Family-owned Bubble Bath Car Wash chain expands to wash San Antonio’s growing number of autos

Photo of Richard Webner

On an average day, dozens of people move to San Antonio — and once they finish the drive they might realize their car needs a wash.

The Lopez family has captured a slice of this growing market by expanding its Bubble Bath Car Wash chain from one self-serve station upon its founding in 2005 to six tunnel-wash locations across the city today. The newest opened last month on Culebra Road, on the far West Side. A seventh is set to open next year on Guilbeau Road, on the Northwest Side.

Competing with national chains such as Zips and GO Car Wash, Bubble Bath emphasizes its local credentials through its social media accounts, touting partnerships with The DoSeum and K9s for Warriors charity group. In August, the company asked its Instagram followers to film themselves eating breakfast tacos while getting their cars washed in a competition for a $100 gift card.

“The truth is that outside corporations, with these giant bureaucracies, will never be able to do as much as we can. We can always pivot faster, we can always do more for our community,” said Nick Lopez, the company’s president. “When our community spends here, we spend back in the community.”

Cars exit a Bubble Baath Car Wash, a fast-growing chain headquartered in San Antonio.

Cars exit a Bubble Baath Car Wash, a fast-growing chain headquartered in San Antonio.

Robin Jerstad / Robin Jerstad

He leads the company with his father, Larry Lopez, the CEO. Larry worked as a dentist until two neck surgeries forced him to leave the profession. After a friend found success as the operator of a car wash, he and Nick’s mother, Rose Mary, opened the first Bubble Bath location on Bandera Road outside Loop 1604. She now leads the company’s human resources operation.

Nick joined the business upon graduating from college in 2008. The chain now has 63 employees, but it remains a family affair, with Nick’s wife drawing artwork and his daughters helping to sing a jingle in the commercial.

Nick and Larry Lopez recently sat for an interview to discuss the labor market, the minimum wage and the “constant battle” of small-business ownership. The following has been edited for brevity and clarity.

Q: What do you like about the car wash business?

Nick: I did not grow up wanting to wash cars for a living. Actually, I got my degree in psychology. But getting to grow in a business that requires you to be an expert on 12, 15 different things all at once — it gives me something to run with. There’s always something around the corner, there are always new goals to hit. There’s always new ways that we can reach our staff and reach the community.

Just this year, we gave our entire staff a 30 percent raise. We moved up to a starting pay of $15 an hour, took our managers up to career-level salaries. And the response has been tremendous. Getting to see guys who went from just trying to make it to buying their first house, buying their first car, getting loans out at the bank because they now have that ability, it’s something that’s just incredibly rewarding. More rewarding than a shiny car.

Nick Lopez, president of Bubble Bath Car Wash and founder Larry Lopez are the owners/executives of the fast-growing car-wash chain.

Nick Lopez, president of Bubble Bath Car Wash and founder Larry Lopez are the owners/executives of the fast-growing car-wash chain.

Robin Jerstad /Robin Jerstad

Q: What kinds of things do you have to be an expert in?

Nick: HR, electrical, plumbing and mechanical. Psychology, sociology, marketing, branding, advertising — it is all over the place. We’ve got to be our own lawyers, our own attorneys, we’ve got to be our own advocates at the city so that we can get permitting done. It is a constant battle for small businessmen. There are no easy streets, there is no easy, paved way.

Q: Larry, you came from a background of dentistry. How did you learn to run a small business?

Larry: You know, dentistry requires a very astute attention to detail. We’re working with micrometers, you know. But my undergraduate degree was chemistry. So dealing with the soaps and waxes and all these things was an easy thing to understand. We had help from the University of Texas Small Business Development Center. They helped us in the beginning.

Q: They provided you with advice?

Nick: HR consulting, how to deal with unemployment, bank lien, bank notes, how to get through bank processing. I went to Sonny’s CarWash College, learned how to maintain and repair a lot of our equipment. And then we built a network of experts and people we know who give us advice and help us on a constant basis. I’ve become a lover of George Bush, a guy who knew he wasn’t smart enough to do it all but had enough friends and enough people that could give him advice to get the job done.

Q: What led you to give your employees the 30 percent raise?

