Owner Kevin Jenkins at prayer wall

For 44 years, Gulfton’s Dr Gleem Car Wash and Lube Center, 5803  Bellaire Blvd., has delivered cleansing waters, tropical waxes and high-tech coatings to a multitude of Houston vehicles in need of a wash.

In more recent decades at the Gulfton location – and at the three other  Dr Gleem sites in Houston – cleansing of the soul is also offered in the form of free Bibles, weekly scripture study and a brief high noon pause in activities for everyone to join in the Lord’s Prayer, broadcast in Spanish and English.

While waiting for cars to be washed under Dr. Gleem’s palm-shaded deck and spacious reception area, customers also can order lunch from a taqueria, visit a hair salon or place written requests on a limestone prayer wall – prayers that will be addressed, if not answered — by  participating local pastors.

Gulfton’s large Hispanic community is also served with by the location’s frozen dessert offerings that include ‘choco (chocolate-covered) bananas’,  ‘Topo Chico Preparados’, ‘Michelagua con fruta’ and Bolis Rompope, tropical ice cream sticks.

The taqueria has expanded its offerings from Tex/Mex selections to  Philly Cheese Steak sandwiches and Chicken Alfredo plates. Margaritas will be added soon at some locations.

“Some people come here to order food to go and some come for the Bible study,” said Leopoldo ‘Herb’ Alcaraz, 72, a manager and 40-year  veteran with Dr Gleem.

Alcaraz, a native of Jalisco, Mexico, and Mexico City-born Edgar Garcia, a 20-year employee, jointly manage the operation on  Bellaire Blvd.

Despite the industry trend toward automated express car washes, Dr  Gleem has prospered over the years with employee-intensive, full service, soft-cloth operations. They offer an array of wash, wax, interior  vacuuming and shampooing, detailing and exterior coating packages that range in price from $24.99 for the Gleem Supreme Wash to a graphene ceramic coating finish priced at $1,300 for cars and $1,600 for trucks —  and there is a host of personalized car care packages in between.

The company also offers a customer satisfaction promise that goes beyond the standard raincheck re-wash.

“If someone says we missed this or we missed that, we give our customers not just a raincheck but what we call a warranty wash,” said Garcia. “If we miss anything, the customers have five days to come  back.”

Added Alcaraz: “If you leave here and run into a pool of muddy water,  you can turn around, come back and get it washed again.”

All of the Dr Gleem locations in Houston reflect the entrepreneurial strategy and Christian evangelical philosophy of owner and operator Kevin Jenkins. He oversees the chain from a wall of video screens at the  Oak Forest/Garden Oaks location at 3103 Ella Blvd.

The business was founded in Houston by Jenkins’ father, a native of Chicago. The elder Jenkins first came to Houston during his career as a financial officer for Continental Can Company.

After leaving American Can, he joined a Houston bank as a loan officer. Later, out on his own, he was motivated to acquire businesses and exhibited a talent for finding struggling carwash properties and turning them into success stories.

Beginning in the late 1960s, he bought, sold, flipped, financed and restarted as many as 10 car washes in the Houston area.

The family’s only car wash built from the ground up happened in 1972 after the senior Jenkins kept seeing a Minnie Pearl Fried Chicken franchise sitting vacant on Kirby when he commuted to work. It was on a spacious lot and had a building off to the side.

“One day he went there in his big Plymouth and made the turn around the building,” his son recalled. “He said, ‘If I can make this turn with this  big car, I am going to build a car wash here.’ He made the turn and that  car wash basically paid for all of us because it was so successful.”

The Gulfton location was built in 1968 and operated under the name ‘Mr. Gleem’ with a genie in the logo. The Jenkins family acquired it along with an Ella Road location in 1979, changing the name to ‘Dr Gleem’ and changing the logo to a monkey holding a banana – the signature fruit that provides the oil base for waxes used at car washes.

The elder Jenkins died in 2022 at age 95.

Manager Edgar Garcia

The founder’s son began working at the car washes during spring breaks, Christmas holidays and after school while attending Bellaire High School. The business would become his lifelong pursuit.

Of his five siblings, two brothers joined him in the business for a period but all of them went on to other careers. “They became geophysicists,  pathologists, engineers and professionals in sports medicine – PhDs here and there, Jenkins said.

“I am the dumbest, let’s get that out there right away,” Jenkins joked.  “Out of six brothers and sisters I would be the only one that loved washing cars.”

Asked who among his siblings has made the most money, Jenkins says  “I don’t know, I don’t count it.”

“Who is the happiest is the real question ,” he added.

Jenkins brought a hands-on approach to the management of the business as well as an instinct for knowing what it takes to run a car wash operation, attract customers and maintain a loyal workforce.

Observing him in the workplace greeting people and giving advice to his staff and customers is like being in the presence of a  motivational speaker.

Incorporating the spiritual message into the workplace came about 20 years ago, Jenkins said. After he got married and was invited by his wife to attend services at her church, he said, he was overwhelmed by the inspiration he found in the Bible.

“I went from, ‘Hey, God, I’ll call you when I need you’ to ‘Tell me what  you want me to do.’ ”

started installing the Bible study sessions at one location and then moved them around to other car washes. Now they are scheduled every Saturday morning at all the sites. Participants in the Bible study receive a free breakfast and a free car wash.

Over the years, the Gulfton location was sold and then re-aquired by Jenkins after a new owner ran into financial difficulty.

In the process of similar transactions, Jenkins said, he has acquired considerable expertise in navigating the ever-changing local real estate market.

He said the family’s transactional approach to the car wash business has spilled over into acquisitions of other properties.

“We have a real  estate company now,” he said. “We are doing a lot of buy and sell,  mostly residential and rental.”

Jenkins said he has helped his employees purchase and finance their homes with “way below market” deals.

Dr Gleem’s loyal workforce has been a  crucial element in the success of full-service locations.

His workers have logged 1,100 years of total experience, with the Gulfton location the leader with 370 years, Jenkins said.

At 62, Jenkins has the trim and fit appearance of someone who works out regularly at a cross-training center, but he says his exercise comes solely from ‘’wiping down cars.”

Retirement is a realistic option in the next few years, but he plans to keep his hand in the car wash business.

“If I retired and a car wash chain popped up for sale, I would buy them but I wouldn’t run them. It would be like flipping a house.  Getting in there, fixing it up and then selling it.”

Jenkins will follow the lessons he learned from his father: “My dad never had to go to a bank for a loan.”

—  by Phil Shook