Tunnel of Suds

Ricky Rockets uses its unique car wash to lure in customers.

Tunnel of Suds

November 2022   minute read

By: Keith Reid

Ricky Rockets features its car wash as a top customer traffic driver.

You notice it driving down the road–indeed, you can’t miss it. The multistory glass storefront with a 1950s’ style, iconic display of a boy riding a rocket. Then, there is the long line of dispensers. The multiple foodservice operations are integrated on the property, some inside the c-store and others as tenants in a smaller-scale strip mall on the property. And then there is the car wash ... a tunnel, often conveyor driven, that similarly works to visually draw in the potential customer while providing a core profit center.

“We have this philosophy of being open and bright,” said Nathan Heidner, Ricky Rockets president. “When you come to any of our sites, you’ll see the whole glassed-in front that allows natural sunlight in and visibility into the store and out to the forecourt as well. One of our core ideas is a strong visual appeal showcasing that we offer something different compared to everyone else.”

Ricky Rockets is a family-owned company managed in part by three brothers who assume various areas of responsibility. Nathan’s brother Zachary oversees much of the development and design. His brother Collin shares in the operational oversight.

Nathan Heidner, Ricky Rockets president, with Grayson Grioux, general manager of the Buffalo Grove location, and Colin Heidner.

The original store opened in 2013, and family matriarch Alisa Heidner set the tone for the design. “She really wanted a gas station that was open, welcoming to families and women—a place where everybody could feel comfortable. A place where the customer wanted to come inside,” Heidner said.

The architectural style serves as a core marketing mechanism. The real estate tends to be on high-traffic corners and at traffic lights, and the presentation is designed to create word-of-mouth promotion. Each of the core profit centers can stand on its own and, at the same time, work together to multiply the spend while on site. There is highly visible Ricky Rocket branding on merchandise and private-branded store products like energy drinks.

“The goal is an upbeat, family friendly experience for people everywhere,” Heidner said. “We wanted to create an all-in-one-stop shop for the safety and convenience of our customers. We provide quick and efficient service, with a positive attitude. We hope to exceed all our customers’ expectations with a family-inviting culture.”

The company operates in nine sites, eight in Illinois and one in Texas. An additional two stores are coming online in Illinois by the end of the year and one more in the first quarter of 2023.

THE CAR WASH

It’s hard to rank the profit centers given how thoroughly they are integrated into a cohesive package. However, the car wash operations tend to be a dominant feature of the site and a core draw run in much the same way as an independent car wash.

Part of this involves the use of a tunnel wash and a move toward conveyor systems to minimize the risk of damage to customers’ cars and to better control the wash process.

We wanted to create an all-in-one-stop shop for the safety and convenience of our customers.”

“We really like going the full-tunnel route and having a fairly large tunnel,” said Heidner. “We pride ourselves on delivering clean cars and dry cars. With a shorter tunnel, it almost gets rushed, and the car is not as clean, and especially it’s harder to get the car dry before it leaves the tunnel. Another thing we like is to offer free vacuums.”

A core offering of the car wash program is the monthly pass, with customers typically seeing a return on their investment for the pass in two to three washes.

“Someone can get their car washed regularly—once a day if they would like with our pass program,” Heidner said. “We like to offer a discount at the gas pump for customers without the monthly pass who get a car wash. It energizes more traffic to the wash and the rest of the offers at the site.”

In keeping with the operation’s core goals, significant effort is spent maintaining wash cleanliness and uptime.

The car wash is designed with the maximum use of glass to help present it as an “event” to potential customers.

“We have staff that are there all the time it’s running,” Heidner said. “They’re cleaning it out, making sure it’s looking great and that everything’s functioning properly. And we do preventative maintenance to make sure everything’s running smoothly and the customers are getting what they paid for when they go through that car wash.”

Color, scent and lighting are all part of the wash experience. Glass is used as extensively as possible to help market the wash experience to passersby. As with all company offers, the goal is to provide a high-end experience that’s priced affordably.

“We definitely believe our washes are competitively priced in the market,” said Heidner. “They’re not the $3 washes, but we have a lot more bells and whistles than what others have to offer. And the quality is great as well.”

A tunnel wash is standard for both the customer experience and wash quality, by offering a longer drying cycle, for example.

FUEL AND EVs

On the fueling front, Ricky Rockets carries diesel, the common three grades of gasoline and E85. One location offers racing fuel. The company is branded Shell and Mobil, and the forecourt features more than ample fueling positions. For example, the most recent location offers 24 of the latest DFS Anthem UX large format display dispensers. The company works with Prairie State Energy for its fuel supply. 

All of the new sites feature EV charging stations, and planning is in place to expand the charging footprint as the market dictates. Co-located, large lot fleet fueling that supports Class 8 trucks can be found at some locations.

We really like going the full-tunnel route and having a fairly large tunnel.”

STORE OPERATIONS

Ricky Rockets supports the usual core store profits centers, but every offer receives special design and branding attention. There’s a beer cave, and coffee and dispensed beverages are presented as “oasis” destinations on the floor plan. Foodservice runs from a roller-grill island to a range of meal replacement and QSR offers, often through multiple outlets at each site, which feature either an integrated or separate strip mall capable of housing multiple tenants.

For example, the Buffalo Grove location will feature a Joe’s Doughnuts, and a Jimmy John’s will offer drive-thru service. A new local franchise foodservice offer called Corned Beef Factory will be a tenant. An indoor dining is also provided.

The company offers a range of private-label snack and beverage products, which Heidner notes are competitive with the national brands. It also offers a range of branded merchandise—mascot plushies, shirts and hats. “We have children that get excited with our Ricky Rockets mascot,” he said. “We also have free kids’ rides at almost all of our locations.”

Buffalo Grove store General Manager Grayson Giroux stated that two racks of Ricky Rocket t-shirts sold out within two weeks.

Some locations also feature amusements for adults, such as private gaming rooms. And they offer a range of general merchandise of the type that can be found at a typical travel plaza but with a more curated selection.

Ricky Rockets offers customers free vacuums, part of the car wash operation’s amenities.

The car wash is designed with the maximum use of glass to help present it as an “event” to potential customers.

It almost seems like too much, but Heidner states going over the top creates a synergy that pays off. “A person stops to get gas or a car wash. They come in and get a Jimmy John’s sandwich or their doughnut. Maybe they get some snacks for the road or anything else they may need for that day, because we really do focus on having a plethora of items. Everything plays off each other. And that’s our main focus.” 

Keith Reid

Keith Reid

Keith Reid is editor-in-chief and editorial director of Fuels Market News. He can be reached at [email protected]

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