BY MARK RABAGO
CHALAN LAULAU, SAN ANTONIO, and GARAPAN — Like all other businesses on Saipan, the car wash and detailing industry wasn’t immune from the ravages of the COVID-19 pandemic.
But a couple of car wash shops were inadvertently borne out of the coronavirus menace, as the lack of tourists forced their owners to pivot to another business model.
Owner Lee Myung Soon of Quick Steam Car Wash in Chalan Laulau said when the local community’s buying power goes down due to economic uncertainty, the first to go are services deemed not really a necessity.
“In this time of the pandemic where the island is experiencing economic hardships, our business has also declined. Since car wash is not mandatory, people tend not to wash their cars during economic hardships. So, during the pandemic, the number of cars we washed decreased,” he said.
Lee also said operations are at the mercy of the weather.
“The number of cars we wash a day is vastly different depending on the weather, and there are many more cars that come on the weekends. We only do steam car wash at our shop. On rainy days, I would recommend doing an inside car wash for a cheap price,” he said.
Despite the rise in operating costs with salaries of employees and power prices rising, Quick Steam has maintained its prices, he said.
“Our store’s steam machine runs on diesel and uses drinking water; plus, our water blaster and vacuum uses electricity to operate. Although the cost for all of these have increased, we did not increase the prices for any of our services, because we were aware that everyone on the island was going through hard times during the pandemic.”
He said said the steam car wash option No. 1 is unique.
“Our steam wash uses drinking water and can kill bacteria effectively. We also provide coupons that give customers a free car wash after 10 stamps. We recommend at least one car wash every month to each car owner for family hygiene,” he said, adding that customers can also wait in style inside an air-conditioned lounge which has a wide-screen TV with cable and free coffee.
For those who want a next-level clean, Lee offers a detailing service.
“We remove stains on the ceiling, chairs, and trunk with shampoo. After drying, we steam wash both inside and outside the car again to kill germs and remove the smell. Of course, we wash the tires and wheels. Finally, as a service to all car detailing customers, we do an engine cleaning.”
He said engine cleaning is very important, especially on Saipan because of the rats and insects that often live in cars.
“All customers are satisfied after car detailing because an old, dirty car becomes brand new. An appointment call is needed a day before car detailing,” he said.
Quick Steam Car Wash was called EG AutoSteam when it opened in 2016. Lee purchased it from the previous owner in 2019. It is located along Middle Road in Chalan Laulau. Car wash services start at $20 and go up to depending on car size and type of service.
Tiger Yoon traded his SCUBA gear for suds and a microfiber cleaning cloth when he opened Star Car Wash in San Antonio in May last year.
The 49-year-old dive instructor said the lack of visitor arrivals to the Northern Mariana Islands NMI forced him to temporarily shutter his company, Blue Bay Dive Shop.
In came Star Car Wash —which also thanks to the pandemic —has seen a rise in business, according to Yoon.
“Saipan now has plenty of new cars after COVID-19 because there’s stimulus, PUA (Pandemic Unemployment Assistance), etc. There are also not that many carwash shops, especially on the south of Saipan like in San Antonio. If you need a car wash you usually have to go to Garapan.”
A typical busy day for Yoon and his staff of three is serving as many as 30 vehicles that range from sedans to small SUVs, to full-size pickup trucks, and even vans. He also said Star Car Wash has regular customers, who make up the bulk of the business.
“A lot of people here on the island love their cars cleaned every week, not only every month,” he said.
A slow day though would be five or less cars, which happens when the weather is dour, and the heavy downpour makes motorists avoid car wash shops.
Yoon also expects operations to close earlier than 6.30 p.m. by the end of the year and the start of next year. “Maybe like December, January, February we will close by 5.30 p.m., because the sun is going down fast,” he said, adding that he wants to do their car cleaning with natural light.
While the business has basically cornered the market on the south side of the island, Star Car Wash has also become the car wash shop of choice for motorists who live in Kagman.
The cost of car wash services starts at $15 for sedans and two-door pickup trucks. Small- and medium-size SUVs are $20, full-size pickup trucks and seven-seater SUVs costs $25, and 15-seater vans $35. Star Car Wash charges extra for spray body wax, cream body wax, headlight clean, and engine clean.
Star Car Wash is located in San Antonio next to Ador’s Restaurant along Beach Road. It is open 8 a.m. to 6 p.m. on weekdays and 7.30 a.m. to 6 p.m. at weekends.
Like Yoon, Ashraf Alam was pretty much invested in the tourism industry before COVID-19 reached Saipan’s shores.
He was forced to temporarily shut down Asia Marine Sports, and with no livelihood to fall back on, Alam opened Asia Car Wash in Garapan in March 2020.
He did so without any previous experience in managing a car wash or auto detailing shop.
Alam said Asia Car Wash is one of the cheapest car wash shops in town, charging only $15 for sedans, $20 for SUVs, and $25 for full-size pickups, large SUVs, and vans. There is also an option for deep cleaning and detailing.
A good day at Asia Car Wash is servicing up to 15 vehicles. Alam said Asia Car Wash usually gets that number when stimulus money is released.
But when the hard times roll, he’ll be happy to see six vehicles cleaned at his shop. The average is from eight to 10 cars per day.
Aside from the low cost of service, Alam also boasts that Asia Car Wash uses 100% rainwater and has large water tanks and catchment basins at the back of the operation.
While he used 100% rainwater to clean cars, Alam admitted to having a love-hate relationship with rain, as bad weather usually equates to less sales as car owners postpone having cars cleaned when it rains.
Aside from owning a marine sports company, Alam also owns a charcoal business and security agency. He said even if tourism picks up, he will hold on to Asia Car Wash and just make the best of it.
Located along Kadena Di Amor St. in Garapan, Asia Car Wash is open from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. daily. mbj