Success in any business requires the ability to identify current and emerging trends and being prepared to meet them. When Dustin Richard, owner of Blue Marlin Car Wash in Houma, LA, recognized the demand for an express exterior tunnel wash in his market he had three choices: do nothing, build an express location himself, or build a custom wash designed specifically to challenge the express exterior concept. He chose the latter.
Richard and his brother Ryan and father Henry have been in the car wash business for over a dozen years, starting their foray into professional car washing with a single in-bay automatic and four self-serve bays. Five years ago the partners decided it was time to expand and acquired a prime piece of real estate on Houma’s main thoroughfare with the intent of building their second Blue Marlin location, but they were faced with a huge dilemma. What type of wash should they build?
The town of Houma had no express exterior tunnel and the partners knew it was just a matter of time before a new competitor entered their market offering the service. But rather than build an expensive express wash that would require increased labor and time commitments, the Richards decided to build upon their successful in-bay concept, developing a hybrid model designed to meet the impending express competition head on once it finally manifested itself.
“We didn’t have an express tunnel in town at the time, and we were debating going with an express tunnel or in-bay aromatic,” Dustin Richard says. “We tried to get as close to middle ground between the two as we could. We took the in-bay route and tried to make it as close to an express tunnel as we could to compete with that market. We knew eventually there would be an express tunnel somewhere on our road. It was just a matter of time.”
What the Richards built was a hybrid of the typical in-bay automatic and express tunnel. The wash features two side-by-side Autec EV1 in-bay automatic units with a standalone wax arch, rinse arch, and dryers. By installing standalone arches and drying units, Blue Marlin is able to begin washing a car while the previous customer is getting wax, spot-free rinse, and traveling under the blowers, allowing for greater throughput capabilities.
Another key component of the Richards’ strategy to compete with the express exterior concept was the installation of free vacuums. While offering free vacuums is not typical for in-bay automatics, Blue Marlin’s owners opted to install the service as a value add for their car wash customers.
“Free vacs makes selling a wash/vacuum a single purchase process,” Richard says. “Customers want the easiest and most convenient way to wash their car. They can swipe their card one time and get the inside and outside of their vehicle clean. This eliminates digging through vehicles looking for loose change. Or being short a quarter or two to really get the job done. The only downside of free vacuums in an in-bay automatic application is that dishonest people will take advantage of it no matter how much signage you have explaining they must purchase a wash first. This is a minor issue and the cost of doing business in this concept where you don’t have employees onsite all the time.”
The second Blue Marlin location was successful from the moment it washed its first car. The site routinely had lines eight cars deep, as the local car washing public fully embraced Blue Marlin’s unique concept. While the early success was certainly a boon, the Richards’ first-mover advantage was short lived.
Shortly after the second Blue Marlin was built, the Richards’ predictions became a reality as an express exterior was built in town. Not only was the new wash located on the same road as Blue
Marlin, it was constructed right across the street less than 100 yards away. While the express exterior competition did take a bite out of Blue Marlin’s market share, it did not totally devastate the site, in fact from a end user perspective the opening of the new wash actually improved Blue Marl
“We were bursting at the seams prior to the express exterior opening,” Richard says. “People would drive off because there were lines out to the street. Of course I wouldn’t say it was a good thing that they moved in, but it wasn’t all that bad. It made us more efficient. The customer no longer had to wait in a long time to get their car washed. I am still consistently busy, but it is more manageable.”
The second Blue Marlin location is thriving in a competitive market thanks to the innovative and original concept developed by its owners. The hybrid in-bay automatic, free vacuum model was a break with the norm, but identifying a market need and fulfilling it is a calling card of the Richards.
When they built their first Blue Marlin site they put in one in-bay automatic and four self-serve bays, eventually expanding the location to two touchless in-bay machines to handle demand. Four years ago the Richards recognized that customers were less concerned with touchless washing and were becoming more accepting of friction. In response they removed one of the touchless units and installed a Bellanger Freestyler soft touch unit with two remote arches and a standalone dryer, giving customers the choice of either touchless or soft touch.
The piece of real estate the first Blue Marlin sits on is a large track of land that provided the room for more than just a car wash. Once again the Richards leveraged their knowledge of the local market, deciding to build boat and RV storage units on the site to cater to the nautical interests of its core customer base.
The owners started with 11 storage units, slowly increasing their offering as demand dictated. They are currently completing a final phase of expansion that will increase the number of storage units to 131.
“The concept has worked for us,” Richard says. “There really wasn’t much for boat and RV storage in town when we opened. We have always had great occupancy and the two businesses kind of feed off each other. Our renters are our car wash clients.
The Richards are currently under construction on a third Blue Marlin location that will take their hybrid approach to the next level. The new site will feature Autec equipment just like the second location, but instead of a mixture of block and glass the latest incarnation of Blue Marlin will feature an all-glass enclosure.
Also differentiating the newest location from the others under the Blue Marlin banner will be the addition of a tire shine option and the lengthening of the wash bay by an additional 13 feet.
While Blue Marlin has been a success at its previous two locations, and its third location looks poised to become a favorite of the community, this is likely the final expansion effort the Richards will undertake.
“After this one I think we are all set,” Richard says. “There won’t be any more room for another wash in town, and I don’t want to go outside of Houma. To operate these washes the right way, you have to be onsite every day. You have to go check on them and fix stuff and make sure it is running 100 percent all of the time. I just can’t imagine spending the time on the road driving to other towns to do what I am doing here.
The people of Houma should consider themselves lucky. They will soon have three Blue Marlin locations that were custom designed to meet their needs and provide a level of service tailored to local demand.