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A car wash boom: Options for getting your wheels washed continue to grow in the Richmond area
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A car wash boom: Options for getting your wheels washed continue to grow in the Richmond area

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Miles Morin, managing partner of MegaWash, talks about his business that opened in early November 2021, south of Ashland, Va. It provides touchless RV, camper and vehicle washing. Video by Alexa Welch Edlund/Times-Dispatch

New automatic 2-minute car wash in 30 seconds

New options for washing your car or other vehicles have been sprouting up around the Richmond region over the past couple of years, with more on the way.

Many of these new car wash places offer the latest technologies and equipment for automatic, quick-service car washing, while some are sticking to the time-honored model of washing cars using human elbow grease.

“There is a lot of private equity money that is chasing car washes because they have a reputation for being strong cash-flow producers,” said Miles Morin, a partner in MegaWash, which opened a car, truck and RV washing facility off U.S. 1 in Hanover County in September.

Car washes remain a largely fragmented service nationwide, with no large, dominant chains, Morin said. “There are a lot of medium-sized players,” he said.

Within the past three years, car wash businesses 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 are competing by seeking prime real estate locations for new facilities, offering membership plans, installing high-speed equipment and some offering free vacuum services to make car washing faster and more convenient.

“There is competition that is coming into this market, there is no doubt about it,” said Rob Worrell, a partner in Tommy’s Express Car Wash, a franchise operator that has opened two locations in the Richmond area, with two more — one on 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 several years. (Folliard is the board chairman at automotive retailer CarMax and is the retail chain’s retired president and CEO. O’Neil is the former chief operating officer of Cox Automotive and a board member of CarMax)

A family-owned business formed in Michigan about 50 years ago, Tommy’s Express started franchising about seven years ago and has been on a national growth spurt, Worrell said.

“I would say the growth [of car washes] in the Richmond market is not unlike the growth anywhere else,” he said. “It is a very sought after business model.”

“We think the Richmond market needs, and there is demand for, a high-speed, high-quality express car wash,” Worrell said. “We feel like we have got the best car wash model out there in terms of our equipment and technology.”

Speed and convenience are what a lot of new car washes are going after, plus various types of washing equipment that each operator believes will give drivers the most satisfactory clean in the shortest time.

Numerous equipment makers around the country supply car washes. Car wash operators say the cost of opening a location can vary a lot depending on the cost of real estate and the type of equipment installed, but a new location will typically cost at least a few million dollars. Profitability depends a lot on volume.

To encourage return visits, most of the new car wash services are now offering monthly membership plans that enable drivers to go to their locations and get a wash at any time of day.

Tyree Brown, the chief operating officer at Car Pool Car Washes in the Richmond region who is the past president of the Southeastern Car Wash Association from 2019-2020, said several dynamics are at work in the growth of car wash services regionally and nationally.

“There is a lot of consolidation on the equipment side,” Brown said. “The express model is becoming a simpler model to open. The barriers to entry are still expensive. However there is a growing need. The more cars that are on the road, the more need there is to wash them.”

It also is becoming simper because equipment manufacturers have provided owners with a one-stop shop, he said.

“It is not as specialized as it used to be. Fifteen years ago, you would have to buy equipment from one person and get your training from another person and get your IT from another vendor and your chemicals from another vendor,” Brown said. “What is happening is manufacturers are becoming able to provide all these things from under one roof. It becomes simpler for an investor to go and seek out a manufacturer that can provide them all they need to get into the industry.”

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Traditional car wash operators are counting on people to still look for car washes done the old fashioned way, with teams of people doing detailed work by hand.

That model includes Car Pool Car Washes, a full-service car wash operator which grew from one car wash to seven locations and one detail shop in the Richmond area since the business was founded in 1977.

The company continues to see strong demand despite the new competition entering the market, Brown said.

“Every vehicle that comes though one of our sites is finished by a person,” Brown said. “That is the big difference. All the other car washes that have come into the market are all for the most part automated, and the customer for the most part washes their own car.”

The industry as a whole has exploded in the past 10 years, Brown said. “At Car Pool, we are having a great year as we come out of the pandemic.”

