• Jim and Elaine Norland

Boardwalk Car Wash Comes Up Trumps


Could this be the world's most luxurious car wash?

That thought comes easily when visiting the Boardwalk Car Wash in Des Plaines, IL. This establishment on an acre and a half of prime real estate in Chicagoland has the look and feel of a Vegas resort - think Venetian, most likely - and it comes with a price tag in the realm of the high rollers.

But this Boardwalk, the latest creation of designer/developer Nick Spallone and his brother, Anthony Spallone, who runs this and two other washes under the Boardwalk name, applies first-class treatment to the cars and other vehicles coming here for the ultimate in appearance.

Ten other Boardwalk washes in Illinois are operated by other owners under the supervision of the Spallones. They developed each of the washes and sold most of them to operate under the company name.

The newest Boardwalk, at the corner of Rand and Golf Roads in Des Plaines, has a 100-foot-long conveyorized California-style hand wash, a four-bay detail shop, and an underground garage housing the area's best talent in dent removal, paint touchup, and automotive electronics.

While vehicles are washed or detailed, this establishment immerses drivers and their families in luxury, too. Marble corridors and restrooms and an upscale deli and beverage shop with café seating - free ice cream for the kids - are among indoor creature comforts.

The line at Boardwalk is fittingly filled with luxury cars.

Outside, professional landscaping is enhanced with a three-hole executive golf course and even a pond, which makes one wonder if a gondola isn't waiting out there somewhere.

Deep crown moldings adorn the customer areas, and every counter or table surface is marble or granite. Floors are intricately inlaid with traditional designs. Near-white classical columns frame the entrance and uphold the monument-style sign.

Above the front of the building are spacious executive offices for the Spallones, and a walkout area where they can observe every area of the wash. Operations are also monitored by a digital electronic surveillance setup of 36 cameras documenting the condition and movement of every vehicle.

Structurally, the building is constructed of a new type of aerated concrete block (ACC). It's so light in weight it will float in water, but the air trapped inside serves as R-30 insulation. That means that even in 20-below outside temps, there's no icing on inside walls. The exterior of the building is covered in Dryvit EIFS (exterior insulation and finish system) material.

The car wash tunnel viewed from the walkway. Note the floor finish.

The cost of this Taj Mahal of car cleaning is close to $9 million. It was developed by Nick Spallone to show a new class of prospective car wash investors - those who can write a check for $4 or $5 million - virtually everything that can be incorporated in a premium car wash/detail center.

"They can look at this and decide whether they want to include this feature or that," Nick explains. Within the two weeks prior to our early May interview, two investors, one a pilot and the other an oil man, had each already committed $4 million to upscale washes that include many of the Boardwalk model's components, he reported.

Beyond the glam factors, what else does this model car wash offer?

A really fast hand-wash conveyor line, for starters. All of the products needed in washing a car are delivered automatically through arches. Presoak, soap, rinse and liquid wax are all put on the vehicle by the equipment from Sonny's, so all the four- to six-man wash crew has to do is apply their hands, mitts and sponges. Final rinse and blower drying ends the trip.

Crew members really have to hustle, because the conveyor is set to run a car through the line in seventy seconds, and the next car may come through after a three-second interval. Each person has to finish his work on the exterior before it hits the next stage such as first or second rinses.

The basic wash at Boardwalk costs $10 for a car, more for trucks or other oversize vehicles. "We're cheaper than a lot of automatic washes in the area," says Nick Spallone.

The detail bays look more surgical center than automotive appearance shop.

"That covers everything. We don't piecemeal items, so that gives you an outside wash including wheels and tires, even whitewalls, door jambs dried, everything on the outside cleaned and dried." Adding vacuuming and window cleaning to that same wash boosts the price to $15.

"We put a liquid wax on every car, which is another upsell that another car wash may push. We call it our between-wash wax, not to be confused with a hand wax, which is one of our quick detailing offerings. This is just a between-wash wax that's going to last a week, and basically it helps our guys dry the car."

