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Cleaning up in Inglewood

Times Staff Writer

In other parts of the nation, a carwash could probably get by offering a few specials, weak vending-machine coffee and assorted pine tree air fresheners.

Not in California.

Here, customers may drive as far for a wash and wax as they do for work, and competitors offer amenities such as free Wi-Fi, gourmet coffee, pet accessories, aromatherapy supplies, fish ponds and high-definition television, entrepreneur Kami Emein said.

“Here, it seems like everybody loves their car. It’s like a hobby for them, and they bring a lot of personal feeling into it,” said Emein, a small-business owner who has made a living buying, upgrading and selling more than two dozen carwashes throughout Southern California.

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Now, Emein has decided his flagship is a run-down carwash that he spent $3.5 million on four years ago in a challenging section of Inglewood.

Century Car Wash occupies the northern face of the 4700 block of West Century Boulevard. It’s in an area of run-down storefronts and adult video outlets.

At first, the carwash received the standard, light remodeling job costing a few thousand dollars. But Emein had a vision in which the revitalization of Century Boulevard would finally reach his business. Inglewood city officials want to lure Los Angeles International Airport travelers to new shops and restaurants in an area that has grown west toward the airport, so far reaching Crenshaw Boulevard.

In preparation for that day, Emein has showered $475,000 on the carwash, transforming it into a neighborhood oasis that has lured car owners from as far away as Gardena. And business has accelerated.

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“I want to be prepared to represent Los Angeles to the world,” Emein said on a recent weekday morning.

Inside the carwash, away from the soaping, customers can browse through Giorgio Ferraro designer suits and Boncenni dress shirts, test their skills on a Pac-Man video game machine or relax in $900 massage chairs. A humidor holds a selection of Arturo Fuente and Macanudo cigars. Neighborhood teens inspect rows of fake bling jewelry and wristwatches.

Some customers don’t even bring cars.

“It’s just a good place to kick back,” said Lydia Price, who sat sipping coffee and smoking a cigarette, describing herself as a nearby resident who enjoys car watching.

Nearby, an espresso machine was kept constantly busy.

“They have really good cappuccinos here,” said Saroeung Donelson, a limousine driver for Inglewood Cemetery Mortuary.

“I like how they have renovated the place,” said Lawrence Thomas, a colleague of Donelson. “They have a great snack bar and the video system is great.”

Refrigerated cases hold a selection of spring waters, soft drinks and energy drinks. T-shirts and greeting cards line other sections.

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With a row of tall metal columns decorating the front, the business stands out among drab neighbors and draws customers who aren’t even thinking about getting their car washed.

Rhonda Trostad, a flight attendant for Alaska Airlines, had some time to kill on her way to pick up her daughter at the airport. After 10 minutes at Century Car Wash, she had bought hot chocolate and some greeting cards and had a clean car.

“It’s very nice. I would come back again,” Trostad said.

The facility is sprawling by most carwash standards, covering 35,000 square feet with eight lanes for the initial vacuum and trash collection.

The wash tunnel is wide, clean and lined with video cameras, the latter having a purpose that Emein learned the hard way: The only time drivers always check every inch of their vehicles is right after they have been washed and waxed, he said. That simple fact has led to multiple visits to small-claims court.

“By the time they pick up the car, it’s so clean that every little scratch and bump is visible and the customer actually believes that because he is seeing it for the first time, it had to have happened at my carwash,” said Emein, who has experienced it so many times that he now has a routine.

It begins with “walking the pattern,” showing the customer the clearances that separate the car from the potentially damaging equipment it passes as it rolls through the wash tunnel.

Emein says he has learned to keep everything. The south wall of his cramped office is lined with old filing cabinets. If the walk-throughs don’t work, he pulls out reams of paperwork -- called material data safety sheets -- on all the products he uses.

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“We do not use off-brand products. We have invoices for every single item and we have MDSSs on everything. Sometimes they take us to court and we present it to the judge,” Emein said.

His accusers sometimes become his most loyal customers, Emein said.

“Rich or poor, people are all the same. They want attention. They want respect. Give them time and explain,” he said. “The same angry customers will come back with trust.”

Very little has come easily to Emein, who readily admits that he became a small-business owner without any expertise in running a company.

Emein’s father was a pharmaceutical salesman in Tehran in 1988 when Emein came to the U.S. at age 21 with two brothers and a sister.

Working as a bank loan officer with limited credit and resources, Emein had no serious interest in the types of businesses he began to acquire.

“We had little money, so we needed a business with cash flow. It’s about what you can buy,” he said in explaining why he started with liquor stores, the first in Torrance in 1989.

The strategy was simple: Buy low and sell high.

Emein said he acquired the first store for $200,000 and sold it two years later for $250,000, then bought two more liquor stores in Santa Monica for $500,000 and $180,000, respectively, later selling them for $650,000 and $330,000.

Emein said he first got rid of the stores’ “get-drunk wines,” familiarized himself with California vintages through visits to Sonoma and Napa counties and piggybacked off some very good years for California reds to change and build the stores’ clientele.

“That is how you create money. That is how you create the next down payment and buy bigger and better,” Emein said.

But those successes also included legal battles. Emein said he agreed to buy one former owner’s stock of beverages, then found out he had made a huge mistake. “There were a lot of old jug wines. Some of the labels were partially missing. There were whiskies that no one had ever heard of. It was very scary,” Emein said.

When the seller tried to hold him to the obligation to buy the stock, Emein said, he was able to knock $40,000 off the price in court.

The switch to carwashes, which began with Lancaster Car Wash in 1994, was equally rocky. Emein remembers a legal battle over a simple order for a $900 pipe-cleaning machine that turned into a nightmare when an employee wrote down the wrong equipment number on a form and the vendor delivered a machine that cost $3,000.

Emein said much of that was behind him now.

He said his Century Car Wash had cleaned as many as 10,000 vehicles in a month, compared with about 5,400 a month before the renovation. And he hopes for more, once Century Boulevard’s revitalization reaches his block.

On a recent day, he worked the rows of customers, both new and old, like a politician three days before election day, drawing out smiles, laughter and arm-wrenching handshakes.

“The risks are lower for me now,” Emein said, “because I know what I am doing.”

ron.white@latimes.com


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