Can a visit to a car wash feel like a trip to Disney World? Businessman Chris Vernon thinks so, and to prove it he turned an old furniture warehouse just off Route 1 into one of the largest and most elaborate car washes in the area. When it opened this fall, the high-tech Valet Auto Wash on Litho Road in Lawrenceville became the latest addition to Vernon’s business empire, Mercer Management, which comprises hotels, apartment buildings, wedding venues, car washes, a self-storage facility, a strip mall, and a sports complex.
Valet Auto was inspired by videos that Vernon saw of German and Dutch mega car washes in action. In many places in Europe, washing a car in a driveway is illegal because of strict water quality laws, so motorists flock to car washes, which actually use less water per vehicle than doing it at home. As a result, the car wash business in Europe has flourished to a scale completely unknown to the U.S. For example, the Wall Street Journal in 2014 reported on the behemoth, two-story “Mr. Wash” facility in Stuttgart, which can handle more than half a million cars a year. Nothing like it exists in the U.S., but Vernon hopes to change that. For decades he has dreamed of building the largest, most advanced car wash possible.
Vernon has been in the car wash business since 1985, when he opened a small wash near Fort Dix. “That one did just okay,” he recalls, and he soon took the lessons he learned there and in 1989 bought a bigger one on Lalor Street in Trenton that was housed in a converted trolley barn. That business had been open since 1964, and Vernon bought it when the owner died, preventing it from closing and giving it an upgrade. “I dreamed of making it the world’s largest high-tech car wash,” Vernon says. “I don’t know if we achieved it there, but I think we achieved it in the latest location in Lawrenceville.”
Although Valet Auto is dwarfed by its uber gigantic German forerunner, it competes with the Euro washes for technology and efficiency. When customers drive up to the wash, they enter through one of several automated payment booths, each with a touch screen. Customers who have a membership can breeze through a special “members only” lane with an EZ-pass-like sticker.
Next comes an entrance tunnel where flashing LED lights guide cars up to a conveyor belt that grabs on to one wheel and guides vehicles through a 250-foot-long tunnel where every inch of the car is blasted with high pressure water, soaped down and washed off with mechanical thoroughness. Vernon says the tunnel is one of the world’s longest. The equipment is made in the United States, he says, but most machines of this caliber end up being deployed in Germany. Along the way, lighted signs explain what each station is doing, whether buffing the wheels or applying a clear coat.
Wastewater from the process doesn’t go into the sewer, but instead it goes into storage tanks where it can be reclaimed. “It’s very environmentally friendly,” Vernon says.
Next comes a bank of 300 horsepower blowers that dry the car in seconds with a hurricane-force blast of air. “At an old fashioned full service, 25 guys would dry the car with towels,” says Nick Brachelli, a project manager for Mercer Management and general manager at Valet Auto. “Now technology dries it for us.”
After this, drivers can opt for interior service, or they can pull into a free vacuum station and do it themselves. There are towels and vacuums on both sides of the car, for convenience. (No more pulling a hose over the hood.) Drivers who opt for the valet service can step out of the car and go to a coffee lounge after parking on yet another conveyor belt. This one carries the entire car, along with a team of workers who swarm over the car with special vacuums, blowers, and hoses that run on compressed air that dangle from an overhead gantry. There’s even a special tool to blast the gunk out of cup holders. “They get into the car for eight minutes and just clean the living daylights out of it,” Vernon says.
In traditional car washes, someone would drive the car from station to station for different steps in the cleaning process. But thanks to the conveyor belt, the car is in park the whole time so there’s less risk to the employees.
Figuring out the optimal placement of the tools and who should do what at which station was a process of trial and error and clever design. Vernon and Ray Cerwinski pored over sketches, redrawing them on paper and even napkins late into the night to figure out where everything should go. After it was built, they further tinkered with it to set it up perfectly.
“Painful might be a better word that trial-and-error,” Vernon says. “We still learn every day. I’m ridiculously passionate about this. It’s all about taking away steps. Like if one of our team members has to walk two steps instead of five steps, he’s saving some time. The cleaning towels need to be a certain distance from the spray guns, and everything at a certain cell of the conveyor belt is within arm’s reach so an employee can turn around and grab what he needs. Once we get that sweet spot of volume going, it really works like a fine-tuned mechanism … it’s really just a magic carpet ride.”
Cerwinski, who has a background in stage lighting, used theatrical scaffolding in the construction of the because it can be reconfigured easily. He’s also responsible for the razzle-dazzle lighting in the wash tunnel, as well as one feature that customers will never notice: seven high-definition cameras capture each car as it enters the car wash from different angles. “That way we are able to check cars going in prior to the wash for damage,” Cerwinski says.
After the valet cleaning service, drivers can opt for a trip through the brilliant shine waxing tunnel, another automated service that is so far unique to the region. It sprays on wax in a fine mist and then buffs it out with high-speed rotors. From beginning to end, a trip through the car wash takes, including interior cleaning, takes between 15 and 20 minutes. “I was skeptical at first until I saw it in operation,” Vernon says. “I’m amazed at the product it puts out.”
Customers can opt for a basic wash for $6, the full service for $49, or various steps in between.
