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O.C. Carwash Offers Architectural Polish

Enterprise: Design wins awards, entices customers with unusual amenities.

August 07, 1997|JOHN O'DELL | TIMES STAFF WRITER

MISSION VIEJO — Ed Komski is the kind of guy who looks at a plain pine box and envisions exotic rosewood inlays and bright gold hinges.

So it's no surprise that when the former mortgage banker decided to build a carwash, he turned out one that's winning national awards for its unique architecture and commercial design.

Which means image-conscious Orange County--already known for record-setting bankruptcy, world-class surfing and the ever-present face-lift--is now home to the prettiest carwash.

The sparkling new, neon-lighted building still looks like a carwash-- it's hard to hide the cleaning equipment, gas pumps and drying area. But that's where the resemblance stops.

Hand-formed steel canopies shade gas pumps that are neatly hidden behind brick pilasters. A 42-foot-high clock tower and a 25-foot bronze waterfall wall frame a viewing window for patrons who want to watch their cars going down the wash line.

A "welcome wall" of gum-ball machines greets clients at the entrance to the tile-floored building.

Though only 2,516 square feet, the building provides a series of sky-lighted spaces where customers can browse through racks of humorous greeting cards and shelves of gift items and car supplies before entering the circular room that doubles as cashier's area and gourmet deli.

There are sandwich-soda-and-carwash lunchtime specials, and customers sit at real wicker chairs and tables--none of that plastic patio stuff here.

Outside, there's a section of wall that leans outward in a "Toon Town" sort of way, drawing lots of "Gee-how'd-they-do-that?" queries from customers.

"It's a conversation starter that helps us get to know our clients," Komski says.

Komski, who designed the facility in association with his architect, even incorporated a small browsing and play area for children and a special raised step at the viewing window so the kids can watch the car get clean.

The whole design is intended to make customers feel welcome and appreciated as it pulls them gently through the facility, Komski said.

The design has won numerous architecture and design awards since the carwash opened in January. Plaudits include a prestigious Gold Nugget Award from the Western Building Show in San Francisco for best commercial project of the year, and selection by American Clean Car magazine as one of the three most beautiful carwashes in the nation.

Judges in design competitions repeatedly laud Komski and Bundy/Finkel Architects in Santa Ana Heights for a plan that is as functional, efficient and welcoming as it is eye-catching.

But Komski says that while the carwash's unusual architecture helps draw first-time customers, it is service and quality that turn many of them into steady clients.

His may be the only wash around, for instance, that runs a shoppers' shuttle, delivering customers to any of a dozen nearby retail stores so they can shop while their cars are being washed.

And the bottom line?

From his start in January, business has more than doubled and Komski estimates he now draws nearly 1,000 customers a week. He broke even in March and has been profitable ever since, he says, adding that he's confident of hitting his goal of $1.5 million in sales his first year.

Turning the utilitarian into the unusual isn't a new idea--successful merchandisers have been doing it for years.

"People like to be entertained, to shop in places where they enjoy spending time," says Kathleen Oher, a retail industry analyst based in Dallas.

The Komskis of the world know that and capitalize on it.

A self-described "car guy,", Komski says he got into the carwash business out of frustration. He says he was never satisfied with the washes he got and usually ended up going over his car himself when he got home.

He had been a mortgage banker for 15 years and was working with his father-in-law's development firm and looking for a business opportunity of his own. He developed a business plan that helped him get a Small Business Administration loan to cover most of the more than $2.5-million land and development cost.

It took 18 months to get the planning and financing done and six months more for construction.

While Komski's prices start at $9.95, he offers three higher levels of wash at $12.95, $16.95 and $19.95. More than half his business, he said, is at the last two prices.

That may be because about 30% of the cars that come through the wash are late-model Mercedes-Benzes, with Chevrolet Suburbans a close second, says Komski--who parks his own black Mercedes roadster out front as an advertisement.

The wash is nestled in a Mission Viejo retailing center abutting the tony Nellie Gail Ranch section of Laguna Hills. And it is just a few minutes from the gated luxury community of Coto de Caza and the entrepreneurial hotbed of the Irvine Spectrum, which provide a fair supply of expensive vehicles whose owners often have more money than time to spend on car care.

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