Wash Flourishes After Rehab
The best builder of a quality car wash is a car enthusiast who knows what he wants and expects, and then determines to provide a higher level of service than what's available elsewhere.
Steven Hinds fits that bill perfectly. He and partner Kevin Dahl bought a rundown wash in Medford, OR in late 2003. They converted it into a car-cleaning center that meets and exceeds the demands of car lovers, yet delivers its services quickly, usually in about five minutes from entry to exit.
Their South Pacific Car Wash is located on Highway 99, also called the South Pacific Highway. They favored a name to both identify their location and provide an appealing decorating theme. They decorated the front of their conveyorized tunnel wash in a tropical theme and added the same motif to their business cards.
Hinds, a longtime car lover, managed a car wash in Coos Bay, OR, in the late ‘90s, and then moved to southern Oregon where he worked at Oil Stop, a lube service, until 2003. His best friend at that Oil Stop location, Kevin Dahl, was also a part owner. The two bought the old wash at the corner of South Stage Road and Highway 99, a good location that needed extensive care.
Refurbishing entailed far more than creating a new look. Equipment was in bad shape. "We replaced cloth, hydraulics, pumps, and a lot of fittings for the arches," Hinds recalls, "just about everything in the tunnel except for the actual standing unit." The conveyor was still working, but needed adjustment. Now the Peco-equipped soft-cloth wash is a model of dependable and efficient operation.
Despite all the work required, Hinds and Dahl opened the wash in October of 2003, just a month after their purchase.
South Pacific's exterior washes range from a basic wash to "The Works" and are usually priced from $5 to $10. When wet or cloudy weather threatens, a bargain basic wash encourages drivers to get off any accumulated exterior dirt. For motorists who pop for "The Works," South Pacific offers a free wash if rain falls within 24 hours of their investment.
Average per-car revenue is $7 to $7.50, Hinds reports. In warmer months, drivers shift toward the $10 package, which includes three waxes and polishes, undercarriage wash, rust inhibitor, wheel and tire treatment and that 24-hour rain guarantee. Wintertime customers tend more to the Deluxe wash, one wax, one polish, undercarriage wash and towel drying.
South Pacific stands out from its competitors with a friendly, enthusiastic staff and insistence on quality results, including towel drying on all but the lowest-priced wash. Four employees usually staff the wash, two at the take-in area and two at the finishing area.
Towel drying is taken seriously with the $7 deluxe and $10 works packages offered at South Pacific. Blower drying is standard on every wash, but the towel service is substantial. It includes wiping down door, trunk and hood jambs and making sure there's no water dripping from anywhere on the vehicle when it leaves.
Some other washes in the Medford area had recently dropped any efforts at towel drying. Hinds missed that service on his own car, and he believed other car lovers did also, so he and Dahl provide it at a higher level.
South Pacific doesn't offer vacuuming or other on-line interior services; drivers remain in their cars. Still, vehicle interiors are often sparkling when they leave the wash.
The key to that is in a food-service steam table that Hinds converted to an unusual use. He stacks some 8x8-inch towels there atop a wire mesh, fills the tray with water, and sometimes adds a light cleaning fragrance. Drivers entering the wash are handed a moist towel to dust inside during the wash. Finish-area workers retrieve the towels before the car leaves. If a driver wants interior services or other appearance enhancements, South Pacific is ready to meet their needs. Hinds himself details cars, in addition to running the wash weekdays. (Partner Kevin Dahl, who has other weekday business interests, operates the wash on Saturdays and Sundays.)
"I don't consider myself a waged employee, so I can pull myself off the line and detail cars as needed. We don't push the detailing very hard, but when we do it, it adds nicely to the bank account."
His average full-detail ticket is $300 to $400, a price considerably higher but also much more extensive than most details. One service is applying an acrylic enamel called Crystal Clear, and he's the only person in the Rogue Valley of Southern Oregon to provide it.
"I'm also one of the few who provide that for motorcycles. I can apply it to the chrome, the paint, everything on a bike, so I'm pretty much the top guy for motorcycles," Hinds says.
His detail clients include owners of many high-end makes such as Mercedes, Porsches, and BMWs, "people who really want to take care of their cars. I have a lot of street credit - people know I do really good work," he notes.
