When it comes to business, the Willkomm family follows one simple maxim — focus on the customer. Brothers Michael and Jim Willkomm have been catering to the needs of Southeastern Wisconsin for decades, but the Willkomm roots go further back.

Rocket Wash sports a familiar Tommy’s aesthetic.

            Their grandfather, Clarence, whom everyone called Shorty, was a dairy delivery driver in the 1940s and was approached by Mobile Oil to help distribute petroleum products. Mobile Oil wanted to reach the dairy farmers and needed to work with someone who had connections with the local market.

            Shorty jumped at the opportunity, and had a beneficial partnership with Mobil Oil for three decades before the petroleum giant decided to sell the operation. Clarence and his son Jerry (Michael and Jim’s father) chose to buy the business and take over.

            “In the late seventies, my dad took out a $375,000 loan at 22.5 percent to buy the two trucks, bulk plant, and inventory,” says Michael Willkomm. “He said there’s nothing like a big debt payment to motivate a man to go to work. So, he went to work every day and ended up making it.”

The tunnel exit.

            Jerry succeeded in petroleum distribution and, fueled by that success, grew the family business. Over the years, Willkomm Companies expanded to include gas stations, fast food restaurants, truck stops, distribution, and car washes, along with a host of petroleum products.

            As gas station operators, the Willkomms have owned and operated car washes for years, but the level of clean and service provided left much to be desired.

            “Over the years we had a little bit of everything from a car wash perspective,” says Willkomm. “We had touchless rollovers, mini tunnels, and friction units. But I was tired of those old, dark, slow, low-quality gas station car washes. I wanted to provide something better. Around 10 years ago, I started for the first time to really do some research on car washes instead of going with whatever my vendor recommended.”

More than 60 percent of tunnel traffic comes from members.

            In 2016, the Willkomms were building a new gas station. Instead of building another uninspiring gas station-style car wash, the team went on the hunt for something new. 

            “I found Tommy’s, and when I saw that building for the first time, I said, ‘that’s what I want to do,’” says Willkomm. “We called them up and ended up partnering with them. We built their first Tommy’s wash before they required you to franchise, and we privately branded our site Rocket Wash.”

            Passing a Rocket Wash you might think it was a Tommy‘s location from a distance. Although the building, equipment, and service are very similar to Tommy’s franchised locations, the Willkomms have made some tweaks to the offering to best fit their needs.

            For example, like all Tommy’s locations, Rocket Wash has mat cleaners. However, the Willkomms decided to house them indoors to provide customers with shelter from the harsh Wisconsin weather. In another nod to the rugged Midwest climate, Rocket Wash features radiant floor heat throughout the tunnel, providing employees with a comfortable, warm environment even when it is below freezing outside.

The indoor vending and mat washers.

            In addition, the second level of the building features a breakroom and office space, utilizing the building’s square footage and allowing employees and management a place to relax and get some work done.

            When the Willkomms opened their first Rocket Wash, it was a hit right out of the gate, prompting them to build three more over the next few years across the Racine and Kenosha, WI markets. In addition, the team just announced that a third location in the Kenosha market will open in 2025.

            While customers love Rocket Wash’s speed, convenience, and performance, its owners thoroughly enjoy the membership model express offers.

            “The whole concept of memberships didn’t exist in our market,” says Willkomm. “When I started doing my research, it seemed like a no-brainer. Customers use it about twice a month, and you always have revenue coming in, even on rainy days. It just makes a lot of sense. I realized it would be a race to establish our footprint in the market first.”

Employees enjoy the radiant floor heat in the cold winter months.

            Rocket was indeed the first to establish a modern express wash with a thriving membership model, but it was not the only player to see the potential in the market. Mister is entering Rocket’s backyard, preparing to open a location in Kenosha.

            To compete with whoever might infringe on its turf Rocket focuses on superior customer experience, community involvement, and employee engagement to set the barrier of entry high. A key piece of Rocket’s approach is its flourishing fundraising program. The program allows local charities, schools, and sports teams to sell washes and pocket half the proceeds.

            “What I love about it is when kids go out and sell washes, they’re selling to their family and friends,” says Willkomm. “They are all new potential customers. When you buy a wash from your niece or nephew, you’re most likely going to try it. If we can get someone to try our wash, I think we have a really good chance of keeping them. That’s how we can afford to give away half of the cost of the wash.”

Plenty of free vacuums are available.

            While its fundraising campaign helps connect the wash with the community and draw new potential customers to the brand, Rocket’s labor approach ensures it attracts and retains top talent.

            Rocket employs around 60 employees across its four locations. While it only takes two people to run the wash, on busy days, four or five employees can be found onsite greeting customers, explaining the menu, guiding cars into the tunnel, and keeping the site neat and tidy.

            To maintain high employee satisfaction, Rocket pays its staff well and offers a powerful benefit package that most employers would struggle to match. Rocket employees are eligible for health insurance, a 401K program, discounts, gym membership reimbursement, and a club volume bonus program.

            Rocket has a simple, easy-to-understand bonus program. The more cars that are washed, the bigger the potential bonus. If a site washes X number of cars, X number of dollars goes into the kitty. At the end of the month, if an employee worked 10 percent of the total hours, they receive 10 percent of the pot. The more you work, and the more cars are washed, the bigger your bonus.

            Rocket’s frontline employees are the face of the brand and keeping them happy and engaged is vital. “I learned a long time ago in small business that I can’t be everywhere,” Willkomm says. “When customers come to our sites, they don’t see me. They see whoever takes care of them. Happy employees equal happy customers.”

The well-equipped Tommy’s powered tunnel.

            Drawing on decades of know-how in Southeastern Wisconsin, Rocket prioritizes employee and customer satisfaction. It continues to scale its operation, fighting for its piece of the local market and providing the Rocket experience throughout its community.