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Tinkering, Teaching and Pushing the Limits

Tinkering, Teaching and Pushing the Limits

June 14, 2023

11 minute Read

Going where no man has gone before, figuratively and literally, is one of the reasons Gleam Car Wash exists — and is growing. Tinkering, teaching and pushing the limits are just what they do.

By Shaneen Calvo, Editor, CAR WASH Magazine

At the end of the tunnel, the external temperature was 16-degrees. A nearly-frozen mist tried to reach every exposed inch of skin, but Elijah “Eli” Williams looked giddy...

His blue eyes danced with a contagious sparkle and a smile stretched wide enough to make any photographer proud. He looked like he was 10 years old and had just been told Santa had come early … and the presents were already under the tree.

It wasn’t altogether far off.

Williams was standing at the end of the Gleam Car Wash tunnel on a frigidly cold winter day in Denver, Colo., and was admiring the new buff-and-dry they had just installed a few days earlier. They had ordered it following an introduction to the product at The Car Wash Show™ 2022 because the Netherlands-based manufacturer had assured them it would solve the winter windshield woes they were experiencing with their current buff-and-dry solution.

“You can see this awesome material effortlessly wicking the water off the vehicle,” said Williams, who is a partner at the wash with Emilie Baratta. “It looks really cool for the cars coming through.”

Now, Gleam has something not normally seen in a car wash — a dryer made specifically to help with winter weather drying and a different one come summer. They’ve dubbed the cold-weather brush their “winter attire” and are excited about the results they’ve seen thus far.

“It’s dramatic,” Baratta said. “And, we are always looking for more happy drama in the tunnel!”

This type of experimentation is common at Gleam, where innovation is encouraged, customization is almost mandatory and the next great idea is always right around the corner.

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WHERE NO MAN HAS GONE BEFORE

Going where no man has gone before, figuratively and literally, is one of the reasons Gleam exists — and is growing. Baratta not only prides herself on being a woman-owned business in a male-dominated industry, but in the six years since she built and founded Gleam she has taken all kinds of steps to make her wash stand out — starting with the design but not stopping there. It’s even been an assignment for key staff. “Go find some cool stuff for our tunnel” was the task at The Car Wash Show, and the employees were more than happy to take on the challenge. “It was a cool, empowering experience for us and our employees,” Baratta said. “One of our managers, John Eshleman — who was a music and math major then a programmer before falling for car washing — was the one who found the new buff-and-dry material then coordinated the ordering and installation from the Netherlands. He’s super stoked and we’re proud of him.”

Baratta and Williams hope to inspire potential and fellow car wash owners while enlightening and motivating others about the journey to opening a car wash — one that not only becomes a valuable investment, but one that the community values.

Their ideas are not just for the purpose of making more money. They are guided by their moral compasses, the desire to be better community partners, their eternal push to provide a better experience for their customers and the need to be more sustainable Earth protectors.

“I worked for a lot of boring men before I met Emilie, and all they cared about was money,” Williams said. After spending 20 years building custom construction projects, including the building of Gleam, he decided to join Baratta as a partner when she presented the idea after he finished the build. His connection to every piece of the wash and every innovative customization is apparent, from the wheel blaster he lovingly calls his Frankenstein pendulum to their water reclaim system that filters and reuses 90% of the water used to clean a car. Just about any equipment or building concept that is presented, Williams has ideas for how to make it work.

It is one of the things he likes most about being in the industry. “The tinkering and teaching are my favorite parts,” Williams said.

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PASSIONATE ABOUT BEING BETTER PEOPLE

Many of the ideas incorporated at Gleam exist because of this tinkering, but also because Baratta is an expert at researching and a natural when it comes to figuring out the limits and the potentials of both money and people. So many of the ideas they try have had resounding success when put to trial, with just a few exceptions. Plus, since she is passionate about making the right choices and doing right by her employees and her community, some of these ideas are not just successes for the car wash, they are beneficial for the community.

This passion is one of the reasons she started up conversations with Children’s Hospital Colorado and its Project Search program, a school-to-work program run

for individuals with intellectual and/or developmental disabilities (IDD). In the summer of 2021, Gleam held its biggest fundraiser ever and raised $15,000 for the program. Plus, they hired five graduates of the program, two of whom are still working at Gleam.

“It’s been really great watching them grow and be really involved with their jobs,” Williams said. “We have met some special characters along the way. The ones that stick with us, we’re very proud about.”

Miguel Hernandez-Gomez is one of those graduates and is now a stacker at Gleam and part of the cleaning choreography team as he is responsible for folding towels and drying cars. “I like making people smile, cleaning cars, talking to people and helping them,” Hernandez-Gomez said. “I make people happy.”

His luck in finding a job that is perfectly suited to his abilities that also makes him happy is not entirely due to luck, though. “Learning people’s unique abilities and putting them in positions where they are going to thrive with their personal abilities is what has led to us having a such strong team,” said Matt Weston, general manager. “You can’t try to fit everyone into the unique box you create. It is more important to bring people in and identify their unique abilities and build things around them that suit them and will also help you.”

Francisca Vasquez has experienced this first-hand over the past year since she was hired. As it was her first job, she didn’t know what to expect but said she has learned so much. “There are a lot of things you can do here and a lot of things you can learn,” Vasquez said. She is especially grateful to Baratta. “She is a really good teacher and has helped me a lot. It is interesting how she runs her business and she teaches everyone. I really am inspired by her.” She even went as far as to say that Baratta’s guidance is one of the reasons she plans on staying there.

