On the Wash Front - August 2008

Full-Serve: Against-the-Trend Expansion
By Anthony Analetto

Speak with David Daszkal for just a few minutes and you’ll leave the conversation with a renewed enthusiasm for the potential and future of the full-serve car wash model. Building his first car wash in 2003 from the ground up, David went against the express-exterior trend. David has led Motor City Car Wash’s modified version of the traditional full-serve to increased volume and revenue for five years straight. His second wash opened in 2006 and by the time this interview prints, his third full-serve wash will be open to the public.

Borrowing from the flex-serve model, David designed Motor City Car Wash to deliver the high per-car ticket average of a full-serve with better control of labor, quality, and customer service. Below are some excerpts from our conversation on successfully building and operating a full-serve wash in today’s market.

ANALETTO: In the last five years you have built two full-serve washes from the ground up and are about to open your third location. What convinced you that this is the best model?

DASZKAL: Although an operator can choose how to operate, ultimately, the market determines what will be successful. In my opinion, certain market conditions dictate whether you should operate a full-serve or an exterior. The communities where I have built my washes all contain a fast-growing population of middle- and upper-middle-income families. I live in the town where I built my first wash. I know many of my customers socially and believe I understand their priorities. Everyone is busy, not just with work, but also with scheduling activities for our families and children that usually make a mess out of our cars’ interiors. My customers want a clean car, but they don’t want to burn hours of free time to get it done. I can deliver a full-serve wash in approximately 12 minutes and have worked hard to maintain a consistent time of service even when volume peaks. The full-serve model fits my customer’s needs.

Do you feel you’re missing out on maximizing your sites’ volume potential by concentrating on full-serve?

Not at all. We offer four progressive full-serve wash packages which you can read about on our website at www.motorcitycarwash.com. On the first three, a customer can choose to skip the interior cleaning and save about six dollars. That means a customer can choose our basic full-serve for $11.99 or opt to have our exterior-only for $5.99. Our third package includes wheel cleaner, underbody, triple-foam, and on-line tire shine for $17.99, but again a customer can choose to forgo interior cleaning and pay only $11.99. Even though the menu board tries to promote our exterior wash option and low price, exterior represents only about 15 percent of our business. In the markets I operate, customers want and are willing to pay for a full-serve wash.

What characteristics at your locations, if any, differ from a traditional full-serve wash?

To some degree, the sites are actually laid out according to the flex-serve model with all interior services at the tunnel exit. Regardless, I consider myself a full-serve operator for two reasons. First, all customers exit the vehicle and wait in my lobby while their car is washed. Although we really concentrate on washing and detailing cars, this is still an important part of our business that averages an additional dollar per car. Second, I have a double-stack at the entrance with a greeter recommending services instead of an automated kiosk. All locations offer both express detailing and professional detailing services, which represent a significant percentage of our business. I believe having a live greeter not only helps sell more detailing, but also makes my business feel more like a part of the community.

You’ve mentioned being part of your community several times, do you think that focus has impacted your success?

Absolutely. I opened my first location where I lived. I truly believe an operation’s success rate will be better, especially for the first wash, if it is built in the operator’s own community. You know the people, have a better feel of what’s important to them, and have more opportunities to network.

Now with three locations, it’s nearly impossible for me to have that personal connection with the communities where I’ve chosen to expand. Instead, I’ve cultivated a general manager at each store, empowered them to run the business as if it were their own, and compensate them according to performance. I’ve backed them up with operational and training procedures to streamline their day, and have given them the authority to do what’s right for the customer. Training is critical, not just when you hire someone, but every day. Maintaining enthusiasm and continuously living up to company standards doesn’t just happen.

What are the advantages and disadvantages to performing all interior services including vacuuming at the exit?

I worked at full-serve washes for years before opening my own. Entrance vacuuming can deliver slightly better throughput during peak volume but it’s more difficult to manage. Borrowing from the flex-serve model, I can keep the bulk of my employees in one area so I have better control over quality. On busy days we have 10 spaces with 20 people finishing cars. We can process up to 65 full-service cars per hour at 12 minutes from the greeter to the finish. When volume drops I can easily cut back to a two-man crew, allowing me to advertise “open rain or shine” on the same schedule every day. My customers expect the wash to be open when they pull in the driveway and we do a decent detailing business even when the weather is less than perfect. I also separate the full-serve area from express detailing; we have a canopied area for full detailing giving me even more flexibility to move labor around as conditions change.

All three of your locations were new construction. What do you look for when selecting a property for this model?

In addition to looking at ingress, egress, and traffic count, I really concentrate on the demographics and community factors I mentioned before. The other thing I weigh heavily is how other businesses in the area are doing. The bottom line is how much are people spending in the market. For proof I look at how well franchise and chain stores are doing and try to determine if they are at or above average. I obviously want to build in an area before property values peak, but not so early that there won’t be enough volume to meet my investment objectives.

What aspects of construction have changed since you opened your first location five years ago?

The main thing is that construction costs have increased about 40 percent since I built my first wash. Other than that, I’ve tried to build each of the washes as close as possible to the design of the original location. Unfortunately, each property has different restrictions that have forced me to make minor changes to fit the site. Different setbacks and considerations for ingress and egress have to be accounted for. In reality, I’ve never been able to build exactly what I want, where I want to, because of restrictions.

What adjustments are you making to adapt to today’s economy?

I haven’t done anything yet. For the past five years Motor City Car Wash has been fortunate to have grown each year. Customers are definitely watching every dollar. Frequency from regular clientele has dropped off. Our average per car is also down slightly. Luckily the area is still growing, albeit more slowly than before. The best we can do is deliver superior quality and value. We do some couponing — direct mail, and newspaper — but we really concentrate on taking care of our customers. I believe that our focus on customer service and generating good word-of-mouth in our community is the reason we’re still growing.

To me, a business has to decide what profit margin they deserve to work on and price their service accordingly. I can’t decrease. In truth, our costs have risen but I’ve held prices steady. I suppose this would in fact be what I’m currently doing to adapt to today’s economy.

What advice do you have for someone looking to get into the full-serve business?

Know the community and be a member of it. Otherwise, hire managers with strong ties to the community and empower them to have a sense of ownership of the car wash. I really believe it gives you an edge as a full-serve operator.

The other recommendation I give to people looking to get into the industry is to not build on top of another operator. I do believe car washing is a tight industry but that’s not the reason I would never open up next to another wash believing I could steal their business. Cleaning the interior of a customer’s car is a very personal service. You can build a bigger, faster, nicer looking location, but it’s impossible to create connections to the community and trust fast enough to make the investment pay off. I’ve watched new locations go in and try to cannibalize from existing operators and really struggle to build their volume. Full-serve is almost as much about personalized customer service as it is about delivering a clean car.

I prefer to look for different traffic patterns or barriers such as highways and medians to give me separation from other washes in the area. It’s not because I’m being nice, I’m just not willing to make a multi-million dollar investment when there’s no way for me to measure how loyal customers are to the service and personality of an existing location.

Questions can be sent directly to David at: david@motorcitycarwash.com.

Anthony Analetto has over 26 years experience in the car wash business and is the president of SONNY’S The Car Wash Factory’s Equipment Division. Before coming to SONNY’S, Anthony was the director of operations for a 74-location national car wash chain. Anthony can be reached at (800) 327-8723 x 104 or at AAnaletto@SonnysDirect.com.


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