Modern Car Care 08/2002: Full Steam Ahead!

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Full Steam Ahead!
Carwash owner brings a touch of Twain to the Golden State

By Sara Cooper

What do a carwash and a riverboat have in common? A lot if you are Frank Dorsa, owner of Classic Car Wash in Campbell, Calif.

"Boats have a lot of pipes and noise and pressers and all of those things," he says. "When a carwash is running, it is a lot like being up next to a boat."

This may be a stretch of the imagination at your average carwash, but not at Delta Queen Classic Car Wash. For many customers, pulling onto the lot is like pulling up to a Mississippi river bank at the turn of the last century.

The riverboat-themed carwash is just one of four Classic Car Wash locations in California, each carrying on the company's 40-year-old tradition of earnest carwashing with a splash of ingenuity.

The theme wash

Dorsa is not the first in his family with an entrepreneurial spirit. His father, Frank Sr., was co-founder of Eggo Food Products and the inventor of the Eggo waffle. While Dorsa did work with his father at the Eggo plant during his years at Santa Clara University, in Santa Clara, Calif., he decided early on that he wanted to pave his own path. He started a sweeping company with a friend from Bellarmine, Calif., that eventually became the largest in the state. In the early 1960s, he bought his first carwash--a bankrupt business in Los Gatos, Calif., that he named Lark Avenue Carwash. It was a hand wash with no landscaping or additional services. Dorsa says that was typical for the time. He immediately got to work renovating the site that eventually became the inspiration for a whole new breed of carwashes.

"Every time I did a little something to fix up [Lark Avenue Carwash], I noticed customers appreciated that," he says. "When I built the Delta Queen in 1972, it was kind of an explosion of frustration I had with a carwash that was so basic."

When area residents first heard mention of the riverboat concept, many were more than a little skeptical. "You have got to be crazy," was just one of the plethora of comments Dorsa encountered. But come christening time, the story had changed. The carwash was an immediate success.

Believe it or not, the riverboat idea was as much a practical decision as an aesthetic one. The property Dorsa purchased for the carwash was very narrow and located alongside a creek. He was having trouble finding a way to make room for three lanes of cars and all of the carwash equipment. One day it dawned on him that he could place the support equipment--the boiler, air compressor and electrical panel--on a second floor. While this solved his problem logistically, he needed some way to make a big rectangular box of a carwash something aesthetically pleasing enough to draw in customers. One night it came to him.

"In the middle of the night I just jumped up and said, 'I know, it is going to be a riverboat!'"

The three-story building consists of the carwash and gift shop on the first floor, equipment on the second floor and the manager's office on the third floor. Dorsa's main concern when constructing the carwash was ensuring the building looked like a real boat. It is safe to say he accomplished his goal.

The carwash is surrounded by water on three sides so it appears to be floating. Cars drive over a bridge to exit the wash. The large pond is home to a number of ducks that have been known to delight the carwash's pint-size visitors on more than one occasion. A gazebo extends over the water offering customers a serene, shaded place to relax and wait for their vehicles. Over the years, the carwash has become a favorite stopping place for locals and tourists alike.

The other two Classic Car Wash locations are Roberstville Classic Car Wash in San Jose, Calif., and Westgate Classic Car Wash in Saratoga, Calif. The former is designed to look like a Victorian house and prune shed. Dorsa decided to use this theme in commemoration of the area's history. The valley, now known as Silicone Valley, was once covered in plum and apricot orchards and vineyards. Dorsa says this wash, which also includes a chicken coupe, tractors and an old horse-drawn spray rig reminiscent of a country farm, is probably his favorite.

Queen's Chest

For the past four years, Dorsa and his wife, Marilyn, have taken seven of their managers to a gift show in Milan, Italy. There they sift through jewelry, antique rugs, furniture and fine art in search of specimens to sell in the Queen's Chest gift shops, the upscale boutiques located at each of the four carwash locations. The Dorsas and members of the staff have visited many of the country's top merchandise shows in Atlanta, New York, Los Angeles and San Francisco on this same quest. Marilyn, owner and operator of the Queen's Chest stores, has brought new meaning to carwash gift sales.

