Operator Spotlight: Royal Car Wash – Albuquerque, New Mexico

Royal Car Wash, built in the early 70s, has a classic New Mexico vibe: turquoise-colored tin walls, on Route 66, and backdropped by the surrounding Sandias Mountains. Pete Kassetas was a state police officer for 26 years, but was always looking for interesting side work. A friend ran a body shop next door to the car wash and encouraged Pete to check it out. Said Pete, “I always loved cars, and always loved washing cars.” It was a perfect match.

royal car wash sign

Buying Royal Car Wash

Pete wasn’t able to purchase the car wash immediately. Bob Peterson, who built the wash with his dad in the early 70s, was aging a bit but not desperate to sell unless it was to the right person. When Pete talked to Bob about buying the property, Bob told him to come work for him for free for a few months to learn the ropes and decide if it was the right fit. Bob was frugal, so he may have been angling for some free labor, but he was also ensuring that Pete was truly dedicated and that the wash would be in good hands. Although a busy lieutenant in the state police force at the time, Pete recognized a great opportunity to get a foot in the car wash industry, and possibly even a chance to buy Bob’s business.

“I impressed Bob. He wasn’t going to sell it to just anybody, because he had built it with his dad when he was a kid and then inherited it. He was able to springboard off of that and do a lot of other things with the money he made.”

The gambit to work for free was successful, and within a couple months Pete and Bob had a lease-to-purchase deal made. Pete owned the car wash outright after three years. Memories are still preserved with pictures of the building of the wash and Bob’s early years in the industry that hang in the equipment room to this day.

Pete Makes Royal His Own

Pete is proud of his time as a police officer, and it was rewarding career that served him well until he eventually retired as chief in 2018. That being said, he pointed out that the day-to-day is much more pleasant running the car wash.

royal car wash owner

“Being a cop for 26 years, the majority of people were unhappy. Here, the majority of people are happy. They want to be here and they want to wash their car.”

Bob’s assistance was a starting point, but Pete had to learn the ins and outs of the car wash operation through experience. He threw himself into it, sometimes running into difficult situations and painful mistakes that cost thousands of dollars, but is better for it.

“I learned quickly that you can make a lot more money by fixing things yourself. Kleen-Rite has their catalog of videos on the website and YouTube. I’ve been able to watch those. It’s free and it’s great!”

Bob was extremely attentive to his bottom line, building and fabricating most of his own equipment himself. He was not keen on relying on a supplier, and was definitely not one to shop on the web. Pete, once he owned the car wash, was more open to using suppliers to outfit the wash, and knew it could ultimately be a boost to the business. He started slowly with some somewhat painstaking ordering early, but eventually found Kleen-Rite. He enjoys using the website for easy shopping.

Community Involvement Has Made a Difference

Pete enthusiastically participates in community fundraising, going so far as to say that it’s helped “put this place on the map.” He allows sports teams, marching bands, and other local groups to use the car wash free of charge for fundraisers. He estimated that he’s helped groups raise somewhere in the vicinity of $50,000 over the years. One of his proudest moments was raising $17,000 for the family of a local police officer killed in the line of duty. He had police recruits and other officers at his car wash to raise money, and the place was hopping. Pizza giant Papa Johns offered a special for that cause, and Pete playfully noted that his small car wash was able to outraise them.

Royal Car Wash Thriving

Pete spoke positively of the self-serve business, saying that people almost seem to treat it like a drive-in movie theater once they find a clean, well-run facility. While he notes that big, fancy tunnels have their place, he still has an excellent customer base for what he offers.

royal car wash customer

Much of his business is from reputation and word of mouth, but he has used social media for some easy marketing. He also noted that when he realized he had hundreds of (mostly positive) reviews on his Google profile, he made sure to add his contact information. Simply adding his preferred phone number has helped people get in touch with him to ask about hours, what vehicles the wash can accommodate, and other correspondence that encourages customers to choose Royal over other Albuquerque car wash options. It’s another situation, not unlike maintenance and repairs, where an eye for detail makes the difference.

Pete’s most recent and important upgrade has been adding CryptoPay, and it’s been a “game changer” to accept credit cards. Future plans include a “reskin” of the wash by removing the old tin walls, as well as a major upgrade to his outdated coin boxes.

Maintaining a Legacy

When we asked Pete what advice he would give somebody thinking about buying and operating a car wash, he said:

“Research not only where you want to buy into, the actual site, but also what it takes to make the site successful. Talk to other car wash owners that are open to giving you information. Talk to as many people in the business as possible, both successful and not successful, because you can learn from both. Have a realistic picture. A lot of it boils down to time and effort on your part – you have to be attentive. We’re here six to ten times a day between me and my dad. Keep it clean, keep it working, then you’ll have happy customers.”

Bob helped Pete with not only a physical foundation, but also a knowledge one too. With that, plus Pete’s very obvious passion and commitment, it’s safe to say that Royal is maintaining a legacy that would make Bob proud.

front of royal car wash

Thanks to Pete and Royal Car wash for letting us visit, take pictures, and have a great conversation!

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