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A Good, Clean Fight : In Dry Times, Carwashes Vie to Offer Best Extras


As her Toyota whooshed through an automated carwash in Tustin, Jane McKeefer waited impatiently, glancing often at her watch and muttering about being late.

"I had to wash my car," the 28-year-old Orange resident said. "I kept putting it off because I'm cutting back on some of my expenses. But it was getting to the point that the neighborhood kids were writing stuff in the dirt."

"I pulled into here because they're fast and efficient," she said as a Beacon Bay Auto Wash employee finished toweling off her car. "Oh, yeah, they give you a free drink."

Then she dashed for her car, handing the worker a tip as she climbed in.

"I still have 20 minutes to get to Mission Viejo," she yelled out the window. But even if she was late, at least she would get there in a clean car.

It's no secret that Californians have a thing about automobiles. Maybe there are some who mistreat their cars, never washing them and running them too hard until they die. But for the majority, the idea of a dirty car is repugnant. The conventional wisdom seems to be that a clean car is a sign of a well-adjusted person.

But with the recession putting pressure on people just to keep up with the rent, regular trips to the carwash have become a luxury for many motorists.

As a result, carwashes are fighting for those dirty-car dollars in a war being waged with soap, wax--even cappuccino.

"In hard times, people become more creative," Sam Olivito, executive director of the California Car Wash Assn. in Downey. "They seem to come up with new and interesting ways to get the customers in."

Some are touting the merits of "hand wash" compared to "automated," while others are offering coupons, free beverages and food, even exotic drinks to lure cautious consumers.

"It's very competitive out there," said Earle Thomas, vice president of Beacon Bay Auto Wash, which is based in Newport Beach and has 13 carwashes in Orange County. "The carwash industry has gone through several cycles since the 1960s, which many consider its heyday. But even with business hurting, it seems that, on every vacant corner there is in Orange County, a carwash is popping up."

California is the king of the industry, with about 10% of the full-service carwashes in the nation, according to the Wisconsin-based International Car Wash Assn. Of the state's total, about 65% are in Southern California. Including suppliers, manufacturers, operators and the people who actually wash, dry and polish the cars, the industry employs about 300,000 in the state.

Walt Tack, president of the trade group, says that, although the recession has hurt revenue nationwide, the carwash industry still generated about $2.8 billion last year. The weather can be a factor for carwash operators in much of the rest of the country, he said, but in Southern California, that is not the case.

"For a lot of people, especially during winter months when salt is used on streets and highways, carwashes are basically for the survival of the car," Tack said. "California is a different animal. People are really into the cosmetics of the car. They wash because they want their cars to look nice."

Olivito of the California trade group said that the economic slump is hurting, though, with some carwashes reporting that their business declined by as much as 45% last year.

Thomas of Beacon Bay argues that, in such a spending climate, gimmicks aren't guaranteed to bring in customers.

"I don't care what you're giving away or what kind of coffee you're serving," Thomas said. "The only thing that will keep them coming back is a clean car and fast, courteous service."

That hasn't stopped his company from offering freebies to stay competitive. Its newest facility in Tustin is a full-service, automated carwash that gives away coffee, soft drinks and cookies. In addition to sudsing, waxing and vacuuming your vehicle, the carwash will also check your oil and sell you gasoline or a lube job.

"Time is an important factor with people these days," Thomas said. "They don't have all day to wait for their car to be washed. If they can get their oil checked or get a lube job, that's one more thing they can get done while they're here."

For some, however, the sounds and smells of a carwash being operated the old-fashioned way is soothing.

Stanley Jaffe, a 34-year-old Santa Ana resident, confesses to being stirred by the odors of detergents and waxes. Consequently, having his Lexus hand-washed at Cafe Auto Spa in Tustin is a weekend ritual. "I know it sounds a little strange," he said between sips of cappuccino. "But it's tranquil watching your car getting washed while you lounge around. The smell of coffee and soap and water--it's nice."

Richard Gall, who with his brother Ray owns Cafe Auto Spa, opened the business in February. Richard, an architect, designed the Mediterranean-style facility. Inside, the customer can purchase a cup of exotic coffee or, with the special wash-and-wax coupon, get a drink free.

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