Car washing has always been a community affair. Despite the presence of deep-pocketed investors that are slowing changing the car wash landscape, the majority of washes around the country are operated by members of the local community.
Craig Young owns Squeaky’s Car Wash in Coeur d’Alene, ID and although he openly admits his wash won’t win any beauty contests he has been accepted as part of the community and continues to withstand the onslaught from new investors in his market.
Squeaky’s is the only touchless tunnel in Northern Idaho, and when Young bought the business 10 years ago it was the only game in town.
Since purchasing the wash a decade ago, two bigger, modern equipped sites have opened up within a mile of Young’s location — one seven years ago and the latest less than six months ago. In many markets the construction of two big, high-powered washes just a stone’s throw from an aging wash would spell doom for the old dog, but Young has something the other players in the market don’t possess. He has the community’s back and the community has his.
Young credits two things for his ability to stand tall in the face of increased competition: his commitment to providing the best service possible and his ability to connect with the community at large.
“We have had a lot of support,” Young says. “The latest wash opened with a ton of advertising and fanfare in a very noticeable location. A lot of my customers went over and gave them a try but found out it was not that big of a deal and came back to us.
Although the competition open-ed up in Young’s backyard his wash was uniquely positioned both in services and location to weather the influx of new blood into the market. The two new sites are located on State Route 95, a small but busy thoroughfare that ushers sightseers and tourists to and from the Canadian border 90 miles north of Coeur d’Alene. Squeaky’s on the other hand is situated within a bedroom section of the town and caters to the local population more than the seasonal tourists that visit and pass through Northern Idaho.
Squeaky’s is the kind of wash that you have to know is there. Prior to the arrival of the competition the wash used to capture a small percentage of the tourist traffic, but it was never a major portion of its business. Over the past seven years, Young estimates the competition has siphoned just 15 percent of his market share, which although significant, is a survivable reduction in this growing market.
“The competition has been eating into my share a little bit at a time since they opened,” Young says. “I used to have the whole pie, but now I have to share it. But luckily for me the pie has grown over the years.”
Coeur d’Alene is a farming, logging, and mining community and despite a thriving year-round tourist economy has stayed true to its small-town roots. It is this small-town culture that has aided Young over the years and helped him stay relevant as more visually appealing and modern offerings entered the market.
Young has earned his place in the community one smile and wave at a time and through his commitment to local charity and fundraising efforts. Like many other washes around the country Squeaky’s is constantly offering its services to any and all local fundraising efforts. What makes the wash’s approach to charity work unique however, is the one-sided nature of the campaigns.
Squeaky’s simply gives away its services and asks for nothing in return. Young doesn’t donate $1 from every wash, or give a charity 20 percent of his profit for a day, he simply hands the organizers of the fundraiser some free car wash passes to utilize however they see fit. The selfless approach to charity work has helped Young position both himself and his wash as a valuable member of the community. A position that he credits with his ability to continue to thrive in the face of increased competition.
“I donate a lot of car washes,” Young says. “I probably give away 20 or 30 a week. The charities raffle and auction them off. It is all local people at these events. They are constantly seeing our name at all these different fundraisers, so we are associated with that from a community standpoint. The community kind of looks after us and we try to look after them.
Of course all the goodwill in the world would be useless if Squeaky’s didn’t deliver a quality product. Although the equipment is in its third decade of service it has been well maintained and still provides a quality wash, shine, and dry — albeit with a little help from the Squeaky’s staff.
Young has empowered every member of his 20-person-strong team with the ability to offer rewashes if they notice a spot the equipment missed or if a customer mentions concerns over wash quality. Even if a customer comes back in two weeks later and tells the cashier they were not 100 percent satisfied with their last experience their next trip through the exterior-only touchless tunnel is on the house.
While giving employees the power to offer free washes opens the door for abuse both from staff and customers, Young says the reward outweighs the risk.
“A lot of operators won’t do what we do because it is a double-edged sword,” Young says. “When you empower staff like that, there is going to be the employee or customer here or there that might abuse it. But in the long run you find that less than five percent will be those kind of situations. You don’t want to make it tough on the 95 percent that are legitimate by over scrutinizing things.”
The rewash policy is just part of the customer service culture Young has cultivated at his wash over the years. The majority of the staff at Squeaky’s are part-time students, with a few old-timer veterans sprinkled in to help keep wash quality and procedures consistent. This mix of new and old washers are all equally committed to providing top-tier service, motivated by the large amount of pooled tips they receive for their effor
“When we aren’t real busy our staff is chatting up customers or offering to go the extra mile,” Young says. “When they see a customer doing some detailing of their own in the vacuum stalls they walk over and give them a hand. They understand that is how they make their money. It works for me too. The ones that don’t get it usually don’t last, the peer pressure among the staff to go above and beyond is powerful because they pool their tips.”
Young and his staff have been going above and beyond for over a decade, helping cement Squeaky’s as a community landmark that has stood its ground in the face of increased competition. By providing meticulous service and positioning itself as a central member of the community the wash endures and one hand continues to wash the other.