When partners Chris Fisher and Mark Curtis first entered the car wash business over three decades ago they were like most rookie operators — unsure of the true pressures of running a successful wash, but confident they would find a way to succeed.
The car-washing duo opened their first site in the early 1980s and what they lacked in solid industry credentials they made up for in determination. The first Splash Car Wash was an exterior only location that the partners eventually converted to a flex serve. As the business began to take hold they would add a second full-service hand wash tunnel to the site. They operated their single-location enterprise for 13 years before deciding to expand in the mid ‘90s. Once the decision to become a multiple site wash was made the partners began expanding their holdings at an accelerated pace.
Fast forward to present day and the veteran operators are in control of a 19-location chain that is not only thriving with a do-it-all approach, but continuing to expand its offerings and enter new markets when most washers would be looking longingly toward retireme
The Splash Car Wash logo was updated to celebrate its 35th anniversary.
“I didn’t know much about the industry when we opened our first location,” Curtis says. “I was the quintessential guy who the people in the industry laugh at. You know the guy that says how hard can it be. I think those words actually came out of my mouth.”
While it hasn’t been easy, the founders of Splash Car Wash have certainly made their mark on the industry with 19 diverse locations spanning Connecticut and New York. No two Splash sites are identical. The chain features hand washes, self-serves, in-bay automatics, express exteriors, flex serves, and full-service offerings. “You name it and we do it,” Curtis says.
Splash’s latest location, opened in conjunction with the wash’s 35th anniversary celebration, is a dual-tunnel Mecca of clean that is the new reigning flagship of the Splash empire. The Bedford Hills, NY site took over a year to construct and has all of the next-gen bells and whistles while remaining focused on providing a superior customer experience.
Full-service customers can choose from a host of retail options in the fully stocked lobby.
The first of the two tunnels at the Bedford Hills location features an automated express exterior, complete with Micrologic pay gates, Motor City Wash Works conveyor and wash equipment, and a Protovest dryer.
“I actually love going through it,” Curtis says of the new express tunnel. “The pay gates are a neat addition. This is the first site that we put them in. People really seem to like them. It definitely appeals to that express mentality.”
The other chamber of Splash’s double-barrel approach is locked and loaded with a full-service conveyorized hand wash that appeals to those customers that desire a modern take on the traditional full-service experience. The tunnel sports floor-to-ceiling glass, allowing those in the well-appointed retail lobby the perfect vantage point to view the action in the tunnel.
Like every Splash site, the Bedford location features both full serve and express detailing services, conducted out of a 2,000-square-foot dedicated detail center. “Express has been a great service for us,” Curtis says. “People love it because oftentimes only part of their vehicle requires special attention. Offering individual options speeds up the service and reduces the price. But once or twice a year cars need that special full-service treatment from top to bottom. That has been a great service for us as well.”
The detailing center can accommodate up to six vehicles at a time.
The full-service hand wash tunnel is visible from the retail lobby.
Operating 19 diverse locations presents a unique set of challenges. The majority of Splash’s locations were acquisitions rather than ground-up builds, meaning the operators needed to adapt to a wide range of wash concepts as well as distinct local demographics.
“Most of our washes are in affluent communities like Greenwich, CT,” Curtis says. “But we have been opportunistic with our acquisitions and own a few washes in urban areas like Bridgeport and New Haven. The different wash concepts are really reflective of the markets they are in. We try to match the service to customer demand.”
Although the history of Splash is filled with success, the wash has not been without its fair share of setbacks. Over the years the partners have operated some less than stellar locations that they have been forced to close once it became clear they would never be profitable.
“Sometimes if you obtain success like we did with our first site you almost start to believe that anything you touch will be good,” Curtis says. “There is truth to the line that you can’t put lipstick on a pig. We tried to do that not just once but a couple of times.”
While investing in some questionable locations might have left a foul taste in Curtis and Fisher’s mouths they never stopped believing in themselves and their ability to choose and operate winning locations. Despite some missteps early in their car wash career one aspect of the partners’ business model that they have never regretted is their commitment to community outreach and fundraising efforts.
“Fundraising has been part of our DNA for 30 years,” Curtis says. “It started when we had our first good year after several not so good years and we wanted to give something back to the community. I called up a local group that helped special needs kids. We agreed to offer the community free washes for a day and only asked for donations. I think we washed 500 or 600 cars, which was the best day we had ever had at that point and we raised a few thousand bucks for the charity.”
As the chain grew in size the approach to fundraising evolved over time to include the sale of gift cards, donations to raffles, onsite bake sales, etc. Between its 19 locations Splash supports over 400 charities annually, which requires both Curtis and a full-time staffer to manage.
While the wash’s philanthropic efforts have built goodwill within the community, continued dedication to its marketing efforts has helped establish the chain as a household name. Splash mixes traditional marketing like radio, television, and print advertising with new-school digital efforts to keep the business top of mind among its key demographics. Among the brand’s key next-gen marketing strategies is a geo-fencing campaign that markets to the wash’s Facebook followers with push messaging when they get close to a Splash location.
“The thing that I find challenging in the marketing arena is there is so much to choose from,” Curtis says. “You need to figure out which methods are the most effective and tailor your message to that particular medium.”
Splash Car Wash owes its success to its willingness to embrace change. Curtis and Fisher represent both the old guard and the new school, able to adjust not only their business strategies, but their entire operational model to fit localized demand. With over three decades of experience in their rear view and continued expansion on the road ahead Splash’s 35th anniversary was not a celebration of the past, but rather a coronation of what has yet to come.