Dominique Pinedo said she is learning a lot of management skills and people skills as a manager at Gleam. “Managing conflict among employees and with clients has been a good skill to learn,” Pinedo said. “It is a very unpredictable job and every day is different.”

Baratta knows the happiness of the employees is also linked to their ability to grow at the company and make more money, which is why both topics are given high priority at Gleam. In the breakroom, posted right there next to the table, is an employee journey map also referred to as a progression program that outlines what each position pays and how to move up — from being a stacker to managing different aspects of the wash.

“Being that we are so diverse in the way we do business… it leaves a lot of room for people to learn so many things when they work here,” Weston said. “When we bring people in, we explain to them that, yes, we are a car wash, but there is so much more happening here. There is a lot of room for opportunity and growth.”

And this progression is a reality for staff, if they have dedication and an interest. One of the detailers, Reina Diaz, said the progression program — and the opportunities it clearly spells out — is one of the reasons she stays at Gleam. It is a feasible and visual reality, as current employees are proof of the process and how it works. “Almost all of our managers have started as entry level bay staff,” Weston said.

Austin Pierceall is one of those managers. He started off cleaning cars a couple of years ago, but is now a bay manager — and pretty happy about it. “It is a good place to work and I am proud to work here. That’s a cool feeling. I’ve never had that feeling at a job before,” Pierceall said. “Emilie takes care of us. She will always hear us out, she treats us with respect and gives us the benefit of the doubt.”

Also, as one of Baratta’s priorities for her employees is increasing their ability to make more money, the increase in responsibilities also means an increase in pay. It is also one of the reasons Baratta approved an idea one of the employees suggested about a year ago: offering the option to tip when paying at the kiosk.

“It basically doubled the tip amounts that we would get every day for the employees,” Pierceall said. “It has made a huge difference in everyone’s attitudes. It brought everyone’s morale up like crazy.”

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A WIN FOR MOTHER EARTH

Sustainability is a priority in just about every decision made at Gleam, from the types of products sold in the lounge and store to the slope of the roof.

“I’ve always been an environmentalist,” Baratta said. “It is a personal core value for me. So when it came to creating a business, there is no way it wasn’t going to be a super green business.”

For example, the wood slats on the accent wall in the lounge area are not the typical slats of pine purchased at a big box retailer. They are what the locals call beetle kill. Remember the mountain pine beetles that swept through 3.3 million acres in Colorado, destroying countless trees? The pine on Gleam’s walls was harvested from the affected trees. “Eli agreed to install this wall for me as a way of reminding us all of sustainability concerns and how we are trying to address some of these issues,” Baratta said.

Also, they opted for a modular building with as many green features as possible, from LED lights to solar power. The roof pitch was even optimized to be terrific for solar, Baratta said, and it is outperforming its projections because of where it is. They also have an electric car charging station so EVs can be charged while they are being detailed. They even found a sustainable concrete option — a solar-heat collecting concrete — though had to shelve that idea, for now, as mass production isn’t quite there yet.

They wanted the lobby area to speak to their values, too, Baratta said, so almost everything in the lobby is locally sourced and a lot of the items are made by women-owned businesses. “These are all little businesses trying to make money and they are cool,” Baratta said. “We want people who come in here to feel comfortable in the space, to know some of the creativity that is happening in their local community and feel like that they, too, are supporting it by being here at Gleam, by buying a card, by buying a candle.”

They also pay a lot of attention to their waste stream and compost and recycle. People can even recycle their batteries at Gleam, as there is small electronics recycling hub.

On the car wash operations side, they installed a reclaim system to help keep water usage down. “We put in the largest water reclamation plant that we could and we maintain it,” Baratta said. “We reclaim 90% of our water and use less than 15 gallons to wash each car,” facts that they proudly display on the lobby walls.

“We are probably one of the greenest car washes in the country, if not the greenest. That is a point of pride,” Baratta said.

NEXT STEPS

The plus about having built one car wash from scratch is that if you want to build another, you have a good idea about some of the things that might present a challenge. “It was always a good idea to have another car wash,” Williams said. “Plus, now we’ve learned how to hire better and communicate better, which has given us more confidence to expand. Now we feel like we know what we’re doing.”

From understanding the importance of having two “doors to nowhere” so your address falls on a specific road, to figuring out how to seal the monstrous circular windows that provide a view of the tunnel, to knowing how to circumvent strange LED signage permitting rules that apply to right-of-way visibility, Baratta and Williams have learned a lot. They’ve learned a thing or two about working with architects, too, and can even laugh at some of the decisions made with the build of Gleam, such as the shape of the tower sign in front of the wash. “It was supposed to look like a towel being wrung, but nobody connects the dots,” Baratta said. Or the lack of lights in the towel-tower. “We should have had it lit!”

But, all of what they’ve learned over the past six years and the success they’ve had at Gleam still didn’t mean getting the funding for a new site was easy. Difficulty in getting banks on board for funding was a challenge Baratta had gone through before, though, so she was prepared for the obstacles she knew would inevitably come.

With the funding secured, Gleam 2 is under construction in Aurora and is scheduled to open in 2023. It will be a hybrid model, combining a 140-foot express tunnel wash, 29 vacuum drops and a full detail shop. And, based on Williams’ and Baratta’s tenacity in making the world — and their wash — a better place, you can bet on it being one of the most innovative washes to open this year.

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