Southern California is no longer synonymous with hand washing. With the price of labor steadily on the rise investors are increasingly turning toward automation in the Golden State.
California historically had an abundance of cheap labor that made running a hand wash relatively inexpensive. Unfortunately some of that cheap labor was underpaid and overworked leading to new regulations and stepped-up enforcement against any operator that did not offer workers minimum wage and fair working conditions.
Operating a hand wash facility in the state has become a costly undertaking forcing operators to explore the modern marvels of automated washing.
As automation became a business necessity an opportunity arose for operators with vision and capital to fill the need in California. Curt Ensign along with his partners Thomas Utman and Steve Clark recognized the demand, introducing their first Fast 5 Xpress Car Wash last year and are in the midst of rapid expansion.
The trio are not car washers by trade. Ensign, a home builder and owner of New West Home, was looking to downsize his construction business in 2010 and focus on a new business venture. Ensign and good friend Utman recognized the opportunity for large-scale automated car washing in the state, and along with Ensign’s long-time home building partner Clark, formed Fast 5.
“The market in Southern California is very fragmented, there are very few operators with multiple locations” Ensign says. “It is difficult to reproduce a consistent wash when you have such a large component of labor in your business model. When you automate you can standardize it, but the competition wasn’t moving to automation. In part because the capitalization is so significant when you bring in equipment.”
The trio know they are not the only ones to recognize the opportunity in the region and believe the market will have 50 or more express exterior washes in the next five to 10 years. They are working diligently to acquire as many A-plus locations as they can to ensure that when the dust settles Fast 5 will have cornered the express market. They plan to roll out three to four locations a year for the next five years or more.
The costs involved with large-scale automation creates a barrier to entry that the Fast 5 partners are able to use to their advantage. Fast 5 is completely internally financed, allowing the wash to expand quickly and capture the best sites in the market before the competition. Currently two locations are open with three more scheduled to begin washing before the close of the year. In addition, the trio has five other sites in various stages of negotiations or municipal permitting.
The prototypical Fast 5 site is over an acre, on a corner lot, and near major retail locations. The chain’s first location in Irvine opened in February 2013 and is unlike the other washes in development. Retail, and especially car washes, are hidden in Irvine making site selection in the city difficult. The first Fast 5 was a renovation project — the others are ground up affairs — allowing the car wash newbies to open quickly and gain critical experience. The site has been extremely well received by the community and is the highest-rated car wash in Orange County on Yelp.
When it first opened, the Irvine location was only washing a couple of hundred cars a day, a number it has grown to over 450, nearing its capacity. Future washes in the chain, including the newly-opened site in Norwalk, will be equipped to handle car counts over 1,000 a day.
To help raise awareness, Fast 5 implements a media blitz when it first opens a location. The multi-faceted campaign features direct mail, PennySaver ads, conventional newspaper advertising, and cover stickers on the LA Times. Fast 5 hits it hard in the early going flooding the market with messages for the first 60 to 90 days before scaling back and relying on quality service and results to keep customers engaged and coming back.
With a long history of hand washing in the region many customers are skeptical of any equipment touching their car. “The perception of machine washes goes back to the 80s where they were really abusive to the cars,” Ensign says. “The word hand wash was considered a premium, safe wash.”
With today’s modern equipment and materials customers no longer have to worry about an automated wash damaging their vehicle. One trip through a Fast 5 tunnel and customers are assured of the safety of their vehicles. Tunnels are equipped with all the latest from Motor City Wash Works, a brand the partners choose for its durability and gentle approach to friction washing.
“One of the things that express washes don’t do a great job with is drying,” Ensign says. “We don’t do any wipe downs so we have to rely on the equipment to get cars dry.”
Fast 5 offers three menu options: $6, $9, and $12. About 40 percent of washers opt for the base wash, 25 percent the middle offering, and 35 percent purchase the top wash level.
The wash has three employees on site at all times, with a fourth added during peak hours. Despite the dedication to automation the partners prefer to employ a live greeter instead of utilizing an automated pay station. “It is something we observed when we did our research,” Ensign says. “Washes that have a greeter portray increased customer service. You have to pay for that extra employee, but it is money well spent. Dealing with a person versus a machine adds the personal touch.”
In the early going Fast 5 has been blessed with strong managers that have taken ownership of the sites and helped train staff. The partners are confident the trend will continue and envision a future where quality employees are groomed for management positions at the next wash that comes online.
Fast 5 has only been washing cars for little over a year, but the partners already have equipment upgrades on their minds. “We are not going to just sit on the equipment that we have and let it deteriorate,” Ensign says. “We are going to listen to our customers and constantly upgrade our sites and equipment to ensure quality results.”
As labor costs in Southern California increased, the cost of hand washing skyrocketed, creating an opportunity for operators willing to explore automation. The partners at Fast 5 are quickly growing the chain, introducing express exterior to the market with astounding results. With a host of A-plus sites secured, and more on the horizon, Fast 5 is well on its way to becoming the face of car washing in Southern California.