Car wash boom worries longtime Weeki Wachee business
Article & Photography by
Axl Edward David
Car washes are becoming as ubiquitous as self-storage units and fast-food restaurants along the bustling Cortez Boulevard corridor in western Hernando County.
There are six car washes between Suncoast Parkway and US-19, with another three in various stages of construction or permitting along this stretch of highway straddling the unincorporated communities of Weeki Wachee and Spring Hill.
Eric Wulf, CEO of the International Carwash Association, said the industry is experiencing unprecedented growth despite growing economic concerns and supply chain issues.
“We believe that over a thousand new stores are being built annually,” Wulf said. “Over the past twenty years, consumer preferences have shifted from ‘do it yourself’ to ‘do it for me.’ Sunshine states have historically been popular for car wash services.”
Soon to be located near the High Point community just west of Mariner Boulevard, Tampa-based Woodie’s Wash Shack is one of more extravagant car washes coming to the Nature Coast.
At an average cost of about $8 million for each new location, Glen Stygar, Vice President of Operations for Woodie’s, says Hernando County fits right into their market plan.
“We don’t look at competition, we have a market plan to build 55 stores on the west coast of Florida,” Stygar said. “This store fits right into our footprint.”
With extensive surfer themes, Woodie’s locations feature tropical ambient music and beachy pastels with wood paneling evoking a vintage 1960’s surf wagon. The two-story CenterState Bank office building was recently demolished to make room for their newest location.
When asked about the saturation of car washes in close proximity, Stygar is unfazed. Like Wulf, he cites the shift in consumer habits, while drawing parallels to the comparable growth of oil change shops.
“We’re pulling people out of the driveway, just like we used to change our own oil,” Stygar said. “We see that happening in the car wash industry too, you can stay in your car and buzz through the tunnel in three minutes.”
Less than a half mile west, Frank Burns, co-owner of Weeki Washee Car Wash, has a different take on the competition springing up close by.
“With this current economy, oncoming recession, minimum wage increase, inflation… and now these new carwashes within a mile or two,” Burns said. “I could compete with one individually, but all that and this new competition?”
One of only a few full-service hand car washes in the area, Weeki Washee has been in business since 1988. According to Burns, it was one of the first car washes in Hernando County and employs over 20 staff.
Weeki Washee recently expanded their services, such as mobile detailing, to hedge against some of the current and future losses with increased competition. Attracted to Florida’s business-friendly environment from New York, Burns said, he purchased Weeki Washee two years ago.
Burns laments about the possible negative impacts on his staff, mostly young men working their first job in an area where jobs involving physical, outdoor labor are sometimes difficult to come by. The newer express washes being built utilize automated machinery with minimal staffing.
“We employ people locally, we pay payroll taxes, property taxes, and it all stays here in the community,” Burns said.
Near the front desk, Burns’ young daughter sits behind the cash register, smiling and playing with his service dog.
Customers waiting in the lobby chuckle as Burns, with a subtle New York accent, announces over the intercom to his staff outside: “There’s a guy from the newspaper here taking pictures, try to look presentable.”
Despite dark rain clouds approaching, a steady stream of cars could be seen entering Weeki Washee. One of those was Donna Devault of Spring Hill, who sees the value in the full-service approach.
“They do my inside, my outside,” Devault said. “I have free passes to one of the newer car washes, but I want to keep coming here.”
There may be hard times ahead for the mom and pop car wash, but happy customers like Donna Devault are always good for business.