New ways to wash your car or other vehicle have appeared in the Richmond area in recent years and are only growing.
Many of these new car washes offer the latest technology and equipment for rush-service automatic car washing, while some stick to the tried-and-true human-fat car wash model.
“There’s a lot of private equity money chasing car washes because they have a reputation for being strong cash flow producers,” said Miles Morin, a partner at MegaWash, which operates a car, truck and RV wash facility off US 1 opened in the district of Hanover in September.
Across the country, car washes remain a largely fragmented service without large, dominant chains, Morin said. “There are a lot of mid-level players,” he said.
Within the last three years, car wash companies such as Flagstop Car Wash, MegaWash, Rio Car Wash, Tommy’s Express and Hogwash have opened new locations in the Richmond area. The car washes compete by seeking prime real estate locations for new facilities, offering membership plans, installing high speed equipment and offering some free vacuum cleaning services to make car washing faster and more convenient.
People also read…
“There’s competition coming into this market, there’s no doubt about that,” said Rob Worrell, a partner at Tommy’s Express Car Wash, a franchise operator that has opened two locations in the Richmond area, two more — one including Arthur Ashe Boulevard and one on West Broad Street near State Route 288 – scheduled to open in 2022.
Worrell said he and business partners Thomas Folliard and Mark O’Neil plan to open two car washes a year in central Virginia for at least the next few years. (Folliard is CEO of automotive retailer CarMax and is a retired president and CEO of the retail chain. O’Neil is a former chief operating officer of Cox Automotive and a board member of CarMax.)
Tommy’s Express, a family-owned business founded in Michigan some 50 years ago, began franchising about seven years ago and is in a national growth spurt, Worrell said.
“I would say the growth [of car washes] in the Richmond market is not dissimilar to growth elsewhere,” he said. “It’s a very popular business model.”
“We believe the Richmond market needs a fast, high-quality express car wash, and there is a demand for it,” Worrell said. “We feel that we have the best car wash model on the market in terms of equipment and technology.”
Speed and convenience are what count for many new car washes, as well as different types of car washes that every operator believes will provide drivers with the most satisfying clean in the shortest amount of time.
Numerous equipment manufacturers across the country supply car washes. Car wash operators say the cost of opening a location can vary widely depending on the cost of the property and the type of equipment installed, but a new location typically costs at least a few million dollars. Profitability is highly dependent on volume.
To encourage repeat visits, most new car wash services now offer monthly membership plans that allow drivers to go to their locations and get washed at any time of the day.
Tyree Brown, chief operating officer at Car Pool Car Washes in the Richmond area and past president of the Southeastern Car Wash Association from 2019 to 2020, said there are multiple dynamics at work in the growth of car wash services at the regional and national levels.
“There’s a lot of consolidation on the equipment side,” Brown said. “The Express model is becoming easier and easier to open. The barriers to entry are still expensive. However, there is a growing need. The more cars there are, the more they have to be washed.”
It’s also getting easier because device manufacturers have provided owners with a one-stop shop, he said.
“It’s not as specialized as it used to be. Fifteen years ago you had to buy equipment from one person and get your training from another and get your IT from another and your chemicals from another,” said Brown. “Manufacturers are able to offer all these things under one roof. It becomes easier for an investor to find a manufacturer who can provide everything they need to get into the industry.”
Traditional car wash Operators are counting on people still looking out for old-fashioned car washes, where teams of people do detail work by hand.
This model includes Car Pool Car Washes, a full-service car wash operator that has grown from one car wash to seven locations and one detailing shop in the Richmond area since the company’s inception in 1977.
The company continues to see strong demand even as new competitors enter the market, Brown said.
“Every vehicle that comes through one of our locations is completed by one person,” Brown said. “That is the big difference. All other car washes that have come onto the market are mostly automated and the customer mostly washes their car themselves.”
The industry as a whole has exploded over the past 10 years, Brown said. “We are having a great year at Car Pool after coming out of the pandemic.”
The pandemic has impacted the business, he said. “Even though people still wanted their cars cleaned, so many people were so concerned about letting people in their cars. People didn’t drive as much and the lack of traffic slowed things down.”
While many of the company’s competitors have focused on exterior car washes, Car Pool continues to offer full-service car washes including interior cleaning.
