Back in 2008 when the Daniele family began thinking about opening a car wash at 2875 Monroe Ave. at Clover Street in Brighton, the goals were modest.
“It really was born from the fact that the property had been vacant for almost nine years. It used to be a gas station,” said Danny Daniele, president and owner of Daniele Family Companies.
The Danieles did not live far from the site near the Pittsford town line and would drive past it several times a day. “We thought something needed to go there because it was an eyesore, and we thought it would be a great location for a car wash,” he said.
By that time, the family, whose first entrepreneurial endeavor was Mario’s, an Italian restaurant on East Avenue known for its red sauce and warm herb rolls, was well-established in real estate development but had never operated a car wash.
They didn’t envision something on the scale of Delta Sonic, which was founded 54 years ago in Buffalo and grown to 31 locations across New York, Pennsylvania and Illinois. The Rochester area has six Delta Sonics, the first of which opened in 1980 in Penfield.
“We were just focused on that one location,” said Daniele of the Monroe Avenue venture, which opened in 2011 as Royal Car Wash. “We didn’t even think about a second or a third or a fourth.”
What a difference a decade makes.
There are now 13 Royal Car Wash shops — nine in the Rochester region and four in the Buffalo area. A 10th Rochester location, at 34 N. Winton Road on the site of the old Buckman’s Car Wash, is under construction and scheduled to come online in October.
If all goes as expected, by the end of 2025 there will be 32 Royal Car Wash businesses: 12 in the Rochester area (including new ones on Route 441 near Route 250 in Penfield and on Moseley Road near Route 31 in Perinton), 11 across Erie and Niagara counties, one in Batavia, one in Auburn and seven arrayed around Syracuse, an entirely new market for the business.
Plans for the new locations — which like existing ones will measure around 4,000 square feet — are at various stages; some properties have not yet been purchased, and all of the projects are subject to local government approvals.
However, when all is said and done, Royal Car Wash could have a larger footprint in upstate New York than Delta Sonic, which now has 20 upstate locations, according to its website.
The Buffalo News has reported Delta Sonic plans to add a shop in Lockport, Niagara County. In recent years, the company has increased the size of its Rochester-area locations, adding buildings for detail work. We reached out to the company for more about that and for reaction to Royal’s expansion plans but did not hear back.
Royal Car Wash vs. Delta Sonic
Similar to Delta Sonic in that it is an automatic, tunnel car wash that uses soft-cloth brushes, Royal operates differently in some key respects, and that is what has helped fuel the growth, Daniele said.
It starts at the point of sale, which is automated. Customers buy washes on a touch screen, rather than from an employee. (The cost for a single wash starts at $9.99; membership packages of unlimited washes start at $19.99 a month.)
“One of the main competitive advantages we have is a very streamlined, simple ordering process with no sales pitch,” Daniele said. “We didn’t want customers to have to say the word ‘no.’ So, you get to choose your wash with no pressure.”
Unlike some of its competitors, including Delta Sonic, Royal focuses entirely on cleaning car exteriors. There is no interior detailing service (although the majority of locations have free self-serve vacuuming stations), Royal doesn’t sell gas or do oil changes, and there are no convenience stores attached.
“By focusing on the exterior, we’re able to process cars much quicker,” Daniele said. “Lines move extremely quickly. We get you in and out. We know that people don’t want to spend time in a long line.”
Royal has touchless air dryers rather than stations where workers hand-dry cars, which means there is no tipping of employees either — another deliberate choice.
Like an opening sales pitch, post-wash tipping was viewed as a “pain point,” Daniele said. “We found that it was an awkward experience if someone doesn’t have any loose change or a couple dollar bills, they end up tipping 5 or 10 or 20 dollars or not at all,” he said, and drive off feeling uncomfortable. “We wanted to remove all the stress points in the car wash experience.”
Kenan Guler, an assistant professor at the Saunders College of Business at Rochester Institute of Technology and expert in competitive business strategy, agreed that succeeding in a sector that has existed for decades (the first fully automatic, tunnel car wash opened in 1951 in Seattle) and already has a prominent player in the market requires offering unique features.
He added that when it comes to something like a car wash, a subscription model tends to promote success because it encourages customers to make using your business part of their regular routine. Daniele said close to 70 percent of Royal customers subscribe to membership packages.
He said Royal currently employs close to 300 people, 80 percent of whom work full time. The expansion would bring that number to nearly 600, he said.
Asked if the business might one day grow beyond state lines, Daniele said upstate New York is the current focus. “Looking past 2025, we’re not sure what future holds. Right now, we’re just having a really good time. These projects are fun projects that create jobs and provide a good service and a needed service.”
History of car washes
Back in 1914, less than 10 years after Henry Ford unveiled the first Model T, the first tunnel car wash called Automobile Laundry was opened by Frank McCormick and J.W. Hinkle in Detroit, according to Carwash.com.
During those days, a car was pushed through the tunnel by employees. There was team inside that tunnel and employees stationed inside washed, rinsed and dried the car in an assembly line method.
It took 26 years before the first automatic car wash debuted. It used a winch to pull the car through the tunnel, though employees still had to soap, rinse and dry the vehicle.
That was until 1951 in Seattle. That was when the Anderson brothers, Archie, Dean and Eldon, create the first completely automated car wash.
But it was in 1955 when Dan Hanna Sr., known as the Henry Ford of car washes, opened 51 Rub-a-Dub car washes. He is better known for his inventions of car wash equipment, which allowed for faster automatic car washes.
By 1959, Hanna began installing his car wash equipment into all car wash brands. Today the company is known as the Coleman Hanna Carwash Systems, Inc.
By the early 1960s, coin-operated bay car washes were launched in bigger cities and soon made their way most every hometown around the country.
Includes reporting from Ocala.com.