The top wash here costs $30, and takes probably 20 minutes to cover all the extras. Everything in the $15 wash is included, but one also gets shampooing of dash and door panels, the console and the seats. "It's not a mini detail, but they shampoo everything plastic in the car."

Without the mechanical delivery to the vehicle of all the soaps, wax and drying, the same wash would take five to ten minutes to complete at the same level as the $10 and $15 washes, the Spallones say, "so we've basically bought ourselves nine minutes by having this system."

The cafe's inviting atmosphere is sure to entice customers to linger.

"In our old washes nothing was machinery, not even the dryers," Nick explains. "We even used real ShopVacs as vacuums, and the employees controlled the pace. Here, you dial up the conveyor and they pretty much have to get that car done before it goes to the rinse."

The Spallones had some misgivings about achieving such a pace, but Lonnie Davis of Car Wash Services in Romeoville, IL assured them it would work. "Their pitch is, if it doesn't work they'll take the equipment out, fill in the concrete hole where the pit was and go on their way. They ran it through production and tested the system out, and it lived up to what they said. The system really delivers a lot of assistance." While the wash line equipment is from Sonny's, Car Wash Services developed the backroom support equipment.

The detail shop at Boardwalk is bathed in light and with its white tile floors and other upscale touches "looks like a hospital on vacation," Nick says. Four bays occupy the 2,900 square feet of the detailing operation, constantly monitored by a total of eight cameras.

Each bay is staffed by two detailers, each with his own locker containing all his own products and equipment. The lockers are the responsibility of the individual detailer, so if anything comes up missing, they have to replace it. That has solved loss problems the Spallones encountered in their other stores where equipment, products, bottles and other gear were constantly missing.

Detailing at Boardwalk is "a little costly," Nick admits, "and with good reason. Without a doubt we're the best in the industry."

Even the view from the interior is worth a million bucks.

That opinion is reinforced not only by customers who recommend the shop to others, but by industry sources such as Kevin Griffin of Pro Finish (Elk Grove Village), their longtime supplier of detailing products, who has told the Spallones they have the highest detailing volume in the Chicago area.

"My brother, Anthony, and four guys in our other store are able to turn out 25 to 30 cars a day, with top detailing quality," Nick reports, clearly indicating that the volume in the new Boardwalk will kick up dramatically.

Full details are priced or figured according to vehicle condition. A car that needs just a little attention to bring it back to showroom condition costs the least, and one that's "wrecked" - the original red paint now looks pink because the paint is so bad - will cost the most.

The average detail job here - what the Spallones classify as number two or mid-level task - runs $235 for interior ($85), outside wax and buff ($120), and engine cleaning ($30). Extras may include tasks such as stain removal and carpet dyeing.

"Our average ticket out the door is close to $300," although the range is usually between $200 and $400. Nick says customers pay those prices "with no hesitancy, because they know through word of mouth that we're the best."

Detailers are paid entirely on commission. "We used to pay our guys by the hour, and that may be a flaw in a lot of detail shops' productivity, because they get paid the same whether they're turning out a few or many cars, so they set the pace. "Once we put our guys on commission, we had a 300 percent to 400 percent productivity change." What can a good detailer make on such a program? "Our top detailer, who's been with us seven years, is pulling down $1,200 a week," Spallone reveals.

Add to those commissions the tips, which tend to be substantial, averaging 20 percent of the ticket. The tips are split four ways among the two inside and two exterior detailers on each vehicle. Women with children tend to be the biggest tippers, Nick Spallone says, because they appreciate the work involved in returning a "pig sty" interior to a presentable vehicle.

Three of the Chicago area's best specialists in dent repair, automotive electronics, and paint touchup do business in the 3,000-square-foot underground garage at the newest Boardwalk. Carnica, The Dent Guy, and Electronics by Adam all operate as subcontractors.

