update 5/30/2021: now permanently closed
Kensington, Maryland, is a small town just outside the Washington, DC Beltway. It’s best known for antique shops, a lovely older section of graceful old Victorian homes, having the misfortune of being one of the first areas hit by the DC Sniper attacks, and getting a lot of car traffic.
If you’re driving through, as many people do every day, on a particularly busy stretch of Connecticut Avenue you’ll find this:
Car Wash Coffee. Next door to a car wash named Mr. Wash. The building was empty for a while after the restaurant previously located there closed, and whenever I drive by I didn’t know what to make of this odd duck. I’ve talked about it with my good friend Rachel, a long-time Kensington resident, and she confirmed it is indeed a coffee shop and you don’t have to get a car wash to stop in.
We met there the other day so I could see what it was like for myself.
Matty: Alright, so we’re here at Car Wash Coffee. Finally!
M: When I was thinking of coming here, a few things struck me. One, this building feels like it’s a heavy traffic site, so a lot of people drive by, but there’s some serious problems with getting into the lot. If you’re heading north on Connecticut Avenue, you can’t make a left turn. You’ll see it better coming from that direction, but you can’t turn in…
R: Exactly, you have to go all the way up to the shopping plaza, cut through the plaza, and come back.
M: ….and when you’re coming south on Connecticut, you don’t see it…
Together: …until you’ve passed it.
M: Right. And I think that was part of the reason why the previous restaurants here didn’t do so well.
R: So when I moved here 22 years ago, this was a Roy Rogers.
M: I remember!
R: You can see that it’s the shape of a Roy Rogers. And then it was something else…
R: Yes, it was Savannah’s, and…..
R: …..this is me.
M: Okay, so we’ve got your drink. Did he call the drink or your name? [there had been a slight mix-up with three cappuccinos on the bar]
R: He called cappuccino.
M: Even though you had given your name?
R: Yeah, so that’s weird. Also, the first time I came here, I got the pretty designs on the top and never again. This is probably my fourth time here that I’ve got no latte art
M: Well I guess you could say that that may not be a leaf or a heart, but it’s the eye of a hurricane?
R: Definitely…. one way to look at it.
R: So my first thought is that it’s too big, the building’s too big. Look at all those seats at that bar.
M: Yeah, it’s huge. The one thing I was curious to see would be if the place would be empty, and I would say there’s more people here than I thought would be. I think this town needs a hangout place….
M: ….. but it’s a glass half full thing, because it’s a low margin business and with this much real estate you’d have to have it packed for it to work.
M: Oh, there’s my drink.
M: I got an espresso and a macchiato because I wanted to see how they do on an espresso shot. I got to watch the guy work while I was up there. When he was foaming the milk he had way too much in the pitcher and had to pour it out a couple times, didn’t have it at the right angle, so that might explain why we’re not getting latte art. I don’t know if he’s not experienced or not trained well or just having an off day, but let’s see how it tastes.
R: So is that a double espresso? Can I taste it?
R: Mmmm….strong. I don’t ever get espresso, so I don’t have much to compare it to.
M: It didn’t have much of crema, and it’s missing any balance in flavor, just overall strong. The beans are from Vigilante, which is a very good local roaster. I’ve had their coffee before at their own cafe, and this isn’t as quite as good. Let me try the macchiato.
It’s okay, better with the milk taking the edge off that espresso.
R: Takes some of the bitter out, right.
M: Going back to what we were saying about the place, we covered the logistical issues and size of the building. I know your son was not impressed with the décor but I think given what this space was, they’ve done a great job. A lot of the stuff looks to be IKEA, which, you know, good and bad, you wonder if in a commercial setting the chairs and sofas will hold up, but it’s nice. You’ve got a bunch of different areas to sit, it’s cheerful, especially given what it started with. You’ve got a bunch of booths, tables, sofas, bar, one really big communal table. That’s the biggest tv I’ve ever seen, so if you want to come and watch reruns of How I Met Your Mother, you’re in the right place.
R: Yeah, the tv I don’t get. I don’t really understand it, because I’ve never seen anyone watching the tv. It’s huge, and I just don’t understand the purpose of it.
M: You don’t usually see them in coffee shops, because people are usually in and out or having conversations or buried in their laptops. Looking around, I don’t see anybody watching it.
R: It’s a weird choice.
R: So this is about average for when I’ve been here in terms of fullness. That’s why I always feel like it’s too big, because whenever I come here it’s about this many people. I never feel like people have needed to venture over to the bar, though the sofas are always full.
M: It looks to be about 1/3 full.
M: They also have other remnants of when it was a restaurant, the little outside patio that’s covered and…
M: I can’t imagine when the weather is nice that anyone would ever want to use that, just some hardcore smokers only
R: I’ve never seen anybody out there.
R: [My son] Sam thought this place looked like it was in an airport, that’s what he didn’t like about it.
M: I don’t think so. Even the lighting, both the tone of the light and the fixtures are pretty cool. It’s not the full blown industrial aesthetic that’s all the rage in coffee shops but I think they’ve done a pretty good job.
R: Especially in a town that has nothing. We’re comparing this to nothing, in terms of a place to hang out.
