Colorado Springs' majestic mountain scenery might make it one of the nation's most beautiful cities, but its cars, trucks and RVs are an unsightly mess.
Or so it would seem, judging from the tidal wave of national, regional and local car washes opening in the Springs and the operators who are investing millions of dollars to keep the city's vehicles clean.
So, natural beauty aside, is Colorado Springs actually the "wash me, please" capital of the U.S.?
Not really. While there are elements that make the Springs a particularly attractive market, the growth in car washes locally mirrors a national trend.
A 2020 study commissioned by the Chicago-based International Carwash Association estimated there were nearly 62,700 car wash locations nationwide, the organization's website shows. A separate vehicle owner survey by the association a year earlier estimated U.S. car wash industry sales totaled nearly $11 billion annually and were increasing each year.
"The industry is growing rapidly and car washes are being built throughout the country at an unprecedented pace," Eric Wulf, the association's CEO, said via email.
In the Colorado Springs area:
• Mister Car Wash plans to tear down a shuttered Village Inn restaurant on Academy Boulevard, north of Austin Bluffs Parkway, and build its fourth Springs location. Tucson, Ariz.-based Mister Car Wash is the nation's largest car wash chain with more than 300 locations.
• Quick Quack Car Wash plans a fifth area store in the InterQuest Marketplace shopping center, near InterQuest Parkway and Federal Drive on Colorado Springs' north side. Headquartered in suburban Sacramento, Calif., Quick Quack has more than 100 locations and is the country's fourth largest chain.
• Tommy's Express Car Wash, a Michigan-based operator with nearly 70 locations, expects to open its first Springs car wash in October on Tutt Boulevard, between Barnes Road and North Carefree Circle.
• Big Splash Car Wash, whose operators are in Denver and Kansas City, Mo., opened its first Springs location in December near Academy Boulevard and Vickers Drive on the site of an old restaurant building that was demolished. Big Splash also has purchased the Independent Records & Video buildings on Platte Avenue, where it will raze the buildings and construct a car wash targeted to open next year.
• Carlo Car Wash, a new entry into the local market, is under construction northeast of Union and Dale Street and expects to open in mid-June.
The local car wash landscape also is populated by several familiar local, regional and national operators. Among them: Water Works, Express Car Wash, Car Wash USA Express, The Hub and 7th Wave, along with specialty facilities that combine car and dog washing, such as 5 Star and the newly opened Super Suds. Many services stations, convenience stores and groceries also have their own car washes.
Why so many car washes? The reasons go beyond just mud-splattered windshields, dirty doors and undercarriages caked by magnesium chloride.
In general, the International Carwash Association's vehicle owner survey from 2019 found that more than four out of five Americans — 83% — use a professional car wash at least once a year, which was the highest percentage since the group began doing its survey in 1996.
The percentage of respondents washing their vehicles at home, meanwhile, fell to 42% in 2019, down from 54% three years earlier — a sign that increasing numbers of motor vehicle owners prefer the quality and convenience of professional car washes, the survey found.
Other findings in the survey suggested that overwhelming majorities of new vehicle owners want to keep their purchases looking new via frequent washes and that they consider a car wash akin to routine maintenance because it prevents rust and protects the vehicle's value.
In fact, Americans love a clean car and are willing to pay for it. The survey found that 86% of respondents said a clean vehicle made them feel good, 78% believed a neat and tidy vehicle appearance reflected well on them and only 23% were dissatisfied with the price for a car wash.
Many institutional investors have taken notice of the car wash industry's popularity and especially its profit potential, said Matt Brunk, operations manager for Carlo Car Wash, being launched by construction industry veteran Lenny Carlo.
Car washes are multimillion dollar investments to build — around $5 million when land, equipment and construction costs are factored in, said Brunk. He also worked for Centennial-based International Car Wash Group, the self-described world's largest local car wash conglomerate and operator of the three Car Wash USA Express locations in the Springs.
After that initial cost is recouped in a few years, car washes can be money makers, Brunk said.
"In a restaurant, you've got a lot of labor cost," he said. "At a car wash, your labor cost is a lot lower because the equipment is doing most of the work. You're essentially making a very large initial investment that pays itself off after so many years. And then your profit margins go pretty high."
Private equity groups and other investors are recognizing that potential and have pumped large sums of money into the industry, which has allowed national and regional chains to aggressively expand, said Travis Kimball, a co-founder and chief experience officer of Quick Quack Car Wash.
