Knowledge, expertise, and experience are not bought, they are earned. With every car washed, piece of equipment repaired, and location opened operators increase their knowhow and improve their overall car wash IQ.

Aerial view of Otto’s Express Car Wash.
MacNeil equipment gets the job done.
The dryer array.
Co-owner Jon Garey did plenty of research before
opening his first location.
Pre-treatment is a mainstay at Otto’s.
Rendering of Otto’s second location, coming 2021.
The well-equipped tunnel entrance.

When Todd and Jon Garey opened their first wash in Destin, FL the father and son car wash team knew little about the car wash development game. Sure, they did their homework and partnered with the right suppliers, distributors, and builders, but they had yet to earn the nuts and bolts knowledge of car wash ownership. That car wash expertise would begin to be acquired the moment that first car rolled down their newly-build express tunnel.

While Otto’s Express Car Wash has been open just two years, the Gareys have learned plenty about car wash ownership and development. So much so in fact that they have already broken ground on their second Otto’s location and have plans in place for a third.

“We want to go as big as possible in the Florida market,” Jon Garey says. “There is an opportunity to expand. We have learned a lot from our first wash and will be putting those learnings to use.”

One of the biggest learnings the Careys are going to implement at their second wash they are constructing in Walton County involves the building’s design. Their first location features a prominent entrance and exit. Those two sections of the building are the highest, while the main tunnel section features a lower ceiling. While the design makes for a striking architectural effect it had some unexpected ramifications on tunnel upkeep.

“Our prep and dryer areas are the tallest parts of our car wash and the tunnel is the lowest” says Garey. “The tunnel is a little tight and the ceiling and walls get pretty dirty. At our new site, the tunnel is going to be about twice as wide and the entrance and exit are going to be the lowest parts. Customers won’t feel as claustrophobic and since the brushes won’t be so close, the walls won’t get as dirty.”

This kind of insight into a car wash can only be gained by operating the wash and is invaluable as owners look to scale. By reconfiguring the building layout for their second location the Gareys will be able to not only provide a more comfortable environment for their customers but save valuable building upkeep and maintenance time.

The owner/operators were drawn to the express concept for its low labor component and any way they can minimize the workload on their seven-person staff the better.

The Gareys vacationed in the Florida panhandle frequently before making it their permanent home a few years ago. During their visits from their native Indianapolis they noticed a lack of express car washes in the area.

“In Indianapolis we were used to the big express chains like Mike’s Carwash and Crew Carwash,” Garey said. “There was nothing like that down here. Customers didn’t know what they were missing, we saw that as a huge opportunity.”

The lack of competition was a major factor influencing the Gareys decision to develop an express car wash, that and of course the limited labor component, which is key in a tourist destination like Destin.

“There are not a ton of locals here,” Garey says. “We didn’t think we would have enough available workforce to go the full-serve route. Also, we have a lot of tourists who are coming in and out of town every week. And while they are here, they want to get a car wash. But it must be quick. They do not want to spend a lot of time at the car wash when they are on vacation.”

While vacationers and short-term residents make up a significant portion of Otto’s customer base, the wash still has a strong connection with the local population, which it fosters through its charity work and community involvement. The wash is a supporter of the Destin Charity Wine Auction Foundation, donating more than $10,000 to the local organization which is dedicated to assisting children suffering from health issues and abuse. In addition to the direct contribution of funds to the organization, Otto’s also collects donations of $1, $3, and $5 for the charity from its customers at the pay stations.

Despite its loyal customer base, Otto’s, like the rest of the industry, was not immune to the effects of the COVID-19 health crisis. At the start of the pandemic in March and April, Destin was forced to close its beaches to comply with social distancing mandates, bringing tourism to a standstill. With local traffic slowed to a crawl Otto’s decided to close its doors for a little over a month — with a few well-timed exceptions.

“We raised our gates a handful of times during that month we were closed,” Garey says. “Since there were no tourists here, we simply opened up and gave every car that came in a free wash. We did it as a thank you to the community and to give them something to do and just get out of the house.”

While the free washes during the height of the COVID outbreak were intended as a gesture of goodwill toward the community it did have an unintended positive business outcome. “We actually gained a ton of monthly club members because of it,” Garey says. “Customers either had never been in before or they liked the fact that we were doing free washes for our community during a time like that. They ended up having a lot of respect for it and came back and signed up for a membership.”

Otto’s unlimited wash club is growing by leaps and bounds. The most popular option is the top-of-the-line Ultimate Wash Package. The menu option costs $20 for a one-time service and $54.98 for a monthly membership. The package includes a foam bath, presoak, wheel and tire cleaning, triple foam, rain shield, Carnauba wax, clear coat sealant, and much more. To help grow membership Otto’s has introduced a family plan option, giving customers an incentive to sign up more than one vehicle for the service.

“With the family plan after one vehicle signs up the customer can get half off on any other vehicles they add to the plan,” Garey says. “Our pricing is a little higher than other washes around the country. I felt like it would be a good idea to introduce the family plan to get more customers involved. Our numbers went up pretty quickly.”

The Gareys are not afraid to think outside of the box and learn from past experiences, a critical component of any successful wash and a trait that will serve them well as they scale the business. Their second location is on track to open in 2021 with more sites on the horizon.  

WASH Profile:

Name: Otto’s Express Car Wash
Location: Destin, Florida
Owners: Todd and Jon Garey
Concept: Express Exterior
Tunnel Equipment: MacNeil Wash Systems
Vacuums: EuroVac
Tunnel Length: 130 feet
Site Size: 1.5 Acres