ClearWater builds upon a clean slate for a new kind of car wash

Travis Braithwaite from ClearWater Car Wash reimagines the car wash experience, from design to drying.
Tom Venetis
Associate Editor, Convenience Store News Canada + OCTANE
Tom Venetis head shot
ClearWater Car Wash Exterior Night

When one thinks of a car wash, the first thing that comes to mind for most is a grey-looking, nondescript box where cars enter one end and come out clean the other.

When Travis Braithwaite began thinking of starting a car wash, however, he wanted something totally unique.

It started when his cousin and uncle announced in 2017 they were looking to open a car wash (they did so in 2019). Looking to take his sales career in a new direction, Braithwaite decided to join them to discover for himself what was needed to operate a car wash. After attending several car wash shows, he quickly realized that to start and maintain a car wash operation, one first needed a clear understanding of what makes a car wash successful.

Braithwaite, who now had his father along for the venture, turned to the experts, first meeting with John Sorenson, who was with National Carwash Solutions at the time (he’s now director of capital for Wow Carwash), who took him and his cousin, to see some of the top car wash operations across the country—they toured close to 100 high-performing car washes in Canada, and even some in Europe. “Because of his background, he would go to the owners and say, ‘Hey, I’ve got two people here that are new to the business. They just want to hear your story about how you got into the car wash business, what were the lessons you learned, what would you do over again?’ We learned how they treated their staff, their customers, what their marketing programs were and how they developed and rolled out their retail presence.”

Along with these meetings, he also attended training seminars and sessions put on by Sonny’s CarWash College and National Carwash Solutions. He says these programs were highly beneficial as they taught him not just about the equipment used in a car wash, but also “whether a piece of equipment performs well, what parts you need to have on the shelf if they break down, if they break down often.”

These meetings allowed him to realize that to succeed, he would need to create something that was not like most car washes out there. And he set out to do exactly that. Ground was broken for ClearWater Car Wash in August 2021 and opened its doors in September of 2022.

ClearWater Car Wash Night exterior aerial
Not a typical design

Too often, most car washes operating today are dull affairs—functional, efficient but lacking in any character—says Braithwaite, nothing more than what he describes as an industrial shoebox. “You see it a lot in Canada, where the car wash is almost, it would seem, an afterthought.”

He decided the design for ClearWater Car Wash, located in St. Albert, a suburb of Edmonton, needed to be something that would make it stand out in the community, catch one’s eye and establish a unique and memorable retail presence.

Instead of hiring a traditional car wash designer, Braithwaite went in a direction that when first mentioned sounds utterly surprising: He approached Jim Gartner, one of the architects behind The Cheesecake Factory restaurant.

Braithwaite’s thinking is not as far-fetched as some may think it is. Most restaurant chains tend to follow a rigid standardized design for each location, making them recognizable to everyone regardless of where they may be located. The Cheesecake Factory is different and each location is unique, standing out in the crowd of all other restaurants around it. The designs are never stagnant but made to catch the eye and draw customers inside.

“It is not as if we wanted to steal [The Cheesecake Factory] designs…. We took instead design cues of what makes a building aesthetically pleasing, what makes it stand out,” he says.

Working primarily with the team at Hodgson Schilf Evans Architects Inc. in Edmonton, as well as California-based James Gartner & Associates Architects, Inc. on the building design, and Dawson Wallace Construction in Edmonton, Braithwaite achieved his goal. 

ClearWater Car Wash resembles a high-end business that beacons one to stop. The show-stopping design starts with its iconic tower, where the name of the operation glows brightly and sign can change colour, followed by the large windows that allow a clear view into the tunnel and can be lit in bright colours as well. 

“We use G&G Lighting’s LED lighting technologies that allows us to change the colours in the tower and tunnel,” says Braithwaite. “When the Edmonton Oilers Play, I can change the lights in the tunnel to be their colours, white, blue and gold. During Christmas, I change the colours to be more festive, such as red, green, and white. Even the tower was carefully thought out. It is three storeys tall with the name of the car wash running down its height and it stands out as a beacon.”

The overall design is open, allowing for plenty of room for vehicles to move about and for easy access to the 13 Vacutech vacuum stalls with their dual hoses and 60 hp motors. Customer service and pay is a smooth process, as the DRB Point of Sale system allows for multiple payment options, including credit cards, tap or the company’s easily reloadable monthly club membership. There are also programs for fleet accounts and family accounts.

Travis Braithwaite ClearWater Car Wash
Travis Braithwaite
Delivering a quality wash, even in extreme weather

Before he broke ground, Braithwaite says he took quite a bit of time to learn not just what makes a good car wash, but also what users find disappointing. When he looked at reviews of existing car washes, he found similar complaints: For example, that the cars come out at the end are rather poorly washed; and in the winter months, many come out still wet, which results in frozen doors or windows.

The way to overcome that was to design a car wash that could deliver optimal performance in the kind of cold weather that Alberta is known for—to do that one needs the right equipment.

During his time visiting car wash operations and suppliers of services and technologies with Sorenson, he learned a lot about investing in the right equipment. This helped him decide upon AccuPump equipment for soap dispensing, SoBrite for the reclamation system, DRB Tunnel Solutions for POS and, for chemicals, Blair Ceramics and National Car Wash Solutions (CleanTouch).

In relation to finding equipment to withstand the cold, Braithwaite points to the blowers he uses to dry cars. A standard car wash might use two 10-horsepower drying motors, but in many cases, they are not enough to fully dry a car, and certainly not during winter. “We have 13 drying motors [at 15 hp each = 185 hp], and we went a step beyond and made sure that they have high-efficiency motors, so they also don’t burn up as much power when in use,” he explains. “We can also dial them up or down depending on the season, to further save on electrical usage. For example, in the summer when it is hot outside, you don’t need to have as much drying power.”

In addition, power gates help to improve their efficiency and everything is computer controlled, so they run only when the car is present.

Braithwaite explains that because of the car wash’s tunnel length, some 150 feet, partition walls are placed at the entrance and exit of the operations. Not only do those walls clearly mark the prewash preparation area and drying area, but also, they act as barriers to cold. “When it is winter and it is -30 or -40 Celsius outside, and you open your doors to let a car in or out, that cold air stays in those delineated areas,” he adds. “The cold does not migrate through the tunnel.”

As well, the tunnel floors are heated and there are infrared radiant heaters inside to prevent any freezing of the equipment. The water and soaps are heated as well, and the asphalt is heated so that vehicles do not hit ice when exiting.

Putting the customer first

“We focus on one thing, and we do it very well,” says Braithwaite. “We sell car washes and nothing else. Our value proposition is about a clean car experience that makes you feel good. Consequently, we focus on every aspect that amps up the good feeling. For example, our staff are directed to smile at every customer first and foremost, and for holidays we do something extra, like chocolates on Valentine’s Day or flowers for Mother’s Day. And training our staff is all about how to talk to the customers, to make the most of every opportunity and delivering a consistent service. This is achieved through video training, quizzes, mentorship, peer training, internal performance competitions judged by their peers.”

He adds that to help provide a good customer experience, it is also important that his staff is happy and enjoy their work. “We provide a work environment where staff are appreciated, provide opportunities to learn and support their hobbies and career ambitions through company projects, and of course, having fun with the daily routines to make work enjoyable.”

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