When David Daniels, co-owner of Village Car Wash, first got started in the carwash industry in 2009, he never thought he’d one day be running a full service wash. In fact, he says, “If someone asked me if I would ever build a full service carwash, without hesitation, the answer is no.”
After all, owners and investors over the last two decades have trended towards building express models for their speed and convenience — responses to shifts in customer priorities. However, it is precisely because of this recent explosion in express models that both Daniels’ and fellow co-owner John Tankersley’s views on full-serves have changed.
Daniels worked in the real estate industry for 25 years before he built his first flex-serve, Car Wash Express, in St. Cloud, Florida, in 2009. He later went on to build a second location in Kissimmee, Florida, in 2016. In 2018, Daniels started developing another carwash site and sought an investor/partner for the venture. At that point, a friend introduced him to Tankersley, who had sold his insurance agency the year prior and opened his own flex-serve in Kissimmee — Watershed Car Wash — that same year. (He still remains full-time in the insurance industry, however.) Although they did not partner up for the venture and Daniels eventually sold the site to a regional chain, they stayed in contact, and in 2019, Daniels began helping Tankersley manage Watershed.
At this time, Daniels and Tankersley began looking for land upon which to build a site together. But with all the new washes coming to the area and competing for sites, it proved more challenging than they had anticipated.
“After building three new carwashes between [ourselves], we decided the Central Florida carwash market is starting to be controlled by the larger private equity companies and is becoming very difficult for the one-off operator to compete [in]. We are starting to see carwashes being built within three miles of each other, like [in] other parts of the country, and time will tell, but we are already seeing several washes struggling to survive with the increased competition,” Daniels explains.
Then, in late 2019, Daniels sold both of his carwash locations to Mister Car Wash. In December, on the heels of that sale, Daniels and Tankersley heard about a full service carwash in The Villages, Florida, potentially going up for sale. The carwash had been built in 2004 with a 90-foot tunnel, two detail bays, two oil lube bays (which were closed down in 2018), a customer lobby, an employee break room and offices.
Given what they had seen of the industry makeup in their area, an opportunity they would never have considered before suddenly ended up looking like a competitive advantage.
“John and I had both built three previous flex and express carwashes from the ground up, and we never expected to buy a full service carwash; however, with the express market getting saturated in our area, we felt like this was a good opportunity to go in a different direction,” Daniels states. “It was good timing for us also, since we did not want to wait several years to develop a new site, and after selling to Mister, it was good timing for me to find an existing wash that did not need to be rebranded.”
So, they contacted the owner, and two weeks later, they had the location under contract; they closed the sale on Feb. 14, 2020. Little did they know that in just the next month, their new business would be put to the ultimate test.
Just in time for a pandemic
“We got up and running in five weeks, and all was good until late March when the COVID pandemic happened,” Daniels recalls. “We closed the wash in the last week of March and applied for the first round of the government PPP program and were approved. We were very lucky due to the fact we had to have been in business since Feb. 15, 2020 to qualify, so we made it by one day. We were able to keep all 33 of our employees paid during the closure.”
Despite the obvious setback of having to shut down, Daniels and Tankersley decided to take advantage of the situation. Going into the purchase, they recognized that the carwash needed some cosmetic work, and they had already planned to do some renovations to it; the pandemic just sped up the timeline a bit. The previous owner had just installed new tunnel equipment the summer before, but the waiting areas still needed help. Their five-week closure allowed them to give the inside of the facility a complete facelift. They put in new floors, countertops, paint, chairs, security cameras and detail bays, and they updated the bathrooms.
The carwash reopened on May 1st, following recommended safety guidelines, but even then, the remodel wasn’t complete. In July, they closed down the wash again for one week to update its exterior, which included repainting the building, resealing the parking lot, installing new signs, putting in new landscaping and LED lights as well as installing a 15-by-30-foot shade structure at the tunnel exit for the employees to protect them from the hot Florida sun.
“The changes really transformed the place, and customers’ comments with the improvements were all positive,” Daniels says.
Not retiring full service just yet
The Villages is an active retirement community with a population of 125,000 that has both part-time and full-time residents. According to Daniels, it is one of the fastest-growing cities in the U.S. and is also home to the largest veteran population in America that has no military base.
While many carwashes seek to build on major roadways, Village Car Wash is actually located in a plaza in this community. As a result, it is more of a destination carwash, and the business model focuses on offering full service wash packages that include light interior cleaning, as opposed to offering exterior-only options. That being said, Daniels notes that speed is still critical to the customer experience, so Village Car Wash strives to produce a quality job within a reasonable wait time.
In addition, the carwash has three detail bays staffed with full-time detailers who handle both walk-ins and appointments. Given that there are dozens of golf courses in the area and that the community itself is golf-cart friendly, perhaps one of the more unique aspects of this carwash’s clientele is its daily, steady volume of golf cart details.
While customers are waiting either in the rocking chairs on the covered patio or in the air-conditioned lobby, they can take advantage of free coffee and shop around for snacks, drinks, greeting cards and a host of automotive impulse items.
Village Car Wash also rewards loyalty. When customers purchase a wash, the full-time cashier will enter their phone numbers into the database, which allows the wash to keep track of how often they visit. After they purchase 10 washes, customers receive a $14 credit to be used on any wash package.
According to Daniels, being a full service wash in an active adult community means that it’s especially important to cater to customers, since word-of-mouth travels fast. As such, Village Car Wash tries to create a friendly, inviting atmosphere. Several staff members have been employed at the carwash for many years, Daniels says, and so they know most of the customers by name. It’s this sort of small touch that differentiates one business from another and helps keep Village Car Wash successful.
As a result, Daniels and Tankersley are choosing to focus on improving what they have rather than how much they could have.
“For the time being, we are content with being a smaller operator with no major expansion [plans] at this time,” Daniels concludes. “The site we purchased had been run really well by the previous owner and had many employees that had been there for over five years, and with the 55-plus demographics, it is the perfect wash model for the city. We are not going to wash 500 cars a day, but business is steady, and we have some very loyal customers that have no desire to vacuum their own cars.”