Other aspects of Anchorage’s economy may be struggling, but the car wash business is making a splash.
Three companies are in the process of building their first car washes in the Anchorage Bowl in the coming months. And that’s just the beginning: Each plans to add additional locations in the future.
They’re building express, conveyor belt-style facilities that they say will clean vehicles at a faster clip than other car washes in the city. Two of the owners have said they’re investing more than $10 million in their first sites alone.
Jason Woodward co-owns three Sudzy Salmon car washes in Eagle River and the Mat-Su, after launching the first one five years ago. They use conveyor belts in tunnels, with mechanical brushes helping to sweep them free of dirt.
In February, he plans to open his first Sudzy Salmon in Anchorage, in the spot along C Street where the Sea Galley restaurant was located before it burned down in 2019. He said Sudzy has partnered with Express Carwash, a Missouri-based company.
The operation will have two 180-foot-long tunnels. He said the express car wash business is a good model, nationally and in Alaska, because it moves a high volume of customers, each one in a few minutes.
He can see six to 10 express car washes being added in the city, he said.
“It’s an assembly line for car washes,” he said. “You’re just moving down the conveyor and every foot is another opportunity for another process.”
Anchorage has well over a dozen car washes. But until the long lines at those businesses go away in Anchorage, there’s room for more car washes in the city, Woodward said.
People involved in the industry say car washes in Anchorage have generally been profitable for years.
One reason is obvious.
“We get a lot of dirty cars,” said Eugeniu Gilca, co-owner of the Pink Elephant Splash and Dash express car wash in South Anchorage.
Long winters that run half the year, with frequent melting, leave vehicles caked with a uniquely thick layer of gunk compared to other places, according to people in the industry.
On top of that, most people don’t have the option of washing cars at home in winter, with their hoses frozen, said Karen Mahoy, who owns Mudbusters car washes in Wasilla.
Car washes everywhere are generally more lucrative than people think, said Lisa Laudon, longtime owner of the six Alaska Laser Wash car washes in Anchorage.
People think Anchorage has a lot of car washes, but the market isn’t saturated like it is in many Lower 48 cities, she said.
New competitors are entering the Anchorage market in part because companies with large financial backing are looking for good investments, Laudon said. They want to invest in car washes here and elsewhere, she said.
Nearly all the car washes in Anchorage are like Alaska Laser Wash, industry observers say. Those are in-bay automatic car washes, often described as touchless. Cars sitting stationary in a bay are blasted with high-pressure water and chemical soaps.
The new express car washes will use conveyor belts to move vehicles. Those exist only in small numbers in Alaska — Pink Elephant is currently the only one in Anchorage.
Laudon said she’s a little nervous about the competition. But she expects many of her customers to stick with her in the long run.
“We’re apples and oranges,” she said of the two breeds of car washes.
Alaska isn’t just full of beat-up clunkers anymore, she said. Many Alaskans now have nice cars and they’ll continue to want only high-pressure water and soap touching their vehicle, she said.
Gilca, with Pink Elephant, said the express car washes never really took off in Alaska before. Customers were concerned over the decades about their cars getting scratched by dirt and rocks held in the cloth cleaning materials that were once used.
But technology has changed, including with the use of foam scrubbers that don’t hold dirt, he said.
He said Anchorage is a “green” market for the conveyor belt car washes. There’s room in Anchorage for more, though it will mean competition for his business and others, he said.
“Customers will have more choices, better options and prices,” he said.
Tommy’s Express Car Wash is set to open its first Alaska car wash in South Anchorage off Abbott Road by July, not far from the Carrs grocery store in the lot where Rae Rae’s Coffee Shop once operated.
Tommy’s is a national chain, but the franchisee in Alaska has a local connection in co-owner Katrina Davis, a medical school student in Anchorage.
“I grew up in Anchorage and I remember having my first car and it was a really big deal, but I’d have to wait 45 minutes to get a car wash,” she said.
She said Anchorage needs more car washes, and it was only a matter of time before more companies started coming here.
The family of her husband, Parker Davis, owns a franchise for Tommy’s car washes in Kansas. The car washes include a license-plate reading system so cars can automatically enter the cleaning tunnel. They have glass tunnels to let light in.
“I said, ‘We need to bring these car washes to Anchorage,’” she said.
CYBER Express Wash is planning its first car wash at Calais Drive, near Walmart where Johnson’s Tire Service was located before closing in 2017. Co-founder and Anchorage resident Paul Horstkoetter has partnered with Chugach Alaska, a regional Alaska Native corporation.
The car wash service will be fully indoors in a 35,000-square-foot facility, with license plate recognition, representatives said. Separate from the express wash, detailing services are also planned.
A key selling point, with Alaska’s long winter, is that this car wash is indoors, the company said in an emailed statement.
“Customers can now fully vacuum their vehicles, wash their mats, and more without worrying about the weather,” CYBER Express said in a statement.