Profile in Success - August 2007

LA Renovation
Money Well Spent
By Jim and Elaine Norland

Because of Century's landmark status, the distinctive marquee sign (top) and 11 signature steel columns (bottom) are being retained.

Why on earth would anyone “overspend” ten-fold on a car wash renovation?

That flies in the face of conventional wisdom, but Kami Emain did just that at Century Car Wash at 4700 W. Century Blvd. in Inglewood, CA. He could have done an ordinary renovation on the 43-year-old wash for around $50,000. Instead he poured $475,000 into an upgrade that wows the city and neighborhood and makes a great impression on motorists going to and from Los Angeles International Airport.

Since 1994, Emain has owned and operated 27 car washes in southern California, some in partnership and some as the sole owner. He has sold 22 of those washes and owns five now, three operational and two under construction. With that depth of experience and ownership, one would think he might have spent more conservatively at Century, a landmark in Inglewood since 1964.

Rather than a simple utilitarian makeover of the wash, Emain went for the designer look, more typically seen in high-end residential projects, hotels, and restaurants in the Los Angeles area. “While it would have been easy to do a $50,000 quick fix that marginally improved the cosmetic appearance of the business, I thought it would be a novel idea to put a significant amount of money into this project [and believed that it] would result in increased business.”

He revised the entire mechanical setup of the wash, converting it from a hand wash to a well-attended machine wash tunnel. The 200-ft. tunnel structure has a 165-ft. conveyor. “I remodeled the whole tunnel from the conveyor to the back room,” he reports.

Using NS Lammscloth equipment, he installed one machine first, added another and is in process of adding more mitters, wraps, and other equipment. “Customers (used to the hand wash approach) complained a little at the beginning,” he says, “but now we have increased the car count by 40 percent to 50 percent.”

His plan is to make Century Car Wash into a flex-serve setup, with customers choosing between express-exterior cleaning or full interior and exterior service.

The new retail area.

Because of its landmark status, the City of Inglewood didn’t allow Emain to substantially change any part of the building’s exterior. Its architectural distinction includes a large marquee sign and 11 signature steel columns.

Inside was another story. He hired Land Mind Design to give the Century Car Wash interior an upscale designer look. To give the firm a better idea of what was wanted, “I took the design guy to one of the restaurants I enjoy looking at, even though I hated the food. He asked, ‘Are you sure you want to go to this extent?’” and Emain assured him that he did.

Instead of a typical drop ceiling of sound-absorbent tiles, Emain installed undulating wood ceilings with recessed lighting. Rather than inexpensive wallboard for inside walls, he used aluminum paneling and accented the modern interior with stainless steel furnishings and fixtures. An outdoor patio area is furnished with aluminum and teak tables and seating, and surround sound equipment completes the relaxing environment.

Emain added 700 square feet to the original building to include attractions and amenities such as a full-service coffee and espresso bar, a seven-door cooler for cold drinks, a pastry and fresh sandwich case, a 7-foot mahogany humidor for storing fine cigars, and a shoe-shine service area.

Boutique merchandise adds to the upscale ambience. In this regard, lobby sales are a benefit Emain values as much as any profit he makes from them. The company’s main business is cleaning cars, he points out. The retail area is stocked with some basic convenience merchandise and boutique items that are visually entertaining for customers. “The display of the store becomes an attraction for your customers, even though you don’t make money at it.”

Century Car Wash sits on a large lot with 290 feet of frontage, access from both sides, and 130 feet of depth. The site’s landscaping was revised from an earlier mix of plants and trees to a more modern look with grass and a few palm trees to make the car wash more visible to passing traffic. “A busy tunnel attracts customers,” Emain explains. Some of the trees removed from the old landscaping were relocated to his own home.

The wash is located on the main corridor to and from Los Angeles International Airport (LAX), one of the busiest airports in the United States. Inglewood has been going through some very intense remodeling to make the city — and especially Century Boulevard — a showpiece hallway to the airport and a thriving business corridor.

