Operations - November 2002

In-Bay Solo Success
By Stefan Budricks

Customers line up at Shay Gregorie's Jack Flash standalone dual in-bay-automatic wash.

Car wash operators have become accustomed to hearing about the benefits of adding more and more profit centers to existing wash facilities. In the midst of this loud mantra, "more is better," a few innovative operators have quietly been moving in the opposite direction - slimming down car wash businesses. Some of these ventures are downright skinny!

For the past nine months or so, Shay Gregorie of Mount Pleasant, SC has been operating his Jack Flash standalone dual in-bay automatic site and has been so taken with its performance that he has purchased two more pieces of land on which he intends to develop standalone in-bay automatic washes. A third lot he acquired is earmarked for an unattended gas station paired with an unattended car wash.

Gregorie, a real estate investor with owner/operator experience in gas station/c-store ventures, built a
self-service wash in 1999 and added an in-bay to it at the end of that year. But he was looking for a business that would involve even less labor. When he saw a photograph of a standalone in-bay automatic housed in a glass building, he knew he'd found it. "The more I thought about it, the more I thought this concept was really great. No employees - it looked like minimal labor," Gregorie says.

"I actually went out on a limb and bought a prime location for the dual standalone. The lot is a little bit small, about 6/10 of an acre, but at a very busy intersection in my hometown," Gregorie explains. With due regard for the high traffic count, he decided to double up and construct a two-bay configuration. Personal observation told Gregorie that few in-bay automatic users ever got out of their cars and therefore seldom used vacuums. As a result, you'll find no vacuums on this site - no vending machines, not even a dumpster. This is a car wash, pure and simple.

With little real estate being required for a standalone in-bay, sites that might never have been considered for a car wash operation have become viable propositions. "One of the lots I bought is really small - only 1/4 of an acre," Gregorie says. "A convenience store couldn't go there, nor a fast-food restaurant. But my engineers were able to situate a one-bay glass building on this pie-shaped little 1/4 acre lot at an intersection in such a way that I can stack about 10 cars."

A new concept that Gregorie is about to put to the test has him really excited. "I bought an old service station and I'm bulldozing everything. I'm keeping only the gas tanks," he explains. He intends to build an unattended gasoline site along with an unattended single in-bay automatic car wash. Both the gas pumps and the car wash will accept either cash or credit cards. Gregorie is partnering with an oil jobber who will lease the gasoline site from him. "If the concept works, we intend to develop some more sites around here," Gregorie says.

While he cautions that he can draw data from only one operation each, Gregorie believes that his standalone in-bay gives him a better return on his investment than his self-serve/in-bay combo does. So much so that he does not expect to build more self-service sites. "I check the one I have every morning. It doesn't take a whole lot, but there are so many other extra things that can go wrong that you have to be on top of at all times, while with the in-bay automatics, if you do routine maintenance, it's a lot easier," he says.

The glass building that was the initial inspiration for Gregorie's foray into standalone in-bays continues to be integral to his development plans. "What I like about putting these glass buildings on good corner lots is that they become your advertising," he explains. "It lights up like a UFO at night. For the standalone concept, I believe the glass building provides an edge." While Gregorie believes that this type of building helps, he allows that it is possible for more conventional construction to be just as successful.

That, exactly, has been the experience of Johnny Jones of Nashville, TN-based National Car Wash (NCW), an organization that operates 45 car wash locations. "We run our numbers every week, and we found that the income generated by one in-bay automatic exceeded the income generated by the self-service bays combined," Jones explains. This pointed to the viability of standalone in-bay-automatic wash sites. About three years ago, NCW developed the first of what has become three sites that house dual standalone in-bays. These wash locations feature NCW's signature brick buildings with a canopy, supported by brick columns, extending over the wash-bay entrance.

Jones points to the obvious benefits of developing standalone in-bay sites: less land cost; less building cost; less paving; less landscaping; less labor; less maintenance. What really gets one's attention, though, are the results of a comparison study Jones conducted.

Using data from NCW's 45 locations, Jones compared the performance of a standard 6-and-2 (six self-serve bays plus two in-bay automatics) to that of a dual in-bay site with two vacuums. The 6-and-2 required an investment of $1,025,000, while the dual in-bay site needed $530,000. Jones discovered that the dollar amount profit he could extract monthly from each operation was virtually identical. The dual in-bay site offered nearly double the return the 6-and-2 did.

Jones shares Gregorie's view that many lots that can't be used for much else could be ideal for developing standalone in-bays. "We're actively looking for those," he says. In addition, Jones points out, many smaller towns that might have self-serve car washes but no in-bay automatics and no tunnels now become potential markets.

All these benefits are not enough for Jones. He plans to leverage the advantages of standalone in-bays by introducing a modular building to the concept. "We have our own construction company," he adds. "When I build a car wash, I have to tie up my electrician, my plumber, my roofer, etc. With the modular building, all I need do is some site prep to get the utilities to the lot and some landscaping and I'm in business." The modular building is available with a brick façade that closely matches NCW's signature look, so Jones is not concerned about sacrificing image.

Again, the savings are the attraction. Using his own construction crews, Jones can have a traditional 6-and-2 up and open in 90 days. With modular buildings, Jones says, he can start doing business within 5 weeks. That means an extra seven weeks of income, not to mention the interest savings on a construction loan.

National Car Wash recently kicked off a franchising program. Jones is convinced that the standalone in-bay automatic concept, because of its ease of operation, would make a perfect addition to the product mix offered to potential franchisees.

Coming soon to a location near you: the standalone in-bay automatic.

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