December 5, 2023

Around Tampa Bay, a car wash war is brewing.

Perhaps you’ve noticed them: Scores of new tunnels rising along crowded thoroughfares, often right across the street from, surprise, another car wash.

For example:

Take 5, of oil change fame, has eight car washes so far across Odessa, Brooksville, Port Richey, Ellenton, Spring Hill and Lehigh Acres.

Big Dan’s Car Wash, a Georgia-based chain launched in 2020, has 20 locations either open, under contract or under construction in this region alone.

Locally-owned Woodie’s Wash Shack hopes to expand its Tampa Bay empire to 50 car washes by 2025. Or as they put it, creating “a corridor of dominance.”

In a move that reflects a nationwide trend, companies are hoping to saturate Florida — and especially Tampa Bay — with as many car wash locations as possible. They know in order to get consumers to fork over anywhere from $20 to $50 for a monthly subscription, it needs to be convenient for them.

“There’s been a lot of private equity capital that’s been poured into the car wash industry,” said Jay Shadday, president of Big Dan’s. “The biggest reason is the subscription. I would say 99% of the car washes that you’re seeing built in Florida, and really across the country, are focused on that.”

Shadday says his customers wash their cars an average of three times a month.

“You fill up your car with gas once a week. You get groceries once a week,” Shadday said. “We want getting your car washed to be the third thing you do once a week.”

In Pinellas, Big Dan’s is building three locations less than 10 miles apart from each other: At 9565 Bay Pines Blvd., 8201 US Hwy 19 NE and 220 34th St. N — the former Pronto Wash, which closed this spring after 64 years in business. (A sign up a few blocks down 34th Street at 9th Avenue N advertises another Big Dan’s, but that location was scrapped after the company acquired Pronto).

The Pronto Wash offered a full-service car wash, where folks could get both an exterior wash and a team of workers could vacuum and detail the inside. As a Big Dan’s, it will be a premium express car wash. Cruise through a tunnel to get the outside squeaky clean, then detail the inside yourself if you please.

Donald Phillips, the founder of Woodie’s Wash Shack, said memberships have become the “big bug light” for companies, especially when they can shift to a lower labor model — express instead of full service.

Phillips noted that most independent car washes are being swept up by larger companies hoping to expand their footprints. He compares the growth of the express wash chain to that of self-storage facilities.

“Ten years ago you never saw a self-storage building to speak of,” he said. “And now they’re like mushrooms. They’re everywhere.”

Tampa Bay is especially appealing to developers in the car wash business. We have a high car-to-household rate. As new residents pour into the area, many are commuting longer distances, which dirties up vehicles fast. Add in regional annoyances — pollen dust, salty air, love-bug guts that crust up paint jobs — and the demand is right there.

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Related: Think lovebugs are bad now? The once caused a public safety crisis in Florida

Thanks to the widespread digitization of money, Phillips said, it’s easier to get banks on board these days.

“Banks weren’t really favorable of the business in the past because it was a very, very heavy cash-run business,” Phillips said. “In fact, how many people have asked me if we’re laundering money because they saw ‘Breaking Bad’?”

A car goes through the car wash at Woodie’s Wash Shack - Skyway location on Wednesday, Nov. 9, 2022, in St.Petersburg.
A car goes through the car wash at Woodie’s Wash Shack – Skyway location on Wednesday, Nov. 9, 2022, in St.Petersburg. [ ANGELICA EDWARDS | Times ]

Maybe you’ve noticed rival brands positioned right down the road from one another, a la CVS and Walgreens. The crowded market is pushing brands to get creative to scrub out the competition.

To celebrate its entry into the Tampa Bay area, Take 5 is offering free washes at all eight of its local locations from Thursday to Monday, plus discounted memberships for a limited time.

Big Dan’s is planning longer tunnels and giving out free air fresheners. Each visit includes access to supplies that allow customers detail their own vehicles: vacuums, mat washers, compressed air, interior cleaner and more.

Woodie’s Wash Shack is working on a new mobile app that shows wait times, similar to emergency room billboards. Some locations will soon open for 24-hour use. There are family plans and a fleet program for brands with multiple vehicles. The company even has its own line of fragrances, plus merchandise (aka “Woodie’s Goodies.”)

Charming imagery has also been a big part of Woodie’s strategy since its inception in 2019. The company branding was inspired by woodie wagons, old surf shops and vintage car paint colors.

Phillips cited influences like Yeti and Apple. He wants to build a lifestyle brand.

“You just don’t want to drive up to a crappy-looking cinderblock building and say, ‘You know what, I’m going to run my brand new car through there,’” Phillips said.


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