Genre - September 2008

7 Flags has it All
By Jim and Elaine Norland

"Any way you want it” might aptly describe car care at 7 Flags Car Wash in Fairfield, CA. Drivers can choose from a wide range of services and speed-of-visit options — and even enjoy gourmet coffee if their choices mean a wait.

An array of exterior express washes, with or without interior service; self-serve wash bays; a big variety of lube and related maintenance services; plus detailing ranging from express to total vehicle treatments await drivers here.

There is plenty of street access to both the self-serve bays (left) and the conveyorized tunnel (right).

All these services are neatly arranged on a 400-by-125-foot site on N. Texas Street, one of the places where Jack Anthony Sr., now retired, and his family launched their car washing enterprises with self-serve installations back in the early 1960s. It’s still very much a family business.

The latest improvements in car wash choices show up brilliantly at the Fairfield location, where all the choices named above are profitably meeting the needs of northern California drivers.

Drivers remain in the car - a staffer and overhead mirror assist in loading onto the conveyor.
A cup of gourmet coffee is one way to make any wait time enjoyable.
Customers have a full-service option.

The company began with self-serve washing and still offers it in multiple locations including Fairfield, but the big lure at Fairfield is a “$5/5 minute” express-exterior tunnel wash. An attention-grabbing sign appeals to motorists who want to clean up their cars without slowing up their travels or even getting out of their cars. Most drivers upgrade, however, says Jack Anthony III, president and CEO of the 10-wash family operation.

Wash choices can go up to $32.99. The deluxe package includes features ranging from high-tech wax manually applied with a paint sprayer to interior fragrance. Less expensive offerings include an exterior and interior package at $15.99 and exterior express at up to $12.

The Fairfield site is open seven days a week, from 8 a.m. to 8 p.m. weekdays during the summer, and from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. on Sundays. From 6 p.m. to 8 p.m., during the week, only express exterior washes are offered, and customers have free use of vacuums during that time. Winter hours are 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. every day.

Return business is encouraged with an unusual 7 Flags program. When drivers enter, a service writer asks them if they’d like today’s wash free. After getting their attention, the service writer explains that if they buy a package of four full-service washes, today’s wash will be free of charge.

Drivers choose between exterior express and full service options and drive paths as they enter the Fairfield 7 Flags location — overhead signs as well as cheerful service writers help them decide. In any case, they’ll stay in their cars as they travel through a 125-foot tunnel that thoroughly cleans and dries their car. Anthony has invested in wheel and other cleaning equipment at the start of the tunnel that eliminates prepping on 95 percent of vehicles, which move into and through the tunnel without delay.

It’s up to service writers to check over an incoming vehicle and determine if it’s one of those rare cases that need prepping. “If mud is caked in the wheel wells, no car wash in the world can remove that so we prep in such cases,” Anthony explains. In general, he says California cars come into the wash looking cleaner than many coming out of washes in other states, but drivers also expect outstanding results and get them at 7 Flags.

Quick lube and related services are delivered in two bays staffed by dedicated specialists who consult manufacturer recommendations for each vehicle. A 20-point preventive maintenance package, priced at $34.99 plus tax and hazardous waste disposal fee comes with a free full-service car wash usually priced at $15.99. That level of complimentary wash is an upgrade from 7 Flags’ previous offer, an exterior only wash.

The lube center is independent, but has been using mostly Chevron lube products for the past five years. Originally the lube shop was affiliated with Pennzoil for about five years.

Additional services in the quick lube area include PCV valve replacement ($7.99 and up); automatic transmission drain and fill and radiator flush (each $69.99 and up); and fuel injection system cleaning (also $69.99). Most of those services are also guided by OEM recommendations. Service writers note odometer readings and suggest appropriate items such as air filter or cabin air filter checking and replacement. Lube customers are reminded by mailings when it’s time for them to bring their vehicles in for service.

