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The $14 Car Wash



Roger Vanoer says he'd heard every get-rich-quick scheme under the sun from his old pal David Launius.

A veteran of absurdity, including an acting stint on a Mr. Big paper towel commercial with the Bears' William "Refrigerator" Perry, Vanoer, 31, chuckles frequently as he tells his story.

"David and I were going to open a dog restaurant," he explains. The son of a Tennessee laborer and a Puerto Rican mother, Vanoer is a husky, earthy type with a soft voice. "Another time, we were going to open a shampoo parlor -- you know, a place where people would come in just to get their hair washed. No, cuts, nothing, just shampoo."

The two have been friends since their grammar school days at Saint Alphonse's on the north side. Vanoer thought he had developed a kind of immunity to Launius's wild ideas, but then came the "gourmet car wash."

"It took less than an hour for me to call him back and say I'd try it," Vanoer says. At the time he was working at Brach Candies and Launius was buffing boats in his fledgling yacht care business.

Set up as a four-month experiment, Well Clean Car Wash was born three years ago -- the definitive car service for the discriminating and, frankly, rich motorist. Mercedes-Benz, Saabs, Jaguars, and BMWs dominate the Well Clean customer lines. (There are now five partners in all, including Launius's wife, Heather, although Vanoer refers to Launius and himself as "the movers and shakers.")

"Basic service starts at $14," says Launius, also 31, an energetic young man with a fashionably windswept head of soft, blond spikes. "From there it goes up to as much as $100."

That's $100 for an inside or outside detail cleaning job. "The exterior detail means three coats of wax and hand buffing," says Rosalyn Diaz, Vanoer's sister and a cashier at the Well Clean III at 1520 N. Halsted. "The interior detail includes cleaning the glove box, getting the seeds off the carpet, and cleaning the air vents with Q-tips."

"We bring the car up to showroom status," Launius adds.

Amazingly, Well Clean can average as many as 20 to 30 detail cleanings a week at its three locations. While waiting, whether it's the quickie $14 job or the $100 Q-tip number, customers won't be bored. At the Lincoln Avenue site, they can buy all sorts of upwardly mobile goodies, including Vuarnet sunglasses. Until recently, they could play air hockey.

"But that didn't work out so well," says Launius. "The puck would fly off the table and scratch the nice cars." Now the table's for sale.

At the Diversey Parkway operation, impulse items are the rage. "We want a different kind of feeling, more like a mall," Launius continues. "One thing we noticed about other car washes around town is that they're pretty seedy, and pretty unattractive, especially for women. We try to have a fun atmosphere, offer a few retail items like neon phones and little pool tables -- the kind of thing in Sharper Image magazine. You see, we have a captive audience here."

At the Halsted Street Well Clean, as at the other two locations, customers can lounge about the waiting area, sipping hot coffee and nibbling on danish. Magazines are also available, everything from Sports Illustrated to Forbes. For the ladies, a few extra dollars can buy a manicure from the shop's resident nail experts at Nailelegance.

"Well, like I said, we wanted to do something a little different," Launius says. "Why not a manicure? It takes about the same time for a manicure as it does for a car wash. That way our women customers can do two things at once. It's part of our fun attitude."

Of course, customers can also just watch as their vehicles get the deluxe. treatment. After checking in, the cars are taken over by teams of four red-dressed workers who spray, soap up, buff, clean, and hand dry every square inch of the automobiles, including under fenders and in window corners.

Most of the workers at Well Clean are Polish immigrants. So many, in fact, that employee manuals come in Polish. "They come with a better attitude than others," says Mike Damaio, the 21-year-old Halsted Street manager. "They have a very strong work ethic."

Among those working at Well Clean is Tony Szczepanik. It's his first job in his first year in America. "It's a good job," he explains with a broad smile and a pat to Demaio's shoulder. "What I like best is not to have to work full hours every day."

Still, the work satisfies who it needs to please. "They do a good job, and it's so convenient," says Ilona Silvestri, a longtime customer, as her Mercedes-Benz station wagon is readied for her. "Like everything else, you get what you pay for."

"It's great for Chicago," says Dick Lane, another customer, as his Saab sparkles. "Of course, it's not quite like the car washes in Los Angeles. I used to go to one where I could work out while my car got washed."

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Bruce Powell.

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