Merchandise in her stores ranges from antiques and jewelry with price tags in the thousands to smaller gifts and auto accessories. Fine wines, including bottles from the Dorsas' own vineyard in Los Gratos, are sold for as much as $150 a bottle. Each of the shops is stocked with the impulse-buyer in mind. Marilyn, who has been featured in a number of local newspaper articles, decided she wanted to go into business for herself shortly after the first carwash opened.

"During my 'I'm a woman stage,' I decided I had to be able to make money on my own," she says. "I told my husband I could do it with or without him, but that I was going to do it. He said, 'Why not open a shop here at Lark Avenue [Car Wash]?'"

Dorsa says it took some time for people to get used to the idea of an upscale boutique at a carwash. For a while, he says, people were hesitant to tell their friends they bought a pair of earrings or decorative handbag at the carwash. Now, however, the shops are well known and respected within the community. People approach Marilyn regularly to present their most recent Queen's Chest purchases. Today, the sky is the limit for what people will spend and what they will find at the stores.

"It has been a lot of fun for us and our staff to travel and go to different countries to buy merchandise for the stores," Dorsa says.

Marilyn comes from a background in the arts, and her creativity adds a great deal to the business. A fine arts major at San Jose State University, she taught painting and drawing for a number of years and has shown her work in galleries and one-man shows throughout California. Incorporating her aesthetic talents into the existing carwash business seemed a natural progression.

"It occurred to me that customers had nothing to do while their cars were being washed," she says. "I convinced my husband this was a marketing opportunity waiting to be tapped. The rest is history."

When the first Queen's Chest was built, the idea of add-on profit centers at carwashes was relatively new, if not unheard of. Over the years, the Dorsas have experimented with other add-ons such as shoeshine service, complimentary coffee and cider and detailing, which they introduced in the early 1980s.

Pass it on

At one time, Classic Car Wash owned 32 carwashes across the United States. This was the result of Dorsa's decision to franchise the business in 1980. He and Marilyn set up a booth at the ICA show that year promoting the Classic Car Wash concept. Dorsa was using computers in his carwash operation at the time, which he demonstrated at the show. This, coupled with the antique-gift-shop concept and the company's overall business model, attracted a lot of interest. Dorsa enjoyed the new business venture for a time.

"When business is growing, there is a lot of enthusiasm," he says. "A lot of times that foreshadows that reality of the situation."

The reality for Dorsa was too many people wanting to get into carwashing who had the money to invest but did not have a clear understanding of the amount of work it would take to run the business successfully. He likens it to the consolidator phenomenon of today. He eventually sold all of the franchises and adjusted his focus back to the four carwashes he currently operates.

Though no longer selling the Classic Car Wash name, Dorsa continues to look for ways to share his philosophy and methods with other operators. He belongs to an organization called the Enhancement Group, made up of carwash operators who get together every six months to share ideas and tour each other's washes. Dorsa and Marilyn hosted 25 fellow group members in June.

The couple has hosted a number of other events at their carwashes. They have held functions for the American Cancer Society at the Delta Queen, and a well-known architect also used the building for an art opening. He had a fascination with what he called roadside art and decided the Delta Queen fit into this category perfectly.

Glitz and glamour aside, the focus of the business is still carwashing. Customers can get their cars washed in 15 to 20 minutes, and Dorsa feels this is important. He says productivity at the carwash has picked up in the last few years thanks to improvements in equipment and chemicals.

The company employs more than 300 people at its four locations, and Dorsa makes respect for staff members a top priority. He feels it is their dedication to the business on a daily basis that makes everything come together.

"A carwash that is 40 years old like my very first one can be very successful and very simple," he says. "The facades and all of that are great, but if you don't have people with the spirit, focus and drive to make it all happen, it doesn't happen."

As the carwash company continues to make its way along the winding rivers of California commerce, there is no doubt exclamations of praise for the business will continue to ring through the area like a steamboat whistle along a lazy river.

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