Autobell: When the pandemic hit, it rolled out a disinfecting fog

The following article appeared in the Oct. 23, 2020, edition of The Charlotte Ledger. Sign up for free to have original business-y news about Charlotte delivered to your inbox:

Charlotte-based Autobell Car Wash operates 87 car washes across five states along the east coast, including 14 in the Charlotte area. During the pandemic, some locations were able to stay open while others were forced to temporarily close due to local restrictions. (Photo courtesy of Auto Bell Car Wash)

by David Griffith

Beloved Business is an occasional Ledger series checking in with some of the Charlotte area’s best-known local companies.

In the fall of 2019, Autobell Car Wash began testing an experimental chemical mixture where a liquidized compound could be sprayed into a car as a fog to clean and disinfect the interior.

As luck would have it, this patented “interior disinfectant service” would become incredibly useful when a pandemic worked its way across the country a few months later.

“(We) didn’t know about the timing to release such a service, so we kind of held back on it,” said Autobell Chief Operating Officer Carl Howard. “When the pandemic hit, fortunately for us, we had tested it, we knew how to do it, so we quickly acquired as much quantity of the product as we could.”

There is no single product combination the company uses, but each one has an Environmental Protection Agency-registered number. All it takes is 72 seconds to kill all viruses and bacteria in the car. This allows a sanitized team to then enter the interior of the car and properly clean it, without fear of catching or spreading a disease like coronavirus.

Autobell was founded in Charlotte in 1969 by the late Charles Howard. Charles’ son Chuck Howard assumed ownership and the CEO position in 1986, and Chuck’s son Carl is now COO. The company has 87 locations across five states along the East Coast, including 14 in the Charlotte area.

Each car wash has been affected differently by the pandemic because each state and county has experienced and responded to the pandemic differently. That presented the biggest challenge this summer for the Autobell executive team.

They had to stay on top of changing rules in many different places. For instance, the Charlotte locations were able to stay open because they were considered a cleaning business, while Maryland completely closed all car washes for 60 days.

“It’s not a one size fits all,” said Howard. “It really just depends on the (state) orders.”

Volumes and sales saw a steep drop in April, and even when open, car washes were not a top priority for a largely sheltered-in-place population. Since then, business has continued to climb toward pre-pandemic levels. In September, revenue was about 10% lower than where it was before the pandemic.

Autobell managed to keep most of its materials and products in stock. One struggle was finding towels, as they were unable to source them locally and had to rely on textile shipments from the India-Pakistan-China area.

The company retained most of its employees but had to furlough those who worked in areas where car washes had to close. Most of those employees were rehired when the locations were allowed to reopen. New hires were down slightly because of reduced volume.

Howard described Charlotte as one of the easier cities to manage during the pandemic, because the Covid ordinances that closed businesses were less restrictive than some other areas.

“If we were just in Charlotte, it would have been a lot easier, I can tell you that,” he said.

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Executive editorTony MeciaManaging editorCristina BollingContributing editor: Tim Whitmire, CXN AdvisoryReporting intern: David Griffith