M: And over in the Old Town part of Kensington, then you might have problems with it sticking out because it’s not older like the buildings over there, but for where we’re sitting it’s fine.
M: The other question I always have with this place is the branding.
R: You mean the name?
M: The name and the branding. Car Wash Coffee is owned by the family that owns Mr. Wash next door. They have the same logo with the cheerful guy in his little car.
M: I see good and bad in it. The good is that the name is mellifluous, kind of like the character Joe Mayo on Seinfeld, where you always had to say both the first and last name. Car Wash Coffee, it’s got a rhythm to it, it’s got a sound, it sticks. To be honest, if I were them I’d be selling a lot of swag, t-shirts, hats, with the name and that logo.
R: They have mugs over there.
M: OK, they have mugs, but I would have black t-shirts with that logo, the name in big letters, because if you wore that somewhere people would definitely notice it. As for the name, a car wash does not associate itself with good coffee….
R: Suds! It makes me think of soap suds.
M: That’s interesting, I didn’t think of that. It makes me think of a waiting room in a JiffyLube kind of place where you’ve got the worst industrial coffee from a machine dripping into a Styrofoam cup. The other thing, do you think that you’ll only come here when you’re getting your car washed, and you wouldn’t stop in on a crappy day when you wouldn’t want to get your car washed? Is it even going to be open then? It’s kind of a weird connection.
[Editor’s note: it seems they’re not the only ones to try this concept]
R: It’s weird, it’s weird.
M: Kudos to the family for trying to do something that connects to their other business which is right here, but I still can’t make heads or tails of it. I’d love to hear a marketing expert’s thoughts on whether it works or not.
R: I think you’re right, if you’re going to use it, then you really need to own it. Like, go for it, rather than you get in here and it’s not even a thing.
M: Once you’re in the place, that’s right, there’s nothing that makes you think of a car or a car wash. You can see the logo as a faint background on the menu boards and in a small picture on the plastic yogurt cups. None of the decorations are car related, I would have car stuff all over, maybe put one of the big brushes from the car wash up in the ceiling, go nuts. Like you said, really own it.
R: Oh, I’ve had some of the food.
M: Is it good?
R: It’s pastries, I’ve had an almond croissant, and a muffin, and I think we got a cookie one time. It’s medium. It’s not great, doesn’t make you say ‘wow!’ I don’t know where they get it, I don’t think they make it here.
M: Looks like the menu’s just bagels and breakfast sandwiches and whatever’s in the display case. Do you know if they do a lunch menu?
R: They said they’re working on putting together a lunch menu.
M: What are your overall thoughts on the place?
R: When I first saw it, driving past, probably a year ago, I thought it was a joke. It didn’t seem like a real thing, like you’re really going to do that?
M: I would come back. If I lived over here in Kensington, I could definitely see coming, warts and all. The only thing would be there might be times when I wanted something quick, the logistics of getting in and out of this place would cause me to make something at home instead.
R: If you were over at Costco in Wheaton Plaza, you could easily stop here on the way home.
M: Right. But if you had to come north on Connecticut, like from your house…
R: I don’t stop in, I meet people here.
M: Exactly, the stop in would only be worth it if I had the time to drive here like the way Billy from The Family Circus walks across the street.
R: I am going to Costco after this, and it’s inconvenient as hell because I can only turn right, and then I’ve got to turn left at the next light or do a U-turn if I can, it’s bad. Now, you’re in Wheaton or Kensington, this is what you’ve got. I’m thrilled I have it, because otherwise you have Starbucks and Starbucks.
M: The other thing that I think limits this is how do you grow your customer base? People in Kensington might give it a chance. People who drive by are going to be hit or miss. This isn’t the kind of place that someone going by who really likes coffee would expect to find good coffee. I can think of when I went to Denver and was at a place called Corvus, which from the outside looked a bit like a stand-alone suburban restaurant or sports bar, but yet it was the best coffee in town. But here, with cars zooming by, suburban sprawl, you’re not going to expect to find something good given the exterior. Whatever business you put here is going to have the same logistical nightmares to get in and out, so it’s easy to pick nits, but this building’s here so what are you going to do better. I can see the logic behind it.
R: When I walked in the first time I was shocked, because I think it looks kind of crappy from the road. Like you said, it doesn’t look like anything, so when I walked in I said, “Whoa, this is actually nice!” This is a place I could meet people. The sofas are usually taken, so I see a lot of people meeting up here, business meetings and that sort of thing.
M: So overall, you’re happy with it?
R: I’m happy that it’s here. I’ve met people here, I’ve had networking meetings here. For me, not being a coffee aficionado, this is a good cappuccino. I can’t drink Starbucks any more, I’m just done, I just can’t, I’ve had too much good coffee. So I’m glad it’s here, it gives me a place to go other than Starbucks.
M: I’m all in favor of that! I would say just based on one visit, I’m probably overthinking the whole concept and still trying to figure it out, but I would say….
R: I hope it makes it.
M: Yeah, the coffee was more than okay and you’d rather have some option that makes sense than none. If I lived in this town, I’d be happy to come here. So we’ll put it on the roster of approved places.
M: Well thank you so much, Rachel.
R: You’re welcome, Matthew.