Robin and Pragna Prema knew next to nothing about running a car wash or gas station when they bought the Speedi Car Wash and Fuel on South Milton in 2011.
It wasn't the first time the couple had jumped in with both feet into a business model they didn't have any experience with. In the last two decades, the couple has owned hotels, a dry cleaning chain, a car lot, a rental car business, a strip mall and a flower shop.
The last might be a sore spot for Pragna.
"Our first business was a flower shop. He knew nothing about flowers," Pragna says with a smile. "He didn't give me flowers for 27 years!"
"Don't tell him that!" he says, reminding her that flowers always die.
But Robin has bought his wife other presents over the years.
This includes the car wash/convenience store/gas station and hot dog drive-thru stand on which the pair spent roughly $3 million.
Pragna remembers the night her husband told her that he had bought the gas station for $1.65 million in March 2011.
She remembers repeatedly asking him where the car wash was, unaware she had been driving past the location for the last two decades without ever noticing it.
"I had no clue it was a car wash and I've been here for 20 years," she remembers.
The venture, with the pair putting in $1.4 million in renovations, was not traditionally financed.
FINANCED BY FRIENDS
Robin said close friends repeatedly helped him finance the project when the banks refused to step in.
"Not a single bank would help me ... Nobody wanted to touch it," he said. "The banks are not lending money, they are really hurting the small businesses."
He had the same problem when he bought the Village Inn a block farther south on Milton with plans to remodel it and lease it to Chipotle and Panda Express.
"I went to every single bank and no bank would lend me money," he remembers.
The pair refused to give up on their vision for the gas station/car wash, even after the project went over budget by $400,000.
The gas station and car wash lost money for the nearly two years the couple owned it, with the car wash regularly breaking down.
"We had a lot of sleepless nights for this project," he remembers.
Almost everything on the property was rebuilt in some way, with Pragna insisting the new building be painted with eye-catching colors to attract passing traffic.
GOING TO THE DOGS
The drive-thru hot dog stand, on the other hand, was an idea of Robin's.
"I come up with some crazy ideas," he said. "Maybe the hot dog (drive-thru) may work, it may not work, but it creates something of value down the road when there is a creative idea."
At just before 10 a.m. on a recent Tuesday, the hot dog stand was closed. The Nathan Hot Dogs they serve were sold out and they were waiting for a delivery to come in.
The pair still has plans for Phase 2, including adding more vacuum cleaners on the site, but they said they will wait until some debt has been paid off.
With the grand opening behind them, Pragna hopes her husband will stop buying her "gifts" every year.
"He told me, every year I am going to buy you a gift," she remembers. "I don't even sign the check."
In 1994, Robin bought the run-down Canyon Inn, which is just next door to the Speedi Car Wash and Fuel.
He still remembers telling her as little as possible.
"I told her, 'Honey, I bought this hotel ... You don't need to know (about the financials or the condition), it is bad,'" he said.
"Six rooms were leaking," he says, only to be interrupted by Pragna.
"It was 13 rooms that were leaking," she said. "He refused to let me go to the property, he knew what my reaction was going to be."
She cried when she finally set foot on the property.
He said his vision of what it could be was more important than its current condition, knowing all along the hotel would need major work.
"It isn't what it looks like now, but what it will would look later ... you have to have vision," Robin said.
Next month, the couple will hold several fundraisers at the car wash, giving half of the proceeds to the American Cancer Society and the two local high schools.
They had plans to hold the first fundraiser yesterday, but postponed it after predictions of heavy snow.
"This is something that we really want to do -- to give back to community," he said.
The pair said they would hold similar fundraisers every quarter, weather permitting.
Joe Ferguson can be reached at 556-2253 or email@example.com.
Speedi Car Wash and Fuel
915 S. Milton Road Flagstaff