Those big full-detail tickets are not the only option at South Pacific. Hinds has a large menu listing what he offers. "A lot of people just want to get their car cleaned out and a few services, not everything. Some don't need a carpet shampoo or a Fabric Guard, for instance.
"I give them the menu and they check off what they'd like. If they choose four or more items, I'll discount the package," Hinds explains. "I do a lot of dressing dash and doors, cleaning the windows, vacuuming inside and washing the car; that will get you out the door for $75." He says the goal is to eventually do between 100 and 150 details a year.
Also under consideration at South Pacific is oil change service. The previous owners had the site plumbed and set up for a lube shop that was never built, and there's plenty of room for the additional structure. Hinds and Dahl are weighing whether to have an independent shop or a franchised name. In either case, such an addition would also offer other car maintenance services and supplies such as transmission and cooling service, fan belts and wiper blades.
The car wash occupies about a fourth of South Pacific's one-acre site, so there's plenty of room to stack cars, as many as 66 at a time. However, one emphasis is on speed, not waiting, because most drivers want to get in and out of a wash quickly. With two persons at the entrance area to handle cash
and prep incoming cars and two persons at the drying end, vehicles can be finished in about five minutes' time, including three minutes in the tunnel.
Hinds' street credit for car appearance is built further through his restoration work on cars, although he does that work in the three-and-one-half car garage at his home. He restores about one car a year, mostly for people who want a certain car that can't be easily found such as a 1934 Plymouth five-window coupe that had been lying idle for 15 years.
Many of Hinds' restorations are muscle cars of the ‘60s and ‘70s. When we interviewed him in early July, he was working on his own 1968 Formula Firebird and a 1977 Firebird Skybird for another owner.
Savvy cross-marketing helps build volume for South Pacific Car Wash and its neighbors on the same lot, a Shell gas station, a convenience store and a Taco Time restaurant.
Drivers can fill up at the Shell station and pay for their gas and a car wash at the same time, getting a $1 to $2 discount off the Deluxe or Works washes. The station owner settles up with South Pacific's owners at the close of the day. More incentive: The gas station driveways provide an excellent view through the big windows lining one side of the wash tunnel.
The business neighbors all take part in a Spin-to-Win promotion headquartered at the convenience store. If a driver fills his tank at the Shell station or buys a Works wash at South Pacific, he gets a ticket to spin. Prizes for a spin may include $3 off another Works wash, a free basic wash, free self-serve vacuuming time, $5 in free gas, or free tacos from the restaurant. "We're all in it to promote each other," Hinds explains.
A $3 basic wash at South Pacific is offered only when rain threatens, via a sign out front. It keeps drivers coming in when they might otherwise pass by the wash, Hinds says, "and it pays for your help."
Hinds and Dahl conducted some radio and TV advertising when they opened their refurbished wash, but they rely more on community contacts and word-of-mouth promotion to build their business.
Hinds passed out business cards that were coupons for a free Works wash. "When I'd see someone washing their car in their driveway, I'd hand them a card. I'd hand one out to the waitress or cashier when I stopped for a cup of coffee or shopped for groceries." He believed each recipient would not only spread the word about an excellent wash, but also come back frequently themselves.
The owners of South Pacific Car Wash follow that same marketing philosophy in supporting community charities or fund drives. "I've yet to turn down anyone who asks us to donate services for such campaigns," Hinds says. They avoid giving money because of the number of scams and suspect organizations that might not be truly worthwhile causes.
Hinds and Dahl place heavy emphasis on employee appearance, behavior and friendly attitude in their hiring and training. They've seen too many negative factors at other businesses, including foul language and discourtesy.
Employee applications include questions that reveal character traits. Interviews stress the importance of good grooming, helpfulness and concern for "guests" (rather than "customers") at the wash.
Wearing the company uniform, greeting guests with respect and warmth, and being part of a team effort all count heavily in the way employees conduct themselves. Prospective hires are told at the outset to live up to those standards or not even start. Those who make the grade, however, earn good pay, share tips, and are treated like family by Hinds and Dahl.
Drivers who come to South Pacific Car Wash encounter welcoming smiles and a quality car cleaning experience that is quick and reasonably priced. They have good reason to return and to tell their friends about how they can enjoy better-looking vehicles in a pleasant, convenient setting.
Jim and Elaine Norland are regular contributors to Auto Laundry News.
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