expectation, but they do want a clean car,” Grossman edifies. Bixby Knolls even takes customers’ schedules into account. For those who say they’re in a hurry, Grossman notes, the carwash will be sure to put a few people to work on a car and get it out faster.
“Customers go primarily where it’s convenient, and then if they like the service and their experience, they’ll come back,” Grossman relates.
Of course, none of this great customer experience would be possible without equally great employees. “I have a wonderful team of people,” Grossman proclaims. “When Sheldon did pass away, everybody stepped up to the plate and they all worked a little extra — I would say a lot extra. We’ve got very dedicated, hardworking employees.” Many of the carwash’s employees have stayed with the company for over 10 years. In fact, Ramon Paz, the general manager, who Grossman treats as a son, has been with Bixby Knolls for over 35 years and also recently won the Manager of the Year award from the WCA.
Another central part of the customer experience has to do with aspects of the carwash site itself. For instance, Bixby Knolls takes pride in being eco-friendly, which is especially important in California. According to Grossman, the Department of Water in Long Beach says that it prefers people using professional carwashes over washing at home since the runoff from driveway washing goes into storm drains that lead to the ocean. “We want to keep our oceans clean,” Grossman asserts. As part of these environmental initiatives, the carwash recently changed most of its lighting to LEDs, and it also reclaims its water. Furthermore, the carwash installed a new, quieter dryer to mitigate the noise pollution coming from the property.
Additionally, Grossman is adamant that having a clean site is critical, “because we’re selling cleanliness.” While litter will certainly drop to the ground as crews clean out car interiors, the wash’s employees make sure to clean the lot often. Moreover, she notes, “We focus on cleanliness and keeping the place painted and our signs fresh because we are not a new carwash, so we have to keep upgrading and keep the place nice.”
Gone, but not forgotten
After a nearly 50-year career in carwashing, Sheldon passed away on April 15, 2015. However, though he may be gone, his memory still remains at the carwash. “He was really dedicated to the business and to the association, and he loved this business,” Grossman intimates. “We learned a lot from each other. He taught me and I taught him, so it was a symbiotic relationship. And, in some ways, he’s still here with me and with all of us because everybody misses him. I think he inspires all of us, even though he’s not here anymore. We all still say, ‘What would he do?’”
Grossman recalls that Sheldon once told her, “Honey, if I go before you, I’d just like a little to-do.”
“Well, I gave him a big to-do,” Grossman explains. “We had over 300 people there at his memorial. And, all the employees came in uniform to the memorial. [Sheldon] has a 1941 Cadillac convertible. We still have it. They brought his car.”
On Sept. 22, 2017, Bixby Knolls celebrated its 40th anniversary. The carwash shut down for half a day so that it could prepare for the festivities properly. Local restaurants set up tables to give away free food, and guests enjoyed live music, entertainment, games, prizes and free photo booth-style pictures. “We invited our customers because it’s for them — it’s for the community,” Grossman asserts.
Bixby Knolls celebrated its 20th and 35th anniversaries in similar style, and, according to Grossman, the 35th anniversary celebration attracted at least 800 people — a clear indication that, with a four-decade fixed presence in the community, this carwash has made a dedicated effort to build relationships with both its customers and the community at large.
Even the mayor and the local police and fire departments made a visit to the carwash for its anniversary this year. And, Sheldon had a presence there too. “We … put his picture out, and his car too,” Grossman concludes. “He was a very special person, and I feel blessed to have known him for almost 40 years.”