The walkway before (top) and after (bottom)

Surrounding cities have been largely neglected or deserted over the past quarter-century, says Emain, and not attractive to major businesses like Costco or Home Depot, and trendsetters such as Starbucks. That atmosphere has changed in the past five to seven years, he notes. The City of Inglewood closed, by eminent domain, the other car wash on Century Boulevard, leaving Emain’s business as the only car wash en route to LAX.

Nearby residential areas are high density, and new housing developments are underway, adding further to Century Car Wash’s business potential. Its airport proximity also means more fleet or commercial car washing business. “We have the LAX airport contract, including its complete police department,” Emain says. “We get all the regular airport vehicles and sometimes the buses as well.” Emain also does a huge amount of limo business.

Car wash prices begin at $5 for an exterior wash, $8.99 for the lowest priced exterior and interior cleaning. Packages are priced at $11.95, $14.95 and $19.95. A very popular choice is the $11.95 wash paired with hand wax, a combo routinely priced at $39.85 and sometimes couponed for $10 less.

“We do approximately 250 of those a week,” Emain reports. Saturdays are the peak day for that package, accounting for 75 to 90 cars; Sunday volume is about 60; and Fridays about 50, with the remainder between Monday and Thursday.

Even during an extensive remodeling like that at Century Car Wash, Emain doesn’t believe in closing down a wash for any reason other than rain. “This facility was laid out right, and while we were renovating the tunnel, I had extra crew and sold washes that we could handle outside. We had room to park six cars at a time for hand washing, and I got an extra high-pressure machine. Most customers were patient with us, thank God. As we did the interior remodeling and additions, we kept all the basics in operation. We had a tent outside, could provide restroom access, and never closed.”

The updating of Century Car Wash dramatically increased business after the renovation was completed last spring. The wash experienced a 90 percent increase in sales the first month (compared to the same month a year earlier) and the car count through the wash was up over 80 percent. Retail sales more than tripled because of the new retail space.

To accommodate more customers speedily, Emain is trying to increase exterior-only wash packages. “In this area the idea of machine wash and exterior wash is somewhat of a new concept, but customers are getting used to it,” he says. “We started doing five cars a day as an exterior wash, and now we’re averaging 30 percent to 40 percent exterior, some days as high as 60 percent to 70 percent.

The waiting area before (above) and after (right)
Beyond the dryer there is plenty of room under the roof for finishing touches.

“Nobody should be afraid of going to machine wash,” Emain believes. He worked hard at showing his customers how safe it was and how it could deliver a quality wash. Lammscloth samples were displayed throughout the facility alongside typical cloths used in hand washing. “Customers understood a lot better and felt more comfortable with the new approach here,” he said.

Century Car Wash is staffed with 20 employees during the week, with a stronger force on weekends. That number is adequate to provide good service during the operating hours of 8 to 6 Monday through Saturday and 8 to 5 on Sunday.

Employees are paid minimum wage, but each benefits from customer tips that boost their pay to at least $15 to $18 an hour, more typically $25 to $28. They rotate positions at the entrance and exit of the tunnel every two hours, so each gets a fair share of tips.

Emain treats his employees with respect, and his turnover is very low. “The average employee time with me is six to seven years,” he reports, “which is unheard of in this industry.” He tells them from the start not to stint on proper chemicals and supplies, but simply deliver a quality wash or do repeat washings until each car is completely clean.

That attitude is reinforced by two managers with whom Emain maintains close family friendships. Santiago Cornejo and Carlos Canche have been working for and with Emain since 1995 and 1996.

Emain enthusiastically supports community causes and charities, especially schools and houses of worship. He simply gives them car wash tickets, and allows them to keep all the money for their needs. At another of his washes, he supports the Red Cross by simply giving a free car wash to whoever donates to their current campaign.

The stylish “over-the-top” renovation of Century Car Wash, Emain’s support of managers and other employees, and his eagerness to build and support his community all help explain the remarkable change that has taken place at this site. Like the hundreds of planes that daily head aloft nearby, business is really taking off.

Jim and Elaine Norland are regular contributors to Auto Laundry News.

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