It was January 2014; I had just sold one of three car washes I owned. I was setting up orange cones at the entrance of a second car wash property located about a mile west of the car wash I had sold. The cone in the middle had a sign sticking out of it that read “Car Wash Closed.” It was sad in some respects. I had to shut down a decent, but aging, self-serve car wash because of a non-compete obligation that was part of the deal for the newer modern car wash I had just sold.
I bought the now-closed car wash in a bank auction in 2008. I really did not want to own it, but I needed to protect my $1 million-plus investment (the now-soldAn alternate revenue stream for struggling self-serve car washes.wash) located just down the road and I knew who the players were that were in attendance at the auction. One in particular was known as a pretty good operator who recently sold his conveyor wash in another part of town for a sizeable amount of money. As the bidding increased to $200k and many of the smaller players fell out of the bidding process, the other operator looked at me and said, “No matter what I bid, you’re going higher, aren’t you?” I calmly replied, “Yes.” He looked at me and said,
“I’m going to let you off the hook,” and the bidding ended right there.
I now owned another car wash that I knew would dilute my business at my newer more modern car wash that I had built just four years earlier, but I protected my investment from a fierce competitor. I now had a decision to make: Do I open it back up as a car wash (it had been closed for about a year after a bankruptcy)? Do I plow the building over and try to sell the property? Do I convert the building to another use? The quick and easy decision was to open it up as a car wash again because it had some attributes my newer car wash did not, primarily two large truck bays that got quite a bit of use. I also knew that if I was willing to throw another $30,000 at it, I could convert one of the car wash bays to a dog wash.
After spending nearly three months rebuilding pumps, repairing copper plumbing that froze and burst during the non-working bankruptcy days, and building out
dog-wash bay, I was able to reopen the wash in late summer 2008. The revenues were a meager $4,000 to $5,000 a month, but it covered the mortgage and expenses with a small amount left over. It was about this time of the year that school reopened and all the high school students were holding fundraising car washes across the street and just a bit down the road at the local unit of a fast-food restaurant chain.
This would not be an issue for a car wash owner in most communities but for some reason in my community it was a mainstay — local fundraising efforts with kids washing cars every Saturday and Sunday all through the fall, winter, and spring. Sometimes two groups competed with each other. The cheerleaders, the band, the soccer team, and the chess club, all were having fundraising car washes at these two locations. I would watch their sudsy car wash foam and water go down the storm water drains untreated and it began to really bother me. Especially when I paid my water bills that included sewage bills that were two to three times my water usage. I could not make too big of a deal about it because what community would support a local business who was shutting down their football, soccer, cheerleader, band, majorette, basketball, swimming, lacrosse, chess club, key club, honor society, science club, match club, and tiddlywinks club’s fund raising efforts?
Eventually, I had a conversation with the restaurant’s general manager about how many car washes she allowed in her parking lot. Instead of having empathy for how it was affecting my business, she was confrontational and explained to me that she could have even more fundraisers if she wanted. Somewhere in that conversation, I said “What if I sold roast beef sandwiches out of my car wash every weekend” — and an idea was born! After all, I had two car washes located a mile apart that I was mostly trading dollars with and this could be a new revenue stream. This was the genesis of my new conversion for my older, dated car wash. I had some work to do.
My first step was to contact the local planning department. I first approached them with the idea of using my property to put a hot dog cart out front and sell hot dogs and a few sandwiches like the New York City hot dog vendors do. I received an uncommon and interesting response, especially in these days and the popularity of food trucks: “You cannot sell anything outside your place of business that you do not sell inside,” explained the planning department head (I think this is unique to the community my car wash was in). But he also explained that although I could not put a hot dog cart in front of the property, it was zoned correctly for this type of use and, if I wanted to convert two of the bays into a “drive-thru” restaurant, I would need to get him stamped engineered drawings and submit them to the planning department with a fee of a few hundred dollars. I now had the green light on my new “Drive Thru” hot dog shop.
