Cleanup Crew

Bringing back a childhood journey

by Rosie Wolf Williams

eco_wash0915Aaron Vincelette (right) and David Soons are co-owners of Eco Car Wash & Detail Center, with locations in Plattsburgh, N.Y., Milton, and Williston.

When Aaron Vincelette, the owner of Eco Car Wash & Detail Center in Williston, was a child, he loved going to the car wash. “ It was like a Disney ride — going through the tunnel, seeing the soap run down the glass, hearing the machines,” he says. “ I wanted to share the experience, but enhance it.” That is exactly what he did.

Driving under the ocean-blue, wave-shaped archway to the stop gates at his Eco Car Wash & Detail Center in Williston, one gets the impression of being in line not for a mundane task, but for an experience.

The self-serve menu board displays the options, but a few minutes of hesitation prompts the arrival of an attendant — a guide through the process of choosing car wash or detailing options, assessing a vehicle’s needs, and making sure the payment process is easily maneuvered. Then the tollbooth style gates are lifted for the car to follow the curve of the lane to the wash bay. Here is where the past, present, and future collide.

A man directs the driver toward the narrow track, where the vehicle is put in neutral for the driver to be drawn into a personal mini-episode of the Jetsons — space-age technology mixed with childhood pleasure.

In addition to creating an experience, Vincelette focused on time, value, and price. “We want to make sure that we’re doing the average person’s car and making their car look as new as possible at the end of the day. The more time you can give me, the more quality you get, and the more cost. I manipulate that triangle to meet your needs and expectations.”

The Swanton native didn’t begin his journey as a car wash owner. He joined the Marines on Dec. 7, 1983, after graduating from Missisquoi Valley Union High School. “My dad was a Marine, and I saw how beneficial it was to him,” he says.

He was stationed at Parris Island, S.C.; Camp Lejeune, N.C., and the historic Marine Barracks at 8th and I in Washington, D.C., where he served as a White House Marine for four years. During the Reagan administration, Vincelette was standing in formation when a caterer accidentally knocked over a floral display. The Reagans were expected back in the room with their guests, so Vincelette broke ranks to clean up the mess, returning to attention just in time for the entrance of the President and First Lady. His quick action caught the eye of a few staffers, and as a result, he has been invited to return to the White House to decorate for events — “for the last 20 years,” he says, “everything from a NATO summit dinner to the queen’s visit, the Easter egg roll to congressional picnics and private parties.

While serving for four years in the Reserves, Vincelette earned a bachelor’s degree in printing with a minor in chemistry in 1990 from Rochester Institute of Technology. He returned to the D.C. area, where he worked in advertising for several companies including BET (Black Entertainment Television) and Disney. “I loved working in advertising but I needed a break,” he says. “I was working nonstop.”

He headed home to Vermont, and after buying a farmhouse and 16 acres in Hyde Park, he noticed the growing interest in alpacas and alpaca fiber and decided to try his hand at raising a few. He was working in sales for Verizon and volunteering with Stowe area events.

When shearing time came, and he realized there was no facility available nearby that would allow him to have the alpaca fiber cleaned, prepared, and spun into useable yarn, Vincelette decided to create his own, and, in 2004, opened Vermont Premium Fiber Co. in Johnson, in the historic Johnson Woolen Mills building.

He and his partner, David Soons, whom he met through friends in 2003, outfitted the mill with machinery that allowed them to cater to smaller wool and fiber producers. In just a few years they had eight employees and were faced with the decision to expand the company or sell it. They decided to sell when a Maine company approached them with an offer to buy.

In 2007, Soons and Vincelette were driving home from the White House after helping to decorate for an event. “Aaron looked at me and said, ‘I think we should open a car wash,’” says Soons with a grin. “So we did.”

They bought a car wash building in Milton, leveled and rebuilt it, and opened in February 2008. Their second car wash opened in Plattsburgh, N.Y., in 2011, but an ambitious plan for the Williston location was already underway.

Vincelette wanted a sustainable approach to a business that could have a huge impact on the environment, with a design that would appeal to customers and offer a comfortable workplace for his employees. “The engineering firm was my Lego box,” he quips. “The whole place is functional art.

“I asked for the capabilities — give me the parts and pieces that allow me to design what I want my building to look like. I wanted the archway to represent water and flowing and motion, and it took several rounds of engineering to get that done — the most unbelievable things I had to do,” he says, referring to the hoops he had to navigate due to Act 250 requirements, plus worrying about “snow load, wind, and everything else.” It took an extra four or five months to get it to that point.”

The menu board and automated teller are just beginning to take off in the car wash industry, explains Jeff Arimento, president of New England Car Wash Equipment LLC, whose company serves the Vermont and the New England area. “Aaron is definitely one of the first around here who’s done it. The automated teller handles the transaction; customers slide their credit cards into a machine and choose what they want. In this day and age, people are just much more comfortable with that situation then dealing with a person leaning into the car trying to sell them something.”

The 10,500-square-foot Williston facility opened in 2013. It has a 165-foot wash “tunnel” and 20 employees who work in the car wash and detail bays. Soons manages the Milton facility with one employee, and nine people are employed at the Plattsburgh location.

Vincelette installed a polyacrylic roof that not only offers energy-saving daytime lighting, but also collects snow and rainwater into a 20,000-gallon storage tank. The water is filtered and cleaned of impurities before it is returned and used in the wash bay.

The bright green steel beams that make up the skeleton of the building are constructed from decommissioned American and Canadian battleships — not only a tie-in to the water theme of the business, but also a testament to Vincelette’s dedication to his country and the men who have served.

Vincelette is also dedicated to his team. “ I am trying to provide a facility that provides jobs with livable wages, health care, and 401k benefits. I’m determined to make what I’m doing something that these guys down here, who are working their butts off, who are bending over, who are jamming themselves into the car, who are talking to all these clients, get paid for their value. I want to make sure my clients get value for what they’re paying for. I want to make sure my employees get that same value from me. I expect them to give nothing but the best. They should expect the same from me.”

Outside of work, Vincelette shares a passion for old cars with Soons. He is also a pilot and flies his own amphibious Cessna 185. He and Soons love to camp whenever possible, and they are beekeepers, tending seven hives at their Colchester home.

Kevin Pellon, medical sales consultant in Williston and Vincelette’s friend, says that Vincelette’s true passion is to help others grow, not only in their careers but in their lives as well. “He has realized his drive to make a difference wasn’t in being a corporate number. Starting his own company enables him to enhance and develop younger individuals and give them a chance to grow as people.”

Arimento says that Vincelette can be a role model in the car wash industry as well as in the community. “Aaron doesn’t take [his business] for granted. He wants to have a location to be proud of — nice and clean, with good employees, and a great experience for his customers. It’s refreshing to see that in a car wash operation.”

Vincelette shares a photo of a longtime employee’s tattoo, depicting a caricature of a car wash attendant. “This is the tattoo he put on his leg just last week. He loves his job so much, he did that,” he says.

“What makes me tick is seeing my employees flourish. Seeing their families flourish. Seeing them get a new car. Seeing them buy a house. Seeing them have a kid. That makes me excited for them. That’s what makes me roll. I want to make sure that people fulfill themselves and become who they want to be, whether I’m a stepping-stone or whether I’m the full-time job.” •