Nick: Truthfully, we’ve always had a belief in being on the upper side of the pay scale. Before that, we were actually at $12 an hour. As we watched the rest of the city kind of move up their pay scale, we felt it was time to go at the same rate, but we wanted to do better. So we went above and beyond Chick-fil-A, went above and beyond McDonald’s and what everybody else is offering, to say, “You know what, fine. If Bernie (Sanders) was screaming for 15, I’ll do 15.” And we’re going to be able to give these people 100 percent health care, 100 percent dental, 401(k). We’re going to lean into taking care of our folks.

Nick Lopez, president of Bubble Bath Car Wash and founder Larry Lopez are the owners/executives of the fast-growing car-wash chain.

Nick Lopez, president of Bubble Bath Car Wash and founder Larry Lopez are the owners/executives of the fast-growing car-wash chain.

Robin Jerstad /Robin Jerstad

They took care of us through all of the pandemic — we never shut down. My staff worked through through it all. Through our own COVID exposures here on-site, we had to deal with that. But we were fortunate enough to be able to provide a safe enough and exposure-free enough experience that we were allowed to continue washing. And they held us together. We actually grew 20 percent through 2020, and we’ve grown again through this year.

Larry: We’ve always had a sensitivity about the minimum wage. It’s way too low and it’s been that way for so long that nobody can live on that. That’s why we were paying 12, but when the discussion, nationally, started about 15, we agreed. It’s where it ought to be.

Q: You mentioned you had COVID exposures?

Nick: We actually never had an exposure on-site. Nobody got COVID from here. It was always, “Hey, I was exposed at home, I need to stay.” So we would lose people for weeks at a time. Some people that we employ have other family members that also work for us, so we would lose two and three people at a time, which is really tough. We do run a tight operation. We don’t have a ton of overhead when it comes to our staff. They all work a lot of hours, so when we lose one person it’s a lot for us.

Q: There’s a lot of talk about a tight job market. Are you having trouble finding employees?

Larry: Not when you pay $15 an hour.

Nick: We have a director of sales and training now, we pay really well, we have a full training program. We’ve found that when you combine a reasonable wage rate with good training and great culture, you don’t have employee problems. I’ve got 30 applications on a desk. We don’t have any fear about that. I’ve tried to continue to encourage other small-business owners who who find this to be a big issue: “Guys, you’re going to have to pay a little bit more. There are better options out there now.”

Q: Driving down Culebra, I saw a couple other car wash places. Is it a competitive business?

Nick: It didn’t use to be.

Larry: What’s happening in San Antonio is outsiders are coming in and buying up or building car washes. For instance, GO Car Wash is owned by a Toronto, Canada-based private equity company. Watershed is owned by some people from Phoenix, Ariz.

We were born and raised here. This is our home. So, yeah, we’re getting challenges from outside, but we feel like we give better service and that we produce a better-looking car than these people because we spend so much time on detail.

Q: Tell me about your water reclamation system.

Nick: Every one of our car wash systems employs a reclaimed water system that reuses about 70 percent of our water — pulls it out, cleans it, bleaches it with peroxide. It’s a tanking system — as the water moves from tank to tank, it leaves sediment out, so by the time you’re into the third tank, you’re getting much clearer water.

So all of the water that’s being sprayed again to clean the cars is actually water that we recycled, reused. And that reduces our freshwater usage per vehicle to anywhere between 18 and 22 gallons, depending on which car wash we’re at.

We also have solar panels on three of our car washes. We use biodegradable chemicals and soaps so that nothing we’re doing is harmful to the environment. Because we use water reclamation services we can operate into high-level droughts. So when you can’t wash your car in your driveway, you can still wash it at Bubble Bath.

Q: I noticed that you offer monthly packages in which customers receive unlimited washes for a flat rate. Are those popular?

Nick: Extremely.

Q: San Antonio has a car culture, right? Do you think that’s part of it?

Nick: The whole South has a car culture. You’re also talking about a city that doesn’t keep its cars clean. You can’t just leave your car outside and it will stay clean for even three days. If you park your vehicle outside, it gets dirty: pollen, mud, rain, dirt, whatever it is, stuff is in the air here. It’s this kind of place that even for safety reasons, you have to wash your vehicle on a pretty regular basis.

Q: Any ideas of expanding beyond San Antonio?

Nick: Sure. You know, for us branding and marketing and our city specifically keeps us very local. But as opportunities grow, so will we.

Larry: We’d like to stay within driving distance.

Nick: I make it a point to make sure that I’m at our washes five days a week so that people can find me — my staff, our customers, whatever it is. The farther we go out, bigger we grow, we don’t want to lose that. It’s what makes us special.