Wet and Wild

Car wash soaks up profıts thanks to sleek design, customer-pleasing promotions
car wash

At first glance, a sparkling new chrome and glass building in Holland, Mich., looks nothing like your typical car wash.

You are struck by the way cars glide through it on a two-minute voyage. Colored lights flash and giant brushes join with jet-powered arches of stainless-steel washing equipment to give the vehicle a sparkling look when it rolls out the other end.

“It’s the opposite of what you think when you think of a car wash, of a dark, dirty little shoe box,” says Ryan Essenburg, president of Tommy Car Wash Systems, a family-owned company that opened in 2014. In the first two weeks of operation, the location, called Totally Tommy Express, washed half of what a typical car wash does in an entire year, says marketing director Tom Dodson.

In January 2015, Totally Tommy washed 35,000 vehicles, more than 1,000 a day. The 130-foot conveyorized tunnel topped out at 1,500 vehicles one day. By the end of the first month, it was running at near capacity of 200 cars per hour, or more than 3,600 cars a day.

The Essenburg family, led by brothers June and Jacob (“Sonny”), first got into the car-wash business in 1969. They did so well that the company soon closed one bay and rebuilt the facility into a 60-foot tunnel wash.

In 1971, it opened an integrated gas station, c-store and car-wash facility in the area. Now it operates six locations in western Michigan, all but one with c-stores and gas. Over the years, it improved the car-wash operation and named it Tommy Car Wash System, after June’s son Tom, who is CEO.


Number of cars per day washed by Totally Tommy Express car wash

Location has been critical to the company’s success, says Mandi Essenburg Brower, a third-generation family member who is general manager of parent company Quality Car Wash and Ryan’s sister.

Holland does not have an inner city as such, so Quality has built its locations around the town’s perimeter, typically bordering an adjacent community and, thus, broadening its reach.

Two of the locations, including the newest, feature a Tim Horton’s inside the c-store. This latest one, says Ryan, who is the grandson of June, “is quite literally the latest and greatest.” From the wash to the 5,000-square-foot c-store, Tommy’s latest is its most refined, reflected in high-end fixtures in the restrooms and the seating area in the Tim Horton’s, says Brower.

“Some of [our customers] wash their cars every day,” she says. “They just love coming to their site. They sit in the area that we have with the fireplace and the TV. They are bringing their kids, they’re getting doughnuts. The kids love the colors ... with the wash.”

Customers can buy a monthly club pass for $20 to $30, depending on the type of wash (instead of paying $6 to $15 for a single wash), and club customers have their own express lane into the wash. It’s working: Club passes are selling at 250 per month.

The company also offers a book of five washes with a sixth for free. Customers are allowed to use that “free” coupon for coffee or a fountain drink at the c-store/restaurant instead of a car wash.

Among other initiatives:

  • Texting: Club members are told exactly when the price is going to change and by how much.
  • Mobile Payment: The company is developing an app to make it easier for customers to pay and be part of the frequent-buyer club.
  • Perk Up: The company offers free coffee on dreary days when gas prices are going up.

But the real key of the company’s success is that each of its components feeds into the others. “The site is strategically laid out,” says Brower. “The store is just as important as the foodservice in the restaurant, which does have a drive-thru as well.”