Going Colonial in the DC Metro Area - Redefining the Full-Service Car Wash Model
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.
Bleacher-style seating allows for unobstructed viewing of the tunnel action.
A beer/wine bar envisioned as an extension of the cash-register area.
Historically a laid-back quiet rural area of farms and small piedmont towns, Loudoun County was highly impacted when the Washington-Dulles International Airport first opened in the early 1960s. 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 more than 413,500 residents, Loudoun is the third-most populous county in Virginia. With a median household income of $136,268 (2018) it has been ranked 1st in the United States 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 1700s, 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:
IN HIS OWN WORDS
“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 have 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:
Like a Hotel
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” held annually to recognize the best of our hotel housekeepers, we will recognize and reward the champions of our BriteWash sparkling clean process.
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: • 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. • 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.” • 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 overemphasized. My first BriteWash site is located along a heavily trafficked freeway with a new interchange and sits in front of an existing Lowe’s Home Improvement retail site. The site surrounding the Lowe’s is currently being redeveloped to become part of a new upscale neighborhood shopping center that itself is necessitated by the area’s population growth. To illustrate the area’s rapid transformation, the 2020 population is now estimated at 133,992 residents within 5 miles of the project location on Russell Branch Parkway. Over the last 20 years the population has more than doubled, with the average age dropping slightly to 36.6 years. Even more impressive, the average household income is now $182,539, double that of the 2000 estimate. 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, more affluent, 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. What is needed are extra elements that afford me a share premium when business is soft: “created” advantages. Brainstorming with my architect, we came up with several possible advantages to build into the BriteWash design concept: 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: • Three floor-to-ceiling windowsproviding a “show wall” into the car wash tunnel featuring a laser light/black-light enhanced visual of cascading foam cleaners • Three 65” 4K LED TVs broadcasting human interest shows on weekdays and sports on weekends • Modern industrial interior motif complemented by hanging heavy-glass-dome fixtures, polished cement floors, and exposed aluminum mechanicals • Bleacher-style booth for kids to allow easy tunnel light-show viewing • An attractive women’s restroom A sundry shop operation featuring a variety of tantalizing items: • Pre-packaged baked goods, snacks, chips, candies, cold beverages, and frozen snacks • Freshly popped popcorn available for free on weekdays from 3-4 p.m. (timed for parents’ pick up of students and running after-school errands with kids) • Car-oriented products like hanging air-fresheners, Armor-All wipes, Rain X, fix-a-flat, pet-hair-lifter, etc. • 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-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: • Most sophisticated water reclaim system (90 percent reuse) • 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.
My selected architect, Car-Wash-Architect.com, specializes 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. As we progressed through the design process, selections were made for tunnel equipment, vacuums, point-of-sale system, and water reclaim. I chose MacNeil, AutoVac, DRB, and SoBrite as my major equipment vendors. I also want to thank Jimmy Bridges and Dominic Lewinsohn at Iron Fox, the local MacNeil equipment rep and installer. They provided 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 trade publications, 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 rectangular in shape — when combined with these large easements and setbacks, the conveyor length was limited 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 interior-building layout is an exceedingly efficient and functional design with no wasted space anywhere. Interior rooms appear more spacious because of high ceilings and numerous large windows allowing excellent views of both the wash tunnel and the finish/detail lanes. The lobby promises to be an inviting space from which to view all of the action.
The architectural design of the building exterior had to meet the requirements of the Town of Leesburg Historic District. Working collaboratively with the shopping center developer and the town, the design produced an attractive modern version of colonial style. 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 with light and dark grey accents.
Based upon the population, demographics, and economics of the area, as well as what research revealed 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 in one of the four 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 while enjoying snacks and even beer or wine in the afternoon.
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, VA 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 at another newly developed shopping center being built just south of regionally popular and historic U.S. Route 50 Highway, connecting northern Virginia’s Blue Ridge Mountains to the U.S. Capitol before it heads on further to the Naval Academy in Annapolis.
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.
NAME: BRITEWASH AUTO WASH
WASH TYPE: Full-Serve (Modified)
CONVEYOR LENGTH: 111 foot with custom-designed self-cleaning trench
SITE AREA: 1.33 acres (58,020 sq. ft.)
BUILDING AREA: 5,678 sq. ft. enclosed / 11,681 sq. ft. under roof
OWNER: Miller Auto Wash LLC/Greg Miller
ARCHITECT: Car-Wash- Architect.com/Steve Siebert & Chris Crawford
RENDERER: Xpress Rendering/Paola Bernasconi
CONTRACTOR: Count On Us Construction, Inc. / Bill Shendell
WASH REP / INSTALLER: Iron Fox/Dominic Lewinsohn and James Bridges
WASH EQUIPMENT: MacNeil Wash Systems Limited, Canada
VACUUM SYSTEMS: Autovac Industrial Vacuum & Air Systems