Whether you gotta or not, you'll want to go see Boardwalk's bathroom.

To generate business, they team up at the end of the wash line to complete a hangtag on the rearview mirror noting areas that need their expertise. The tag includes an estimate and simply notes that "we noticed..." and "if you'd like to have this taken care of on your next visit, please contact (the name of the person shown) to schedule the work."

There's never any direct face-to-face contact or pressure on the customer to get those additional services, but Nick Spallone says that almost every customer so notified will be calling from their cars as they leave the wash.

Those services are rung up through the Boardwalk's register. What the subcontractors charge Boardwalk is marked up 100 percent, so a $75 paint touchup, for example, will be priced at $150 to the customer.

Boardwalk gets most of its personnel by recommendations from those who already work there. Many of the staff are from other countries, and if they leave for a few weeks or months to visit their families, they frequently ask that a particular friend of theirs fill in for them until they return. Turnover among good employees is very low, the Spallones report.

"The guys we normally hire have a customer-friendly personality," says Nick; "that's the reason we hire them. A very few that are good workers but not an outgoing type, they end up in places they can't contact the customer like in the tunnel, not because they're any less than anyone else but they just don't have any verbal offerings to the customer."

All employees wear polo shirts and khaki pants, the initial uniform set provided by Boardwalk. Replacement of lost or missing items is the responsibility of the worker.

Boardwalk doesn't advertise for customers. Never. In fact, when a local newspaper wanted to do a front-page spread on the new showplace in Des Plaines, the Spallones insisted that no pricing or other information that might look like advertising be included.

With a landmark showplace at the intersection of busy roads in the Chicago area, and word-of-mouth recommendations from discriminating drivers, advertising seems superfluous. Just driving in that newest Boardwalk seems attraction enough. Jim and Elaine Norland are regular contributors to Auto Laundry News

Wave of the Future? Themes and Functions

Is the lavish look of the Boardwalk Car Wash in Des Plaines the wave of the future Both the looks and methods of car washes are changing, says Lonnie Davis, sales manager and partner in Car Wash Services, Romeoville, IL, the distributor who equipped the wash.

Full-serve tunnels were the primary direction five years ago, but now many variations abound, says this 20-year veteran of the industry. "We have flex-serve, off-line full-serve, unattended tunnels, gated tunnel systems, and mixed format, which is a California-style hand wash tunnel.

"Most people looking to diversify their investment are looking for less labor-intensive businesses. Does that make Nick Spallone's niche (conveyorized hand washing) grow a little more? I think maybe it does, but most tunnels are going the opposite direction right now.

"If Nick can keep his washes at a reasonable price point and work off the volume, that will work to his favor." Spallone views washing as a conduit to the detail and other services, so Boardwalk washes are priced competitively with machine washes (see main story).

Davis says the underground garage at Boardwalk didn't add much to the cost, "but you can house two or three additional businesses there."

As to appearance, "A lot more attention is being paid to the detail of the exterior and the curb appeal," Davis reflects, and the new Boardwalk is an outstanding example.

"I have one client for whom we did a twin in-bay within this area - Romeoville Express Car Wash. "In a very competitive in-bay market, he (owner Bill Klump) did a George Jetson-looking building that I helped design. The building alone makes people want to experience it. The same equipment is competing against him across the street, and yet he has just annihilated their business."

Does the multimillion-dollar Boardwalk and those buying into that concept signify a new level of investor in the car wash business? That all depends on the level of involvement the investor desires, says Davis. "I have an executive of a big Internet firm doing a self-serve and automatic wash with me; they want to keep their day job, but just diversify a little bit.

"On the other hand, the pilot who is investing $4 million in a Boardwalk-type wash first wanted to pick up an existing tire and battery building in Rockford and do a hand wash there. We talked him out of it and introduced him to Nick."

Whatever the approach, a well-done concept can bring in plenty of customers, Davis believes.

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