Consumers are increasingly making purchase decisions based on a company’s commitment to “doing good.” Diversity, inclusion, sustainability, charity work, or any number of initiatives designed to make the world a better place are key factors on the path to purchase for many shoppers.
Luckily for car washers, being an active and positive fixture in the community is not a foreign concept. Car wash owners have long been known for sponsoring local sports teams, participating in school fundraising drives, and giving back to the community anyway they can.
This commitment to community activism has served car wash operators well for years and continues to position their businesses for ongoing success in today’s landscape. While philanthropy is commonplace in the industry, some washes go above and beyond the call of duty and make it part of their company culture.
Bubble Bath Car Wash in San Antonio, TX has been investing in its community since its founding in 2005 and continues to seek out and invent new and differentiated ways to give back to the city and residents that give so much to them.
“Our family has been in San Antonio for seven generations,” says Bubble Bath president Nick Lopez. “We are from this city. We know everybody here and we love everybody here. Since our beginning, we’ve always looked at how do we give back to this community.”
The growing express tunnel wash started out as a single self-serve location over a decade and a half ago. Founded by Nick’s father and Bubble Wash CEO Larry Lopez, the car wash started its charity work by donating to and supporting breast cancer research, a cause near and dear to the family’s heart, having lost Larry’s mother to the disease.
The charity work surrounding breast cancer research evolved to the wash donating a penny from every wash to a rotating group of local charities. Currently, Bubble Bath is working with the San Antonio Children’s Shelter, pledging a portion of their profits to the organization.
“I grew up with the idea that you’re supposed to serve people and your community,” says Lopez. “That idea has transferred into my professional life as well.”
With the ongoing donations to local charities as the backbone, Bubble Bath continues to design innovative ways to connect with the local community and give back to those in need. For the second consecutive year, the Bubble Bath team has spearheaded a project where customers, staff, and the community at large send personalized Christmas cards to the city’s elderly population.
Bubble Bath had 5,000 custom Christmas cards printed up and encouraged customers and staff to write holiday messages to Wheels on Meals recipients. In 2020 the Christmas card drive resulted in 900 handwritten holiday cards for the area’s homebound seniors. This past Christmas that number ballooned to more than 2,000, and the wash has plans to crest the 4,000-card barrier in 2022.
“This was a very powerful program,” says Lopez. “Our customers and employees really embraced it. We had signage around the sites and many employees took it upon themselves to bring some cards to their churches and youth groups to have them filled out.”
The wash’s commitment to giving back to the community has helped it scale from a single self-serve site to six express tunnel locations. Bubble added express in 2008, with Larry continuing to operate both the express and self-serve models for a few years before going all-in on the express concept. It was shortly after making the move to an express-only model that Nick, fresh out of college, joined the business and the father and son duo moved forward with expansion on their minds.
“I started working as a stopover,” says Lopez. “But I ended up falling in love with it. We built our second wash in 2012, then our third, four, fifth, and sixth. And over that time, I went from standing out front selling fast passes to now being the president of the company. It has been a lot of fun building from five guys to a team of 60 people, who run some of the best car washes in San Antonio.”
The Lopez family is always on the lookout for their next expansion opportunity, with Larry leading the way on site selection and the father and son working together to ensure the washes are built to Bubble’s exact needs and specifications.
“We spend a lot of time finding our locations,” says Lopez. “None of our locations are B locations. Over the past year we have been feeling the pressure from some large private equity groups that are furiously buying up properties.”
In response to the competition for choice real estate in San Antonio, Bubble Bath has accelerated its expansion efforts and currently has plans for three more locations in various forms of development. The next location, Bubble’s seventh, should open in this calendar year.
“We know a lot more and it’s been a lot easier in some areas,” Lopez says of Bubble’s expansion efforts over the years. “But in other ways things have just gotten harder. Supply chain problems, ongoing building issues, and the pandemic have brought with them a new set of challenges. There is no shortage of obstacles that we have to overcome, just like any small business encounters on a regular basis.”
One challenge Bubble Bath faced and overcame was how to best optimize its unlimited wash club. When the program launched back in 2010 the pricing structure was not streamlined — the top plan cost $70 a month, signifying a more than 4x multiple. The high price coupled with a relaxed approach to promoting and selling the service resulted in very low membership numbers.
“We were really hyper focused on the quality of the wash for a very long time,” says Lopez. “We were putting out the best car we could and that is where all of our attention went. It wasn’t until we opened our third location in 2015 that we started to really understand memberships and how to position and sell them.”
Memberships are a major piece of Bubble’s focus now and helps the wash attract, retain, and maximize its customer base. A customer base that is fully engaged with the brand and more than willing to voice that devotion.
Last year the wash received two high-profile awards from local publications, highlighting Bubble’s commitment and engagement with its consumers.
The wash received the San Antonio Business Journal’s “Family-Owned Business Award,” which honors a locally owned and operated business. The wash was also honored with YourSA San Antonio Express News’ “Readers’ Choice Award,” which is bestowed on local businesses in multiple categories based off reader votes.
“We were honored to receive the Readers’ Choice Award,” says Lopez. “It was kind of a surprise. We were nominated by a few of our customers, and we let it be known on our social media platforms that we had been nominated. Our customers came together and voted for us and we won the award.”
As Bubble Bath continues to scale across the San Antonio market it has all the tools it needs to succeed: experience, dedication to community advancement, and the admiration of a loyal customer base.
Name: Bubble Bath Car Wash
Location: San Antonio, TX
Owners: Nick and Larry Lopez
Concept: Express with Free Vacs
Sites: 6, Plus 3 in Development
Tunnel Equipment Providers: Sonny’s, NCS