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Colonial Style Wash Adds Beauty,
Convenience To Quality Florida Site

By Jim and Elaine Norland

The street signage is huge - and follows the architectural theme of the building.

Car wash customers may settle occasionally for plain, ordinary sites with few conveniences or frills, but if you add customer-serving extras and frame it all in a classic look, you'll have a wash they will prefer and adopt as their own.

Giving customers those extras and conveniences is bringing better-than-projected business at Northgate Car Wash in St. Petersburg, FL. The nine-bay wash - eight self-serve bays and one touch-free automatic - is believed by its owners to be the busiest in Pinellas County, based on what others in the industry have told them.

The wash near Gandy and 4th in northeast St. Petersburg opened last October, giving drivers in the area a beautifully-housed car wash with new customer conveniences near some of the heaviest traffic in the area.

"I think the bays have to be aesthetically pleasing," says co-owner Pete Ludwiszewski. "You look at restaurants such as the Outbacks and the Olive Gardens, they put something into them that adds an atmosphere. I think car washes are going the same route - you almost have to have a theme now, something pleasing to the eye."

Clues to the sign design can be found in the building's fašade. Note the four self-service bays to the left of the in-bay automatic bay. The other four self-service bays are to the right of the equipment room.

"There seems to be a wide acceptance of that look," says Walt Grzesnikowski of Acute Systems, Inc., the distributor who supplied the equipment, "and I love it, too." He points out that a classy look doesn't mean excessively expensive. "You just have to be careful how you spend your money and add the quality look in the places that generate income."

The 1.3-acre site is laid out for easy customer access and egress, with wide-radius turns. The enterprise is framed with professionally-maintained landscaping, including 30 newly-planted trees.

Beyond its architectural appearance, Northgate Car Wash adds plenty of customer convenience. Every service on the site can be paid for with credit cards. While many automatic washes now accept credit cards, adding that convenience for self-serve bays, vacuum islands and vending areas is not just new but advantageous for the business.

Vacuum islands lined up along the street frontage. Above: Central credit-card pay station and bill changers are conveniently located right next to the vending center.

Ludwiszewski estimates 20 percent of Northgate's current volume is paid for with credit cards. He believes much or all of that business might be lost if not for that specific convenience. Grzesnikowski concurs: "You can swipe your card at the POS up front, get a PIN (Personal Identification Number) and use it anywhere on the site, without taking a dime out of your pocket."

The site includes six vacuum islands with 12 machines that not only vacuum but also offer shampoo, fragrance, and other options, and two vending islands, one front and one rear, where customers also have the option of using cash or their credit card-generated PIN. The PIN issued is good for about an hour's time, so a customer can wash his or her vehicle, visit with a friend, vend some refreshment, and go to a vacuum island without feeling rushed. The customer's credit card is charged only for the time or services actually used.

Ludwiszewski had some prior experience in the car wash business as owner of a Mobil station with an automatic wash, but this is his and partner Paul Kazarov's first venture into a stand-alone wash. The two businessmen buy and sell properties.

"We just decided to take one of our properties and develop it," Ludwiszewski says. "We dedicated the whole site to the wash, not only to give easy in and out access but also to give our customers big bays that would accommodate today's larger vehicles."

Entrance to the in-bay automatic.

The site also houses a four-bay garage used as a detail center, run by an independent operator. His detail services are available Tuesday through Saturday.

One attendant handles the wash, and is either on site or available to customers quickly via his cell phone. The number is posted outside the equipment room. The attendant also handles all mechanical maintenance on the Jim Coleman Co. wash equipment at Northgate, but any computer-related problems require outside help.

As might be expected, the wash is open 24/7. Brightly lit both to boost its attractiveness and customer safety, the wash is also equipped with video cameras for additional security. Its signage includes a freestanding two-pole A-shaped sign out front. The same insignia is repeated over the center part of the building's front. Red, white and blue neon tubes illuminate the front and sides as well.

Rather than putting the automatic bay on one side of the equipment room and self-serves on the other side, Northgate is built to present a more balanced look. The balance also has functional benefits, because delivery from the central equipment room is quicker than if some bays were located five or more units away.

The equipment room itself is spacious, but could be condensed if Ludwiszewski and Kazarov decided to put in a second automatic bay. However, there are no current plans for such a change. Ludwiszewski says the automatic bay seems to fulfill present demand, although the volume there changes according to time of day, weather conditions, and other factors. "It's like dinner hour at a restaurant," he says. "The automatic is in high demand some times."

Washes in the automatic bay are priced at $5, $6 and $7, but Ludwiszewski says 70 percent of his
customers choose the $7 wash.

All the Northgate bays are generously sized to easily accommodate even the largest sport-utility vehicles and pickup trucks. Drivers seem to be buying bigger and bigger vehicles now, says Ludwiszewski.

He drives a Yukon Denali XL, "and I know when I went to a car wash, it was important that I get a wide enough bay. Some car washes have just one or two bays that are wide. I wanted to make sure that in our wash, you don't have to pick a bay. You can get a comfortable space for washing any car no matter which bay you choose."

Northgate customers tend to drive mid-range to high-end vehicles, most of them costing anywhere from $20,000 to $80,000 or $90,000, Ludwiszewski reports. While the traffic count directly outside Northgate Car Wash is a modest 12,000 cars a day, "the streets that join it are heavily traveled, with a count in the 50,000 to 70,000 range," says Ludwiszewski. "The access everywhere from here is terrific."

In back of Northgate Car Wash is a huge apartment complex; on one side is Northgate Plaza, and across the street is a K-mart, all contributing to the area vehicle population. The location convenience for many drivers may help explain why the wash hasn't spent any money, either at its opening or subsequently, on advertising and promotion.

As smooth and successful as Northgate Car Wash now seems, getting it up and running involved many challenges, Walt Grzesnikowski points out.

"We needed a variance because this site on 94th Avenue North was an expressway route. We had to keep resubmitting and eventually got that, but then we faced another problem with permitting. We had an engineer telling us this site was not workable for our needs."

Grzesnikowski, who's been in the car wash business about 10 years, spent two days working with two engineers and the owner to get the necessary information about drainage and lift station operation. "Most site engineers know what to do legally, but they don't know the car wash ins and outs," he explains.

He usually submits a site layout and elevation sketch to an architect, then takes the architect's computer-generated drawings and modifies it to the needs of the proposed car wash. "I know how I want it to look, what it needs to be convenient for customers, and how to make it attractive, warm and friendly." He also knows plumbing requirements, and "fusses an awful lot on lighting, because it seems very important to the income of the property."

Grzesnikowski also does proforma operating statements and detailed budgets on behalf of a wash owner to provide a complete bank loan package. Many of his clients have money to invest but they don't know much about the car wash business; he helps them make the transition from idea to reality.

A great site close to major traffic arteries, a quality look that enhances the car washing experience, and the teamwork of owners and equipment distributor have combined in Northgate Car Wash to give Tampa-St. Petersburg area drivers an attractive and convenient car cleaning choice. And those drivers are responding beautifully.

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

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