Drivers who are truly obsessed with keeping their car clean can buy a membership in the “Wash club” which at the lowest level, “Ultimate,” allows unlimited trips through any Valet Auto car wash location for $35 a month. Higher levels include waxing and valet service, all the way up to “The Works” at $75 a month.
Kathleen O’Brien, who goes by “OB,” manages the car wash and is a key part of the operation. In a former life, she was a meteorologist for the Navy, and she uses her laptop to keep an eye on the weather. While the car wash is entirely indoors, it is still heavily dependent on the weather. Few people go to the car wash when it’s raining. On slow days when not so many workers are needed at the car wash, she can send them to work at one of Mercer Management’s many other properties. They include five “Weddings of Distinction” venues, located in North Jersey and on the shore, four car washes, two express lubes, and the Robbinsville Field House.
The company continues to expand rapidly, with its Princeton car wash on Route 1 near MarketFair expanding, and locations in Bordentown, Cinnaminson, and Oxford Valley, Pennsylvania, under construction. Mercer Management is also building another hotel in Bordentown. There is also a Valet Auto Wash on Route 130 in Hamilton that does oil and lube service. As project managers, a vaguely defined title, Cerwinski, O’Brien, and Brachelli handle the company’s day-to-day operations on the go using laptops and cell phones.
At the wedding venues as well as the car washes, Vernon says the goal is to create a Disney-like customer experience. To drive the point home, there’s a statue of Mickey Mouse in OB’s office at the Lawrenceville car wash. Certain features were lifted directly from Disney theme parks. For example, whenever a car enters the assembly line, sensors trigger an automatic announcement to the staff, letting them know that a car is on the way and allowing them to get in place. This was inspired by a similar system Cerwinski saw in a ride at Disney World.
In another Disney touch, there is a “help” button at the front desk that is not a bell, but a big red button that summons employees with a loudspeaker announcement. Cerwinski sometimes goes to Disney World by himself, just for inspiration, and returns with photos of various details that could be used at a Mercer Management property.
Both the wedding venue business and the car washes rely on a degree of showmanship, designed mainly by Cerwinski, who calls himself an “imagineer” in addition to his official job title.
Vernon’s company, headquartered on South Broad Street in Hamilton, started off as a small solo operation. Vernon grew up in Robbinsville, where his parents owned a plumbing supply business. When he graduated from high school, Vernon was anxious to get into business right away. “I sat in a business class at Mercer County Community College and listened to the professor speak, and I thought, ‘You know, this just isn’t for me,’ he says. “I have to get busy. I just wanted to go out and get to work.” He immediately began three jobs, as a newspaper delivery man, a plumber’s apprentice, and stocking shelves at a supermarket.
Vernon’s first business venture, in the early 1980s, was buying and fixing up houses in Trenton, where he lived at the time. After entering the car wash business, other properties followed.
In the early 2000s Vernon started building wedding venues. He was inspired by a friend’s wedding in New Hope, which took place on a property with quaint stone buildings. He realized that a “destination wedding” could be had close to home. Today there are five “Weddings of Distinction” venues including Bonnet Island in Manahawkin, the Mallard Island Yacht Club in Stafford Township, the Stateroom at Long Beach Island, the Ashford Estate in Monmouth County, and the Mercer Ballroom at the Hilton Garden Inn in Hamilton.
To this venture he has brought the same improvisational spirit that has led to endless improving of the process at the car washes. One of the wedding venues had a guest room that didn’t work out, so Vernon decided to turn it into a dedicated place where bridal parties could sit and do makeup. “We always had problems with makeup artists coming in and blowing out circuits and making a mess of the bridal suite,” Veron says. “This room had seating and high-end couches, and the girls all sit down and get their makeup done, and it turned into a fairy tale moment. The bridal parties are all in one room getting their hair done and having refreshments served to them.” The creation of the makeup room was an accident but turned out to be a huge success that was later featured in bridal magazines.
Not all of Vernon’s experiments have been successful. “There have been a couple of blips on the radar,” he says. “You have to come up with some crazy ideas to be creative, and you have to have a couple of projects fail. Down the shore we tried a beach buffet but it flopped miserably. We learned real fast that we shouldn’t open a beach buffet.” The business was quickly converted into a more successful catering operation. “We have learned to be nimble and change direction if something is not working well,” he says.
To finance these operations, Vernon relies on local funding sources, he says. “I’ve been fortunate enough to have some really great local community banks that believed in us from day one,” he says, citing Yardville Bank, which is now First Bank, Fulton Bank which has become First Choice, Berkshire Bank, and Princeton Bank. Vernon has used the financing to grow his company to an operation that employs about 200 people.
O’Brien says Vernon has been generous to the community in return, although his name is rarely mentioned in local newspapers. For example, she says he has given out about 30,000 car washes to local high school students as a graduation gift.
Vernon’s charitable impulses are rooted in his Catholic faith. “I’m a devout family man,” Vernon says. He is married with six children. “I love the sense of serving others. I’m happiest when you give to others, whether it’s exceptional service that they’re not expecting, or giving to someone in need. It’s a great feeling.”
Valet Auto Wash, 4 Litho Road, Lawrenceville 08648, 609-557-7100. www.valetwash.com.