The luxury car wash: dog spa, hookah and even lamb chops while you wait
ATLANTA—A few blocks west of Interstate 75, the words Auto Spa Bistro are written in ornate gold letters atop a small apartment building on 14th Street in downtown Atlanta.
In front, there is a large parking lot where the staff cleans the soapy and shiny cars. It’s obviously a car wash, but walking through the doors of the Auto Spa Bistro lounge might make you forget that detail.
Behind the walls of plush and faux alligator purple club chairs, you’ll find a bar where you can order margaritas, a bottle of local SweetWater 420 beer, premium bourbon, gin, and other adult beverages. Depending on the time of day, you can order omelets like “The Beamer” with gulf shrimp, mozzarella, tomatoes and spinach, or lunch and dinner options ranging from assorted salads fresh from bourbon-glazed lamb chops. Occasionally, guests can enjoy puffs of cooled smoke from rented hookahs under golden chandeliers.
“A lot of people would drop off vehicles, then go to dinner, at Starbucks,
Dunkin’ Donuts or Waffle House. And I was like, how cool would it be to have something in a building to extend their stay and increase average tickets,” said Lemont Bradley, owner of Auto Spa Bistro, who came up with the idea to provide amenities after his first car. The washing business closed 20 years ago.
Mr Bradley says he is getting creative with equipment and services to turn his car wash into a club. Others do it to pique investor interest, especially since car wash chain Mister Car Wash raised more than $560 million in an initial public offering in June 2021.
At the Clean Ride Auto Spa in Sioux Falls, SD, patrons can enjoy a freshly brewed cup of locally roasted coffee inside the Clean Bean, its cafe. Some don’t even buy a car service; they just stop in for a caramel macchiato or chai, freshly baked breakfast sandwiches and pastries like the popular white chocolate raspberry scone, says Clean Ride administrator Heather Dorhout.
Clean Ride car detailing and cleaning packages range from $12 to $450. They also have a dog spa: self-serve pet wash stations, which come with post-wash “puppy cups” filled with dog snacks and whipped cream.
Clean Ride opened in February 2020. Ms. Dorhout, a former high school math teacher, started working for the Clean Bean as a barista over a year ago, but now manages marketing, accounting and human resources. She says car wash services account for about 90% of revenue, but the extra amenities are fun ways to differentiate Clean Ride from competitors, especially for customers who she says like to “tell their stories” on rides. friendly baristas while waiting. their freshly cleaned vehicles.
“Eventually, we would like to develop this side of the business,” Ms. Dorhout says of the Clean Bean and the Dog Spa. “We recently held catering events, but at the moment it’s more to help with experience and customer service.”
According to a March report from Grand View Researchthe car wash market is expected to reach $38.61 billion by 2030, at a compound annual growth rate of 3.1%.
Eric Wulf, managing director of the Chicago-based International Carwash Association business group, says the mixed-model car wash business has strong potential for success. Large car wash owners are likely going to focus on building a scalable, subscription-based business. The resulting bifurcation of the market would then motivate more independent entrepreneurs to launch unique models like Auto Spa Bistro to compete.
The mixed model is something Mr. Wulf has seen in many forms, especially overseas. He says one of the most unique car wash operations he’s seen is in Zurich, where a car wash sometimes has a dance club on the second floor where visitors dance while they wait. Car wash cafes are also prevalent in Australia and the Philippines.
The restaurant-carwash model isn’t for everyone, Wulf said. The risks include spending a lot of money to build something that just doesn’t attract more customers. There is also the risk that a private equity backed group will build a subscription model alongside your business.
Martin Emmett, president and CEO of Dirty Dogs Car Wash, no longer takes that risk.
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“The forward pressure in the labor market is going to make it difficult to implement here, or at least implement it right,” he said.
Atlanta-based Dirty Dogs opened its first location in 2018 in Calhoun, Georgia, with a coffee bar and other concessions. But Mr. Emmett ditched the full-service model, moving to a more streamlined business model centered on high-quality service without a high number of employees. Dirty Dogs also operates in Alabama.
Mr. Emmett’s simple express outdoor model generated annual revenue of approximately $5.6 million for 2021. In February, Dirty Dogs secured a $35 million investment from Salt Lake City-based Cynosure Group. Mr. Emmett plans to use the funding to expand into Florida and open several of the 25 locations nationwide over the next 36 months.
Setting up a car wash is much more expensive than it was decades ago due to advances in technology and rising real estate prices. Mr Wulf said this is part of the reason owners are turning to private equity groups for investment. About 15 years ago, he estimated it would take about $2.5 million to set up an express outdoor car wash. Now he puts that figure at $7 million.
Mr. Bradley relies on a loyal clientele and celebrity clients to keep Auto Spa Bistro in business. Former NBA star Shaquille O’Neal, for example, is a member of the company’s franchise advisory board.
Mr. Bradley has already started with a new concept called Eco Car Spa just a mile south of Auto Spa Bistro. The “waterless” car wash uses biodegradable products and offers services ranging from $15 for an exterior wash only to $500 for a full cleaning. Mr Bradley pairs the eco-friendly car wash with a menu of healthier foods that includes quinoa and kale salads with berry dressing, a variety of fresh juices and ‘superfood’ smoothies based on acai and coconut water.
“I don’t rush; I want to make sure that we will succeed in their territories and that we can conquer new territories,” he said.
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