“There is no doubt that [automated] Car washes do a good job at what they do,” Brown said. “But what we offer when people come to us is that they get an excellent clean both inside and outside the vehicle. When you go to an express car wash, you get out of the car and vacuum it yourself. It very much depends on the person’s ability to do it themselves.”
Car Pool has one of its locations – on Chamberlayne Avenue in Richmond – which only offers outside car wash facilities. Complimentary self-vacuum is available at all paid laundry.
Although automation has transformed the car wash industry over the years, Car Pool remains committed to being a full-service car wash operator, he said.
As man and woman When Team Tom and Janet Hogg wanted to open a car wash in the Richmond area in 2018, they got help from Sonny’s Car Wash Services, a Florida-based provider of car washes and laundry chemicals.
“I’ve studied the process for a good year – developing a business plan, meeting the right people and asking the right questions,” said Tom Hogg. “I was able to get some good advice from people who were knowledgeable about the industry.”
Tom Hogg works at another full-time shop in East Henrico but he and Janet saw a business opportunity to open a new car wash in the East End.
“I was used to having my car washed at an express car wash in the city and there wasn’t one in the East End that I thought was of the same quality,” said Tom Hogg. “I saw an opportunity there to fill a market need and it turned out to be a pretty good guess.”
In June 2018, the Hoggs purchased and renovated a car wash at 6100 Nine Mile Road that had opened in 1986. “It was an obvious choice for our name,” said Tom Hogg. “And it was fun creating a brand.”
They worked with Sonny’s Car Wash to get gear. Sonny’s also runs a “Car Wash College” which Janet Hogg and several other Hogwash employees attended.
“Some of my friends laughed at me, but it was wonderful,” said Janet Hogg, who runs the Hogwash business. “It’s a week-long intensive educational program.”
Their second Hogwash Express Car Wash location recently opened on West Broad Street. “We did more business here in the first month than we did at Nine Mile Road in the first month, which isn’t surprising,” said Janet Hogg given the location on a major thoroughfare through Richmond.
The company has established itself as a local car wash at its Nine Mile Road location by sponsoring school athletic programs and charitable organizations in the area.
“As a business owner, it’s fulfilling to see people out of their cars and talk to each other because they’re neighbors,” said Tom Hogg.
Green Clean Express Auto Wash is also expanding into the Richmond area.
The Ohio-based company has two locations in the under-construction region – one near Brook and Parham Road and the other at 4810 Nine Mile Road.
According to commercial real estate agent Cushman & Wakefield | the company recently acquired an acre of land at 9486 W. Broad St. in Henrico for its third location, with Thalhimer handling the sale.
Green Clean has also recently acquired several properties in Portsmouth, as well as locations in Suffolk, Norfolk, Chesapeake and Charlottesville.
Nine additional locations are currently under construction, with more than a dozen Green Clean Express locations planned to open across the region by the first quarter of 2022.
The MegaWash in Hanover wants to differentiate itself by offering services that other car washes don’t have, such as an automatic car polishing station.
“Our focus and what sets us apart is our ability to wash any vehicle, large or small, and the ability to do it quickly,” Morin said. “In 15 minutes a car is washed, dried and polished and you’re back on the road.”
MegaWash also invested in another service that it expects will help differentiate itself. The company built a 20-foot-tall and 100-foot-long automatic RV wash facility. This goes hand-in-hand with the RV site the company has opened on its 14-acre facility.
“We believe we can create a multiple revenue stream business facility that performs better than one that only provides a single service,” Morin said.
“The business concept is to serve RV owners and their cars,” Morin said. “We can wash anything a family owns, whether it’s an RV or a pickup truck.”
“We’re about 50% RVs and 50% commercial vehicles,” Morin said at the RV wash, adding that the company chose its location just off US Route 1 near Ashland, in part because it’s in the close to a number of trucking companies.
Henrico County’s Greg Schroder parks his 40-foot RV at the Megawash RV park, and he drove it through the wash there on a recent weekday.
“It’s so difficult for me to wash it myself — it’s so difficult,” he said. “The laundry here is fantastic.”
“As far as I know, this is unique nationwide,” said Schroder, who has owned an RV for four years. “I used to have to take it to a place where they would scrub it by hand. Here you have storage space and laundry, and it couldn’t be more convenient.”