Over the past few years, there has been an explosion of new investors and wash chains entering the industry. It looked like nothing could hold back continued expansion, but as interest rates rose sharply last year, many operators found funding more expensive and harder to secure.

Big Dan’s Car Wash has 19 locations across Georgia, Florida, and South Carolina.

            Car washers who can finance their growth through private equity partnerships or personal assets have remained nimble and kept their expansion roadmaps robust. Big Dan’s Car Wash is new to the industry, but it has expanded its holdings aggressively while continuously meeting consumer expectations, thanks to its ‘friends and family’ funding approach.

Plenty of ‘show’ at Big Dan’s.

            Big Dan’s launched in 2020 and already has 19 sites up and running, with 16 more under construction, but the story of the car wash upstart’s success stretches farther back.

            The wash’s namesake, Dan Shaddy, and his son Jarrett developed, owned, and operated 65 Cowboys Food Mart and Convenience Stores across the Southeast in the 1990s. The chain started as a single C-store and grew to include travel centers, restaurants, and big value centers. When the father and son partners sold the business in 2005, it had an annual revenue of $500 million and employed more than 800.

            After the sale, Dan retired, and Jarrett focused on real estate development and founded River City Bank in Rome, GA. Meanwhile, family member Jim Dudley built the family’s first foray into the car wash business with a chain of seven Wash Me Fast express car washes in Georgia, Florida, and Alabama. Dudley eventually sold six of the sites — four to Mammoth Holdings and two to independent operators — turning a handsome ROI and spurring the family’s interest in further car wash investment.

Free vacuums are a key piece of the express experience.

            “A light clicked in our heads,” says Jarrett’s son and Big Dan’s president Jay Shadday. “The car wash industry has few receivables, limited labor, and can be 100 percent cashless. When we compared that to what we did with convenience stores, car washing looked very appealing.”

            The Shadday family decided to give the car care industry a try. There was still one Wash Me Fast location in Fairburn, GA, that had not been sold, and the Shaddays began their car wash empire by rehabbing and rebranding that site as their first Big Dan’s Car Wash.

            “Our COO Tripp Flournoy and I took over the operations of that one store,” says Shadday. “We hired new team members, upgraded equipment, and introduced a new menu. That first store was an unbelievable experience, and we learned a ton. Fast forward four years, and here we are.”

Customers are provided with the tools to make their cars shine.

            To scale the business, the Shaddays have tapped into family and close business associates to increase Big Dan’s from one proof-of-concept site to a growing car wash empire with plans to have at least 35 sites in operation by the end of the year.

            “We had done several investments over the years and have many great local partners,” says Shadday. “We invested in Big Dan’s as a family and partnered with other investors that we had worked with in the past. We funded the business through friends and family.

            “It keeps us flexible, allows us to structure deals creatively, and move fast. We don’t have a huge real estate or operations committee to run decisions through. We talk about where we want the company to go, and if we agree, we can start making changes within an hour of deciding.”

Friendly staff are always on hand to assist customers.

            One of the major decisions the team has made over the first few years is to focus its efforts on greenfield developments versus acquisitions. While Big Dan’s acquired and rehabbed some washes, the control and freedom offered by ground-up builds is a better fit for the company’s DNA. Big Dan’s prides itself on a superior customer experience, and part of that experience is centered around having a big, spacious site design that is not always possible with an acquisition. Over the next year, around 80 percent of Big Dan’s expansion efforts will come from ground-up builds.

            That is not to say that if an attractive acquisition presents itself, the team won’t jump on it — they will. Director of development Jake Maxwell has designed a remodeling program complete with a step-by-step roadmap to success.

Sonny’s equipment adorns Big Dan’s well-equipped tunnels.

            “When we consider an acquisition, we ask ourselves, ‘If this site was just an undeveloped piece of dirt, would we want it?’” says Shadday. “If the answer is yes, we will probably do the deal. If we look at a piece of property and feel like we can’t convert it to the Big Dan’s standard, then we pass.”

            Big Dan’s started in Georgia, has one site in South Carolina and is focused on growing its presence in Florida, specifically in and around Orlando. The growing express chain opened its first Orlando site in December of last year and plans to open seven more Big Dan’s in the market over the next 18 months.

            “Orlando is experiencing significant population growth, there is tremendous opportunity there,” says Shadday. “One thing that we love about the market is that there is an extremely high barrier of entry for car washes. It is very difficult to find a property, let alone one that can be zoned for a car wash. We feel like we have a competitive advantage because of our experience developing there in the past. We know how to find sites and build there.”

Free air fresheners provide a branding opportunity.

            As the chain expands its presence in the Orlando market, it will bring its unique, customer-focused express concept to central Florida. The Big Dan’s experience centers around large, convenient sites with well-equipped tunnels and plenty of post-wash extras. Customers are invited to use the free vacuums and bring their vehicles to the next level of clean with complementary interior cleaning supplies, glass cleaner, mat washing stations, air fresheners, and compressed air.

            This amenity-filled experience is a hit with customers, evidenced by the wash earning the 2023 Best of Georgia Award from the Georgia Business Journal. “It says a lot about how much our customers appreciate Big Dan’s,” Shadday says about the award. “It is our customers who voted for us, which confirms that we are going in the right direction and treating our customers the right way. It gives us the motivation to keep doing what we are doing.”

            What Big Dan’s is doing is making a name for itself in the highly competitive express exterior market. By combining its powerful in-house financing prowess with a commitment to putting the customer first the growing wash chain has set itself up for ongoing success.