LINCOLN, Neb. — “Well, those cars never seem to stop coming. Keep those rags and machines humming.”
Those are lyrics in the 1976 song “Car Wash” by Rose Reece.
But they also could be an apt description of the current car wash market in Lincoln.
Full-service car washes seem to be either under construction or in development all over the city.
Jet Splash recently opened a new car wash at 16th Street and Pine Lake Road and is building another one at 40th and South streets.
Rocket Carwash has a new location under construction in Williamsburg near 40th Street and Old Cheney Road and plans another one at the site of a vacant bank branch it bought near 84th Street and Nebraska 2. Its website also lists one planned at 14th Street and Pine Lake Road.
Those are among 15 Nebraska locations the company, owned by City+Ventures of Omaha, has announced. Rocket Carwash also plans 85 additional locations in new markets in seven states.
In addition to new locations for Jet Splash and Rocket Carwash, there also are new full-service washes being built as add-ons to convenience stores, such as the one at the new U-Stop that opened earlier this year near 70th Street and Pine Lake Road.
Matt Toombs, founder of Lincoln’s Jet Splash, said the boom in car washes is due in large part to an influx of outside investment.
“There’s a lot of money coming into the industry,” Toombs told the Lincoln Journal Star.
Robin Eschliman, a local commercial real estate agent who co-hosts the “Grow Lincoln” radio show, said car washes have become popular with some national real estate investors because they produce “passive” income.
“The investor/landlords receive the rent, while someone else deals with operation issues,” she said.
That passive income has become more consistent and predictable over the past decade or so as car washes have shifted toward a membership model, where auto owners can pay a monthly membership fee and then get their vehicles washed as many times as they want.
Toombs said most of Jet Splash’s members get a wash once a week or less, but there are some customers who come in almost daily.
He said the membership model makes it easier for car washes to have consistent year-round income, which is “good for the operator and good for the customer.”
While only a small number of people are regular car wash users, most vehicle owners use them at least occasionally. A 2019 study done by the International Carwash Association found that 83% of car owners said they had used a full-service wash at least once in the past year, the highest percentage ever recorded in the annual survey since it began in 1996.
Kent Thompson, president of Thompson Realty Group, said consumers have a lot of disposable income right now and are willing to spend on “wants” such as car washes until something more important comes along to compete for their money. Full-service washes also allow them to save time without having to do the dirty work of washing their cars themselves.
Jet Splash is the biggest player in Lincoln when it comes to standalone full-service car wash locations. It built its first one in 2003 and has added a new location every few years as opportunities arose.
The fact that it’s building the one at 40th and South — which will be its seventh location — so soon after opening the one at 16th and Pine Lake is partly an acceleration of construction plans to keep up with competition, but it’s mostly still about opportunity.
Toombs said he had been searching for a long time for a site in central Lincoln, and when the U.S. Bank vacated its branch at the 40th and South site, he swooped in.
He called that area a “car wash desert” and said there should be a good opportunity to get members who live or work in the area.
Eschliman said car washes are becoming much like coffee shops and pharmacies when it comes to real estate, adopting a model where they open stores within a certain area that are far enough apart that they don’t with their own existing locations. They also are becoming more willing to spend more to get prime real estate locations, both she and Thompson said.
They also, more and more, are going into locations close to their competitors.
Two of Rocket Carwash’s planned new locations are close to existing Jet Splash ones Toombs said having a new car wash in those areas will likely generate new business, but not enough that it doesn’t draw some off from the existing locations.
He did admit, though, that the Lincoln market is likely underserved when it comes to full-service car wash locations.
“I would say there’s definitely room for other people to come in, but it’s just a question of how many,” Toombs said.
He conceded he doesn’t know what the magic number is, but it’s likely going to be reached sooner rather than later.
“If we keep going at the rate we’re going in terms of the number of washes being built in Lincoln, we’ll figure it out.”