A first-person account from off the beaten track, as told to Anne Ford.
"My father bought a car wash over in Brookfield in 1985. He, at the time, was a Chicago fireman, and he became a captain on the south side. You remember the downtown Chicago flood [in 1992]? Well, right before he retired, he rescued a baby from a fire after that flood. It was kind of big news. He's deceased now; he died about nine years ago.
"Anyway, he always had another job, and he liked cars. I was in high school, so I would work at the car wash when he was at the firehouse. My brother got into the business too. We have do-it-yourself and what they call in-bay automatics. You pay out front, you pull into the bay, and the machine goes around your car, and then you pull out the back. So the car is stationary, the machine moves.
"A lot of people get into this business. There's investors who get into it and have other people run it. The margins are so close that most car-wash guys are hands-on guys who can fix their own stuff—you can't be paying somebody 30, 40 bucks an hour for outside service. Someone may spend $3 to wash their car, and the owner may have $3 million invested in the business. It doesn't look like a lot, but it is. And technology is really taking over.
"If you couldn't get quarters to people years ago, you'd be out of business, like if your changers broke. Now a lot of our money comes from credit cards. And the big thing in the industry is to wash cars better and faster—charge less, but wash a larger volume of cars.
"It's a very weather-related business. We don't hope for rainy days to get the cars dirty. We want the sunny skies. You really need good weather. The summer's pretty good, the fall turns to crap, and we hope for an early snowfall. This winter was really good. But the money that we earned, we earned the hard way. Soap would freeze to the car, then you gotta rinse it off, it's now ice. People come in with snow on their car, you gotta get the snow off, then wash the car. I had to close up just a few days 'cause it was just too cold to wash cars.
"With the hand-wash guys, you probably have three people washing your car sometimes, right? That's high labor cost, low overhead. They don't have $200,000 worth of machinery sitting there washing your car, and they could pack up and move down the street. They're very slow operations. A hand wash does the best job. But how much do you pay for your car wash?"