As the nation begins to slowly emerge from its COVID induced slumber, car washers are hard at work adjusting their operational models to ensure they are ready and able to service their customers.
While the restrictions vary by state, and in some instances by county, one thing is universal across the country — car washers need to find ways to abide by social distancing mandates to keep their employees and customers safe.
Robert Kearney owns two Speedy Sparkle Car Washes in Colorado and has instituted some innovative steps to ensure he keeps his doors open during the pandemic. The car wash veteran owns a full-service location and a flex serve and has greatly limited the interaction of his employees and customers and deployed a game-changing service that goes above and beyond the call of duty.
First, at his full-service location in Loveland, CO he has developed a flex-serve model to ensure that those customers that want an exterior-only, limited exposure wash can find what they need at Speedy.
“We had come to the conclusion years ago that flex serve wouldn’t work at Loveland,” Kearney says. “But we knew we had to do something so we gave it a go. We made the conversion and I think it’s going to work out really well. If there’s a silver lining to all of this disruption, it is that it kind of forced us to make the decision to convert that wash to a flex serve.
In addition to the new flex-serve option at his wash, Kearney and his general manager daughter Iona, have instituted an interior sterilization service that is allowing them to clean and detail vehicle interiors while the majority of the industry is relegated to exterior only.
“As far as I know we are the only car wash in Colorado that offers a disinfection with every single interior wash,” Iona Kearney says. “We have a chemical that has been proven to kill COVID-19. We are fogging the interior for full-service customers before our employees get in. It helps us keep our employees safe and also provide a service the public wants right now.”
The fogging service can be performed relatively quickly. The fogger is placed in a vehicle with the doors closed and air conditioning fan operating on recirculation mode. The machine runs for a minute to a minute and a half depending on the size of the vehicle. The vehicle remains closed for another minute or two as the chemical is allowed to work its way into every corner of the automobile including the vents. Once the service is complete, it is safe for employees to enter the vehicle and perform interior cleaning. The entire fogging pre-treatment takes less than five minutes and allows Speedy Sparkle to offer customers access to the full car wash interior and exterior menu. The sanitation service is being including in every interior package free of charge and will likely remain a low-cost upgrade once the pandemic is behind us.
While the ingenious idea strikes of a knowledgeable car wash veteran, Robert Kearney did not start out with car wash ownership in mind. Kearney is a private real estate lender. In 2007, he financed the Loveland wash, but when the economy went belly up in 2008 his mortgagee was unable to keep the business afloat and Kearney was forced to foreclose.
While his first thought was to sell the wash and recoup his investment, finding a willing and able buyer at the height of the Great Recession proved to be anything but easy. Rather than sell the wash at discount pricing he decided to open it back up as its owner/operator.
“It was a full-service car wash, and we have kept it as a full serve over all those years,” Kearney says. “We thought about selling it, but it was a good business. It would be hard to replace it with the same kind of business financially. So we kept it.”
Like most newcomers to the car wash industry, Kearney was not sure what he was getting himself into, but as a business veteran he wasn’t shy about looking for expert help. Shortly after deciding to make a run at car wash ownership, he decided to invest in his property with new tunnel equipment designed to breathe new life into the facility.
Through some friends he had in the industry, he was referred to Aaron Green of Focused Car Wash Solutions, who helped the car wash newbie get acquainted with the industry and outfit his full-service tunnel with the right equipment to fit his needs.
“I called Aaron up and said you have to come talk to me,” says Kearney. “I told him ‘I’m not a car wash guy, I’m a finance guy. You’re a car wash guy, and I need your help to get this full-service car wash operating as quickly as possible.’ He was invaluable getting the equipment installed and making fine tuning adjustments and he continued to consult with us for months after.”
Kearney would call on Green years later when in 2016 he purchased his second wash, this time in Louisville, and once again had major renovation plans. The Louisville location was a long established full-service location, but having experience on the massive labor requirements of full-service washing, Kearney planned to convert it to a flex-serve site.
“I really liked the market,” Kearney says of his decision to buy Louisville. “I had approached the owner and asked him if he was interested in getting out of the business. He said he wasn’t, but about six months later I got a call from him telling me he was ready to sell. He had been an absentee owner for quite some time.”
The previous owner had been lax on equipment maintenance and upgrades and the facility was in need of a full equipment overhaul. Kearney took it as an opportunity to not only bring the equipment array into the 21st Century but to update the operational model to reflect consumer preferences.
The switch from full- to flex-serve required a complete reconfiguration of the site, including reversing the tunnel, which required ripping out the tunnel floor to regrade. When the tunnel was complete it featured a flat-belt conveyor and a whole new set of car wash equipment from AVW.
To help spread the word about the newly renovated wash, Speedy Sparkle embarked on an aggressive marketing campaign, focused on outdoor marketing. The wash advertises on billboards and city buses, and the advertisements feature a map to let everyone know where the site is located.
“A lot of car wash purchases are a last minute decision,” Iona Kearney says. “With the outdoor advertising we are trying to capitalize on that. By putting the maps on the signs and letting everyone know where we are, we are able to leverage impulse buying. Directional outdoor advertising has been very effective for us.”
While the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic has been extremely disruptive to the car wash industry, savvy owners and operators have adjusted their operations on the fly to meet customer demand and adjust to the new normal. By instituting a sterilization procedure and embracing the flex-serve model Speedy Sparkle has been able to keep its doors open, while providing a necessary service, which will only further endear it to the local community.
Car Wash Profile:
Name: Speedy Sparkle Car Wash
Location: Loveland and Louisville, Colorado
Owner: Robert Kearney
Year Founded: 2008
Concept: Full & Flex Serve
Tunnel Equipment: AVW & Belanger
Payment Terminals: DRB