As with many of the business opportunities that I have invested in, I budgeted way to low as to the build-out and equipment costs I would incur. I also did much of the grunt work myself including:
• Building the back wall
• Through-the-wall AC unit and door installation
• Knocking out bricks and framing for drive thru window and door to equipment room
• Dry-walling the ceiling
• Installing new metal ceiling in drive thru bay
• Coating the floor with epoxy paint (never again!)
• Re-plumbing floor drain with P trap and filling in pit with gravel, then forming concrete over pit
• Finishing trim work around all new doors and windows
• Building counter with Formica top
• Building beverage stand with Formica top
With me doing much of the work myself, I had less than $5,000 invested in materials including the AC unit and the drive-thru windows and two utility doors. While I saved a few bucks doing this work myself, I would not recommend it to anyone.
EQUIPMENT ANDDIFM LABOR
Now for the build-out and equipment costs:
• Front glass, door and installation – $4,500
• Exhaust hood and heated make up air unit (partially used but required by code) – $16,800
• Ansul fire protection – $2,800
• Hood and fire protection drawing – $950
• Plumbing including three-bowl sink installation, gas line rough-ins, new bathroom rough-in – $5,400
• Electrical – $2,500 (A electrician friend owed me a favor, so you might want to double this cost)
• Concrete work to level drive-thru bay – $3,600
• Signage – $3,800
• Six-burner stove with 24” Griddle – $2,500
• Gas fryer – $800
• A worktop refrigerator – $1,500
• Upright refrigerator – $1,000
• Two portable food warmer/cookers – $500
• Three-bowl sink – $650
• Ice machine attached to soda fountain – $2,800 (Coke supplies beverage stand)
• Square cash register, receipt printer, credit card swipe, and remote monitor for cooks to view $950
• Voice over IP phone with voice mail – $140 (Plus $35/Mo.)
• Fry warmer – $130
• Various stainless tables racks – $1,000
• Various pots, pans, cooking utensils – $2,000
• Two freezers (used) $900
So much for a hot dog cart out front! With just over $60,000 invested (and a lot of blood, sweat, and tears), the health department approved my build-out with a few minor details that needed to be completed.
Now I had to work on a menu — a menu with good food that could be delivered fast through the drive thru window and for our counter/take-out customers. I wanted to keep it simple. It was a hot dog shop after all, so the main menu items were hot dogs. But I wanted to be a bit different so I decided on foot-long hot dogs. This would also allow me to charge a bit more per hot dog and drive up the average sale. I was also able to knock-off a hot sausage sandwich that was really popular at a 60-plus-year restaurant in another part of town. This was menu item #2. I finished out the menu with two more sandwiches, all using the same bun: a homemade meatball sandwich (made famous by my Italian mother-in-law) and a kielbasa sandwich, which is a Pittsburgh favorite. I rounded out the menu with fresh cut fries.
OPEN FOR BUSINESS
Hiring employees was the next task. I put some help-wanted signs out in front of my new business and, incredibly, landed a former McDonald’s manager who, believe it or not, lived only a few hundred yards away from my location. She was able to take me to a new level — learning some of the ins and outs of the business, including prep work, employee scheduling, cash register, and money management. She also helped me hire a few additional employees. We were now ready to open. To be honest, I was losing some sleep over it.
On August 10th, 2016, we arrived at 9:00 a.m. to start heating up our limited menu and the food we prepared the day before. At 10:30 I put a large 9’x3’ banner that Coke supplied to let the passing cars know we were finally open. Cars started to drive into the lot, including a few friends who were anticipating our opening. It was a huge relief! Lines even started to form through our drive-thru window. At first we fumbled through the ordering process, but within an hour, and with a few “on-the-fly” process changes, we were able to serve customers in a reasonable amount of time.
Our first few months were very good — good enough that I was able to achieve the same gross that my car wash business did in a year in less than 4 months, albeit with a few more hassles than the car wash business. While the verdict might still be out on how this performs compared to a self-serve car wash, the preliminary results are very, very, encouraging.
Buzz Glover is the author of “Car Wash Business 101” available on Amazon and at http://car washbusiness101.com. If you want to learn more about converting your car wash to a hot dog/sandwich shop you can visit http://carwashbusiness101.com/hotdogconversions/.