While most things are certainly bigger in Texas, not every success story in the Lone Star State needs to be supersized. Bobby and Vicki Lewallen’s latest venture isn’t a marvel of excess, but rather a perfectly sized testament that sometimes less is more.
The 12-year car wash veterans recently opened their fourth location sandwiched in the middle of a busy shopping center and have been enjoying success just one month since opening their latest Auto Paradise site in Midland, TX.
The Lewallens purchased a piece of unused land from the local McDonald’s and built a 60-foot mini rollover tunnel on 8,500 square feet of property. They literally own the footprint of the building —nothing more — and are situated in a piece of prime real estate surrounded by high traffic businesses.
The land the latest Auto Paradise is situated on was a parcel McDonald’s utilized as a cut through for its customers to enter the parking lot from the rear of the building.
“I bought half of the easement,” Bobby Lewallen says. “I only bought the land that the wash is sitting on. They gave me a permanent easement to use the other half. Their customers can still use the land to go to the restaurant but my customers pull right into my wash on property I didn’t even buy.”
The site is a dream location. Not only is the wash situated next to a high-volume McDonalds, it is in front of a Super Walmart and neighbors a Sonic restaurant and a Murphy USA gas station. As customers fill up their cars or wait in line at the drive through they are literally staring at the Lewallens all-glass automatic wash, which acts as a giant billboard drawing customers in.
The Midland location is the fourth in the Lewallen’s collection of West Texas washes, and the second all-glass, Autec-equipped mini tunnel. The self-sufficient site is unmanned most of the day, with workers only coming in from time to time to do some basic preventative maintenance and cleaning. With no vacuums or even a garbage can on site the necessary cleaning is kept to a minimum — even the majority of the daily upkeep is taken care of by the equipment itself. During downtime the in-bay automatic sprays down the building’s glass panels with spot-free water to ensure an attractive and clean appearan
The site can accommodate two vehicles at a time. After selecting the wash level from the automated teller, vehicles drive under a pre-soak and triple foam arch before settling in position for two quick friction passes from the in-bay machine that takes no more than two minutes. The vehicle then drives under the rinse arches and on its way to the blower so another car can begin its wash cycle.
The format and operational efficiency of the system is a welcome break from the first twoAuto Paradise locations the Lewallens opened before discovering the roll over mini tunnel model.
The couple got into the wash business in 2003 with their first site in San Angelo, TX. That first location features four self-serve bays and two touchless in-bay automatics, and a surprising amount of labor for the traditionally low maintenance model.
West Texas is home to plenty of oil fields, dirt, and grime, which make cleaning cars without friction a difficult undertaking.
“When I first got into the business I thought no one would want anything to touch their car,” Lewallen says. “But over the years I learned that all customers want is a clean car. As long as you don’t damage their car and it is clean they don’t care if you have brushes or not.”
While the local population isn’t as concerned with friction washing as the Lewallens had anticipated, the couple owns and operate two sites with a total of three touchless in-bay automatics that require manual pretreatment in order to get the job done. This reliance on labor and the additional responsibilities that are inherent in the self-serve model motivated the Lewallens to explore and ultimately adopt the unattended friction concept.
“From an operational perspective the new model works so much smoother,” Lewallen says. “You don’t have to worry about people dropping off tires, couches, tearing up vacuums, all the things that come with self serve. It is just better from an efficiency and cash flow perspective. And less headaches.
While the Lewallens’ first two washes require more attention than the second set of sites, all four locations benefit from a simple marketing approach based on cross-promotion and a commitment to the local community that has helped position Auto Paradise as a market leader.
At two locations the Lewallens have built relationships with the neighboring Murphy USA gas stations. The service stations promote the car wash to its customers at the gas island and sell discounted wash packages right at the gas pump. For its efforts the gas station gets a percentage of every wash it sells. While there is a Murphy USA location right next to Auto Paradise’s latest location, Bobby Lewallen has yet to form a cross-promotional relationship with the gas station and is not sure it will be necessary.
“We are going to wait a few months and see how it goes,” he says about striking a profit sharing deal at his newest wash. “It is a good deal. But based on the great location we have secured for that site I am not sure it is going to be necessary.” One aspect of Auto Paradise’s business model that will continue to be cultivated at the newest location is the wash’s philanthropic efforts. The Lewallens have built a loyal customer base thanks to their continued commitment to local charities.
Auto Paradise’s top package is branded the charity wash and $2 from every wash is donated to a different local charity each month. The program is a raging success with an average of over a thousand dollars donated to the charity of the month and a waiting list 18 months long filled with fundraisers anxiously waiting their turn.
“We tried for years to figure out how to give back,” Lewallen says. “We did all kind of fundraising things. We learned that people want it to be simple. It is very little work for the charity and the customers. All the charity has to do is promote the program to their contacts. All the customers have to do is order the top wash. It is that simple.”
While it is not shocking that a well run and maintained wash dedicated to community involvement is successful, it is surprising when it is not the owner’s only profession. Over his dozen years in the car wash business Bobby Lewallen has been running his sites with long nights and busy weekends, as his days are filled holding down a full-time position at Johnson & Johnson and a heavy involvement in a direct sales business.
“Most people don’t know how we do it,” Lewallen says. “It is a lot of late nights. But I am at the point right now where I am ready to make car washing my full-time job and allocate one hundred percent of my attention to the business.”
The Lewallens are not done expanding the Auto Paradise brand and plan to open at least two more sites in Midland over the next three to five years. While Auto Paradise’s footprint might be small by industry standards its owners’ ambitions are as big as Texas and are driving the wash to supersized success.