In addition to its four Springs-area locations and its plans for a fifth, Quick Quack, which was founded in 2004, expects to have 10 to 20 car washes in the area over the next several years, Kimball said.
"The car washing industry right now is exploding in almost every market," Kimball said. "When we started, there were very few chains. There was a lot of mom-and-pops in a very fragmented industry. In the last five years, outside of our infusion of capital with our private equity and our joint ventures, there's been additional private equity pouring into the car wash market."
It's not just the large chains that are expanding; several smaller operators with 30 to 60 stores also are growing rapidly, either by acquisition or ground-up development, Kimball said.
Colorado Springs has become a natural location for many of those expansions, say industry experts and commercial real estate veterans.
As its population increases, car wash operators — similar to retailers, restaurants and other businesses — want to plant their brand's flag in fast-growing parts of town.
"It's growing so fast out to the east ... when we're submitting these developments, there's one or two of these car wash guys that are trying to get into those neighborhoods or at that intersection because they want to get in there and try and gain or retain market share," said John Egan, a retail specialist with the NAI Highland commercial brokerage in Colorado Springs.
Tommy's Express started construction in March on its first Tutt Boulevard location in the Springs, hopes to add at least one more location in the area and plans to break ground in June on a car wash in Littleton, said Mark Brink, president of franchisee Capstan Solutions of Holland, Mich., which will operate the local Tommy's.
"We see the population growth happening out there is quite tremendous right now," Brink said of Colorado Springs. "With that comes the need for a lot of cars to be washed. That works well for us from a business model standpoint."
The Springs' changeable, wait-five-minutes-if-you-don't-like-the-weather climate also makes it an attractive car wash market.
There's snow and an occasional blizzard in the winter, with cars and trucks driving on roads sprayed with magnesium chloride to keep them dry, but which eats away at their underbodies. Summer, meanwhile, brings late-afternoon rains and sometimes a deluge, which might lead to unwanted water spots.
"We're a great climate for car washes because we have a lot of inclement weather and a lot of salt," said Mike Berger, a broker with Weichert Realtors Pikes Peak Group in Colorado Springs. "They put magnesium chloride on roads. And other chemicals. It goes through your car.
"They're chasing numbers of cars and inclement weather and sunny days," Berger said of car washes. "And we have those three things in conjunction and they work well. As soon as you have your weather over and the sun comes out, what do you do? You go wash your car."
Car wash memberships, an industry trend for several years, also are designed to keep customers coming back and underscore the need for expansion by some chains that seek to establish and maintain brand loyalty.
In general, memberships allow motorists to pay a flat monthly fee for unlimited washes. Those monthly fees might be in the $30 to $35 range, which sounds a little steep. But if a car wash costs $15 to $20, the fee pays for itself after customers make a couple of visits each month.
So if their car wash has several locations, customers with memberships might be more inclined to get their vehicles cleaned while heading home, driving to their job or picking up groceries, said Quick Quack's Kimball. On average, Quick Quack customers wash their vehicles three to four times a month, he said.
"People fall into habits," he said. "Whether it's Monday or Saturday, that's the day that they go by the car wash."
More sophisticated car wash technology also makes it easier for customers to return for repeat visits and encourages chains to add locations, industry officials say.
Most of the newer car washes developed in Colorado Springs are so-called "tunnel" washes, which offer exterior cleaning using state-of-the-art equipment.
Customers drive up to a cashier's station that's either staffed or automated, purchase a wash, enter a covered enclosure or tunnel and their vehicles pass through via a conveyor belt or other equipment. Vehicles typically are washed and dried in a few minutes without employee contact and customers usually have access to self-serve vacuums and other cleaning accessories after the wash.
Other car washes include full-service systems — similar to tunnel washes, but whose employees will clean interior vehicle windows and vacuum; in-bay/automated systems, usually found at gas stations and convenience stores, where customers park in a bay and equipment moves back and forth to clean their vehicles; and self-serve washes, in which customers pull into a bay and use sprayers and other equipment to clean vehicles on their own.
Like many businesses, car washes increasingly employ smartphone apps.
In the case of Tommy's Express, customers register their vehicle and credit card information in the app, select their wash, drive to any Tommy's location and pull into an app lane where a software system recognizes their pre-registered license plate, Brink said. Customers can use the app with or without car wash memberships.
"The user has complete control over their subscription and their membership in that app," Brink said.