Charleston flex-serve carwash has an island feel
By Tracy Charuhas
Liquid Highway Car Wash, with its Bahamian-style architecture, may just remind you of an island getaway. But instead of you getting a tan, your vehicle will experience a spa-like treatment.
The flex-serve carwash, located in Mt. Pleasant, S.C., is less than 10 miles from historic Charleston and only two miles from the beach. Customers include young professionals, families and affluent retirees from Mt. Pleasant and the nearby Isle of Palms. Tourists also come through the town on their way to summer fun at the beach.
Liquid Highway owner Sean Griffin says that although the wash has only been open two years, it’s become a popular stop for local residents and those just passing through.
“It’s definitely the right kind of carwash for this market,” Griffin says.
When he was researching the carwash industry, Griffin says the flex-serve model seemed like the perfect fit for Mt. Pleasant.
“It appealed to me, and I felt if it appealed to me it would appeal to others,” he says.
“The opportunity to give your customers choices and flexibility is a plus.”
Exterior-only prices range from $7 to $13, and interior/exterior services cost $19 to $25.
The express detail service is priced at $19.50 to $29.50.
When customers arrive at Liquid Highway, they are greeted by a customer-service advisor who advises them on the appropriate services for their vehicle. The customers choose the wash package they want, and the advisor prints out a receipt on a DRB hand-held terminal. Customers who choose to stay in their vehicles relax as they are guided through the tunnel on a 120-foot conveyor.
Jeff Sundquist, the general manager of Liquid Highway, says the tunnel is loaded with equipment from Sonny’s Enterprises, including Spyder Wraps, a top brush, top and side Omnis and more.
“We have done everything possible to produce a clean, dry carwash with very little prepping,” Sundquist says.
When the vehicle exits the tunnel after going through the dryer (with a mirrored drying area), the customers either turn right to exit (for exterior washes) or pull into one of two lanes depending on the wash package they have chosen. Lane one is for express interior, and lane two is for express detailing.
Exterior-only customers can be in and out in fewer than 10 minutes. If they choose to use the wash’s coin vacuums, it will take slightly longer. Express detail services take about 25 minutes after the wash is complete.
“The first day we were open we washed 200 cars. We thought that was a lot. Now that seems slow,” Griffin says, adding that he’s happy his carwash has been in “fast motion” since it opened.
Liquid Highway prides itself on having little or no prepping of cars. Griffin says that while some prepping for bugs is required, the carwash is as close as it can be to being “no-prep.”
“It’s up to the customer-service advisor to analyze the car,” Griffin says. “If they see some bugs, they’ll spray it with some Blue Coral Slime Line to loosen the bugs.”
One system Griffin tried in the beginning but eventually discontinued was the use of pagers to notify customers their cars were ready. They worked great until customers started walking off with the pricey pagers by accident. So Griffin implemented a new system that is working well. Employees with radio head sets let an employee in the lobby know that “Mr. Smith’s” car is ready, for example.
When you’ve got a great island theme on the outside, why stop when it comes to the inside of the carwash? One of the first things customers see when they walk into the 2,000-square-foot lobby is a cylindrical salt-water aquarium. They can watch gorgeous tropical fish swim around a stunning coral head.
“It relaxes the customers,” Griffin says. They can also grab a cup of coffee or a smoothie or surf the Internet on a high-speed connection at individual computer stations or on the Wi-Fi. Another option is to watch their cars being serviced on one of four LCD TVs. Or, they can browse through the gift shop for greeting cards, auto accessories and gift items.
“Sometimes people get a little engrossed in what they’re doing and forget all about their car,” Griffin says, adding that greeting cards are hot sellers. Some people visit Liquid Highway just to buy the unique cards.
While he doesn’t encourage customers to hang out at the carwash all day, he does want them to feel that their time is not being wasted.
“We have tried to create an environment that allows our customers to multi-task instead of having unproductive down time. It’s a very comfortable, high-tech, surf-style atmosphere,” he says.
Why all the emphasis on creating a great environment? Griffin says there’s an important reason behind all his attention to atmosphere.
“I believe that customers will continue to gravitate to facilities that care about the aesthetics and keeping the site very clean,” he says. “I think they appreciate the extra attention we have put in our waiting area.”
Customers can also relax in one of four booths. But these aren’t just any booths. The seats are made of wet-suit material, and the tables are custom-made from real surf boards.
But it’s the floor that really gets people talking. It’s a concrete floor covered with urethane that has cobalt blue pigment running through it. Griffin says it reminds people of flying over the beautiful blue waters of the Caribbean. “It’s kind of a liquid highway,” Griffin says.
While the wash has quite a local following, Liquid Highway still uses coupons and special promotions to draw more customers. There’s the Early-Bird Specials, Ladies Day Tuesday, military and teacher discounts, frequency discounts and a VIP Surf Club. The carwash also helps support local charities including hospitals, several schools, the Meals on Wheels program, the local VFW chapter, the Red Cross, cancer-research organizations and more.
Getting it built
The carwash cost nearly $2.5 million to build, including the .83 acres of land on which it sits. While Griffin always planned to have a high-class facility, city officials didn’t make it easy for him to build the wash. But he persevered and opened his doors in August 2004.
“I felt confident that once we got through the whole approval process, it would be worth it and it has been,” Griffin says.
While he wishes the carwash site was larger, he has made the best of what land he has.
Prior to entering the carwash industry, Griffin owned a mobile paper-shredding company in South Carolina that he eventually sold to a Fortune 500 company. He took a few years off and invested in the stock market. But when the market took a plunge in 2001, Griffin decided he had better invest his money in some hard assets. A carwash was his first choice.
“I always wanted to build a carwash,” he says. “It can be a demanding business, but also very rewarding. Once you have a quality, well-trained staff in place, things become a lot easier.”
Liquid Highway employs 20 full-time and 15 part-time people and boasts very little turnover. Finding people to work when there is a vacancy is not a problem, Griffin says. Many new employees are referred to the carwash because of the wash’s referral reward program and because it’s just a nice place to work. Employees wear khaki shorts or pants and a Bahama blue logo shirt that’s made to wick away moisture. South Carolina is a humid place, and Griffin wants his people to look professional (and be cool) at all times.
This year, the Southeastern Carwash Association (SECWA) named Liquid Highway one of the Top Washes of 2006. Association members toured the carwash during their spring meeting in Charleston in May. Griffin says he’s very proud to be honored by the SECWA.
Griffin has some words of advice for operators planning to build their first carwash. First, visit as many operators in different parts of the country as possible. Also, make sure you have a great relationship with your contractor, electrician and equipment suppliers. It’s important that they understand everything the project will entail before beginning. Finally, he says first-time carwash owners should plan on spending more money and time on the site than they originally anticipated—especially at the beginning of the project.
While he wasn’t specific, Griffin says he’s definitely considering building other sites in South Carolina.