Egan: Tops Car Wash sold, family ends 50-year race

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“I’m completely at peace with the decision, if that makes sense. I think it’s the right decision for us.”

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We are tucked away in a quiet, shady corner of Tops Car Wash, a landmark on Richmond Road, getting nostalgic on a glorious September morning.

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Owner Keith Henry, 56, leans on his gray F-150 – which unsurprisingly is very, very clean – talks about locking the doors for the last time.

Since October 1971 a certain Keith Henry – first the father, now 91, then the only son – has operated the full-service car wash on this old stretch of road just west of Woodroffe . But on Monday, after 50 years, the sale was closed, giving ownership to the car dealership next door.

“I guess it’s bittersweet,” Henry said Monday. “I’m completely at peace with the decision, if that makes sense. I think this is the right decision for us.

Vik Dilawri of Ottawa Honda buys the car wash and intends to keep it in business, with the same managers. But, given that Dilawri also owns the Tim Horton land to the west and that a LRT (New Orchard) stop is under construction a short walk away, it’s easy to assume that a redevelopment will eventually take place. .

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“It’s probably the best-known car wash in Ottawa,” said Dilawri. “As for the near future, we want to exploit it as is. Keith and his family did a great job.

Keith Jr. has been running things for over 30 years. Not only are there a lot of seasonal ups and downs in car washing, the pandemic has hit the business for 18 months and the whole pattern of the industry appears to be changing. There is also no family member in the succession wings.

So the timing froze.

The good news for employees (around thirty at most) is that they will keep their jobs. But the sad news is that another local business landmark, owned and operated by a family, may be on shaky ground.

“My dad thought if this place was open, one of us had to be here,” said Keith, who started at Tops as a teenager.

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(Ottawa alumni will recall the original company’s first sign – opened in 1967 – featuring some sort of Planters peanut figurine, perched on a globe and tilting a top hat. It was a picture. of the “top of the world” which confused many.)

Over the years there have been many improvements, of course, and now optical sensors and computers have turned mechanical washing into a high-tech marvel – the device actually “measures” every vehicle – although it still does. with a touch of the old style.

Because occupants exit vehicles, many children have followed a parent’s car from a glassed-in hallway as it weaves its way through magical arches of water, soap, and rotating brushes, pulled along of a track – a Willy Wonka yard, with moss.

Ups have found a niche among those willing to pay extra to hand dry their vehicles and vacuum and clean the interior. Today it has four exit bays where workers rush through door openings with powerful hanging vacuums, working at breakneck speed.

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In the old days, they could make 600 or more cars a day. Now it could be 300. One of the main differences? The interiors of vehicles take much longer to clean, with their cup holders and consoles, giant screens, door pockets and very thin carpets.

A more recent trend in the industry, explained Henry, is for mechanical washing and then providing a fitted bay where the owner does the interior himself. But it takes acres of space, not a luxury Tops appreciates, not a model they’ve chased.

Winters can be good (salt), but winters can be bad (snow). People generally do not wash in bad weather.

“And you know what’s really weird?” People don’t wash their cars after dark, ”said Henry, pointing to one of the many quirks of the trade. (They therefore close at 5 p.m.)

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There is a psychology, of course, attached to washing your car. “The main reason people say in the polls is that it makes them feel better,” Henry said. “It has nothing to do with the car.”

Keith Henry, who has been in the business long enough to know it, says a lot of people wash their cars because it makes them feel better.
Keith Henry, who has been in the business long enough to know it, says a lot of people wash their cars because it makes them feel better. Photo by Ashley Fraser /Postmedia

COVID-19 has complicated matters. There were periods in the early months of the COVID-19 pandemic when the operation was completely shut down. The interior hallway and waiting area are now closed, with customers walking around the building and waiting outside.

And the staff was a problem. Like many small businesses, some workers dispersed when the pandemic struck.

Her dad loved chatting with customers, Keith said. “The old ladies just loved him,” and the interior of the store might resemble an old-fashioned barber shop or post office, where local gossip was exchanged.

It was then. “The last two years have been very strange. The messy truth right there – wash it, polish it, hang it on the wall.

To contact Kelly Egan, please dial 613-291-6265 or email [email protected]

Twitter.com/kellyegancolumn

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