“We can obviously do (lube) much faster and more cost effectively than a dealership where you have to leave it for a half-day,” Anthony observes. The lube center pays the car wash for the comp washes — each part of the 7 Flags complex at Fairfield is viewed as an independent business and must operate profitably.

Detail services offered at 7 Flags range from “The Complete Express” priced at $219.99 to several express detail single services such as leather cleaning and reconditioning, a paint protection package or an upholstery express treatment, each priced at $34.99. Packages for three-step exterior or interior service are priced at $139.99 and $104.99 respectively, and interior or exterior combo packages are available at $79.99 each. Extra charges may apply for larger or extra dirty vehicles.

Since most detail employees have developed from the full-service car wash staff, workers may pitch in if detail work is slow and the car wash is extra busy, Anthony explains, but basically, “detail employees are detail employees.”

Jack and Cathy Anthony front the 7 Flags monument sign.

Express detailing as well as full- and self-serve washes are offered at two other 7 Flags installations, one each in Vallejo and Vacaville. Four other sites offer only self-serve washes. Fairfield is the only location offering lube and oil service, the option of express exterior or full-service tunnel wash, and self-serve wash bays.

Between 40 and 50 employees work at the Fairfield site. They comprise the largest segment of the 160 total workers at the multiple 7 Flags washes. New hires frequently come from families or friends of those who already work at 7 Flags, and others may develop among local students who staff the enterprise during summer months.

“We’re pretty strict on who we hire,” Anthony explains. “We’re trying to put forth a very positive image. Unfortunately car washes do not have the best image, so we look for people from central casting,” in other words, Anthony wants energetic, smiling, and well-groomed employees representing his business to customers.

The company follows a rigorous program directed by managers and supervisors to teach essential procedures and attitudes. The first item of business is a safety training talk, Anthony says.

“Training is a long involved process. We have a manual that tells workers how we expect things to be done. When we do a car we do it the same way every time, so every employee knows what’s been done so far and what their part is. Everybody has their own steps that they take. Full service is labor intensive so it’s of critical importance to be efficient and consistent.” Managers and supervisors are hands-on involved in showing new employees how each cleaning step should be performed.

Line employees start out at minimum wage but fare pretty well on tips, Anthony says. Regular performance reviews can move them up in pay rates. Openings for managers or supervisors are filled from within the 7 Flags organization, and most managers have been with the company for five years or more.

Drive-through lube bays.
For the kids, happiness is the suds gun at the Vacaville location.

Several employees have been there 10 or 15 years, and chief operating officer Todd Hildenbrand has 20 years of service. Bonus programs reward managers and supervisors for their performance.

“You must take very good care of them,” we said to Jack Anthony. “It goes both ways,” he answered.

Family involvement in 7 Flags operations certainly helps instill the right attitudes and methods among the staff. Jack Anthony’s mother, Margaret, still works there regularly in the office. His wife, Cathy, is office manager, and his brother, Mark, is also active in the business. Jack and Cathy’s youngest son, Kyle, has worked for the company a number of years and has expressed an interest in coming into the business. He is currently a senior at Cal State University at Chico and will graduate next year.

Community involvement is also an essential ingredient for 7 Flags, best seen in its Helping Hands program. Civic and charitable groups can buy tickets for the $12 wash at half price, then sell them to supporters at full price and keep the difference.

Very aware of the increasing importance of water resources not only to car washes but also to other businesses and entire communities, the Anthony family employs a ConServ system to recycle all 7 Flags wash water. “I think the biggest issue that we’re going to see in the future is going to be water and the environment,” Jack Anthony says. That concern is becoming more evident as various areas of the country deal with drought, he adds.

Anthony is a past president of the International Carwash Association and was on the board of directors of the Western Carwash Association. He believes car washes and related enterprises must be constantly updated to meet changing market conditions and deliver new technologies, such as variable frequency drives which save energy in the wash while maintaining the highest quality results for customers who expect the very best.

The evolution of customer and car service at 7 Flags Car Wash in Fairfield shows the Anthony family is committed to meeting customer needs in convenience, speed, and quality at every opportunity.

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

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