The pandemic did affect business, he said. “Although people still wanted to have their cars cleaned, so many people were so apprehensive about allowing people inside of their cars. People were not driving as much, and the lack of traffic did slow 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 nice job at what they do,” Brown said. “But what we offer when people come to us is that they get a great cleaning inside as well as outside of the vehicle. When you go to an express car wash, you get out of the car and you vacuum it yourself. That depends a lot on the person’s capacity to do that themselves.”

Car Pool has one of its locations — on Chamberlayne Avenue in Richmond — that offers only exterior car washes. Free self-vacuum is available with all paid washes.

Despite automation changing the car wash industry over the years, Car Pool remains committed to being a full-service car wash operator, he said.

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When husband-and-wife team Tom and Janet Hogg were looking to open a car wash in the Richmond area in 2018, they got help from Sonny’s Car Wash Services, a Florida-based supplier of car wash equipment and washing chemicals.

“I studied the process for a good year — developing a business plan, meeting the right people and asking the right questions,” Tom Hogg said. “I was able to get some good guidance from people who were knowledgeable in the industry.”

Tom Hogg works another full-time business job in eastern Henrico, but he and Janet saw a business opportunity to open a new car wash in the East End.

“I had been used to getting my car washed at an express, exterior car wash in town, and there were none in the East End that I thought were at the same quality level,” Tom Hogg said. “I saw an opportunity to meet a market need there, and it turned out to be a pretty good guess.”

In June 2018, the Hoggs bought and renovated a car wash at 6100 Nine Mile Road that had opened in 1986. “It was sort of an obvious choice for what we would name it,” Tom Hogg said. “And it has been fun to create a brand.”

They worked with Sonny’s Car Wash to get equipment. Sonny’s also runs a “car wash college” that Janet Hogg and some other members of the Hogwash staff have attended.

“Some of my friends laughed at me, but it was wonderful,” said Janet Hogg, who manages the Hogwash business. “It is a week-long, intensive educational program.”

Their second Hogwash Express Car Wash location recently opened on West Broad Street. “We did more business here the first month than we did at Nine Mile Road the first month, which is not surprising,” given the location along a main thoroughfare through Richmond, Janet Hogg said.

What the company has been doing at its Nine Mile Road location is to establish itself as a neighborhood car wash by sponsoring school athletics programs and nonprofits in the area.

“What is fulfilling as a business owner is to see folks out of their cars and talking to each other because they are neighbors,” Tom Hogg said.

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Green Clean Express Auto Wash also is expanding into the Richmond region.

The Ohio-based company has two locations in the region under construction — one near Brook and Parham Road and the other at 4810 Nine Mile Road.

It recently bought an acre of land at 9486 W. Broad St. in Henrico for its third area location, according to commercial real estate brokerage Cushman & Wakefield | Thalhimer, which handled the sale.

Green Clean also recently acquired multiple properties in Portsmouth along with sites in Suffolk, Norfolk, Chesapeake and Charlottesville.

Construction is currently underway on nine additional sites, with more than a dozen Green Clean Express locations slated to open across the region by the first quarter of 2022.

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The MegaWash in Hanover is seeking to differentiate itself by offering services that other car washes don’t have, such as an automated car polishing bay.

“Our focus, and what sets us apart, is our the ability to wash any vehicle, big or small, and the ability to do is fast for value,” Morin said. “In 15 minutes, you can get a car washed, dried and polished and you are 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. That goes along with the RV storage lot that the company opened on its 6-acre development.

“We think we can create a business facility with multiple income streams that will perform better than one that is just doing single service,” Morin said.

“The business concept is to cater to RV owners and their cars,” Morin said. ‘We can wash anything that a family owns, whether it is an RV or a pickup truck.”

“We’re about 50% RVs and 50% commercial vehicles,” at the RV-size wash, Morin said, adding that the company chose its location just off U.S. Route 1 near Ashland partly because it is near a number of trucking companies.

Henrico County resident Greg Schroder parks his 40-foot RV at the Megawash RV park, and he took it through the wash there one recent weekday.

“For me, trying to wash it on my own — it is so difficult,” he said. “The wash here is fantastic.”

“As far as I know, it is one of a kind in the country.” said Schroder, who has owned an RV for four years. “I used to have to take it to a place where they scrubbed it by hand. Here, you have got storage and the wash, and it doesn’t get any more convenient than that.”

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