Rising Tide Car Wash

Rising Tide Car Wash
2970 N SR-7
Margate, FL 33063 (also, Parkland, FL)
Name of Founder/Owner: John D’Eri and Thomas D’Eri
(754) 307-2197

“two car washes in South Florida (Margate and Parkland) which employ 72 people with disabilities out of a total of 92 workers. Started by a father and brother of a person with autism. Father has been a life-long entrepreneur. In addition, Rising Tide U is an online course which ‘provides road maps for entrepreneurs who wish to start businesses that empower individuals with autism through gainful employment.”

Brief description of business:  Two car washes in chain which washes 500 cars a day, 150,000 a year.  Thomas’ brother and John’s son, Andrew has autism. Andrew was on a waiting list for job training when Thomas and family realized, “he will have no opportunities unless we do something!’  Thomas studied business as an undergraduate and his father is a successful lifelong entrepreneur. Thomas figured, “Either the business will work or I will have a great story to tell when I apply to graduate school!”  

How did it start and grow?

It started with a business plan. They surveyed the area and considered such businesses as a cleaners and a juice shop. They ultimately decided on a car wash. They felt a car wash in South Florida, on a road with many stores, had potential for success as a business. They would then find a way to incorporate people with disabilities in to the businesses. As is noted in the “lessons learned” section below, this systemic, research-based approach is very different from some businesses started by “desperate parents” who felt they were running out of time in finding a job for their child. Rising Tide Car Wash has expanded to include the tuition-based Rising Tide U online learning program and the Autism Advantage podcast which has been broadcasting two years and featuring interviews with entrepreneurs who have started similar businesses.

Typical Hours, Compensation, Growth Within the Company:

There are 92 total employees at the two carwashes and 72 have autism. Hours are flexible, ranging from 4 to 9 for all jobs. Starting pay is $8.43 plus tips, which average $2-3 per hour. After a year, there is an opportunity for a merit-based raise to an average of $10/hour. Some people with disabilities are promoted to managers after demonstrating competence in such aspects of the job as using tools for fixing things like broken vacuums.

Lessons Learned/Observations:  

  • Do research before opening to determine if business model is likely to succeed
  • Don’t start a business out of desperation.  “In this community, entrepreneurship is not traditional entrepreneurship, but desperate entrepreneurship—parents feel forced into it because they feel it is the only solution, and not necessarily based on best practices (as an example, they may say, “my daughter loves candlemaking,” and may move to start a business before seeing if it is a viable option).  It may not be sustainable. Go through rigorous testing to see if it is viable. Find the most financially viable community business and weave autism in to it. Thomas reports that they looked for a “good market, it will differentiate us from others, Andrew can do it, and has good margins.” [Thomas notes that they considered other businesses before settling on a car wash—laundry and dry cleaning, and juices and smoothies as both were entry level and process orientated).  In addition, he notes, “a brother is way more objective than a parent.  “it is not emotional for me. I approach it like a business person. I can look at it more holistically.”
  • Don’t start a business just because this seems to be the only thing the PwD likes and can do.  (Professor Temple Grandin often says, “We tend to make it ok for our loved one with autism to do their special interest since this is the only activity they have experienced.” Thomas notes, “I learned this and experienced it and it struck a chord.”
  • “We underestimated the complexity of the business model we started”—it often takes 3-7 years from the time a person options the property until the doors are open.  [It took Rising Tide 3 years!]. There are things to consider like environmental regulations and other laws.
  • There is a need for systematic learning about how to start and run a business:   following media attention after the first few years in business, there were many “inbound questions” from families asking “how do you do it?’  Rising Car Wash turned to the Center for Autism Related Disabilities at the University of Miami and asked them to write a grant, which they received from the Taft Foundation.  They started Rising Tide U and thus far, 18 who have taken the course have started businesses, resulting in 120 jobs created for PwD.
  • A “Subscription Model” where people pay for tools as opposed to an entire course may be a useful next step for Rising Tide U.
  • There are not a lot of “best practices” out there in the field (there is a need to boil it down to “best dos and don’ts”)
  • Funders no longer want to fund social enterprises since there are so many failures.  They now want to pilot programs at bigger, more established companies.
  • There are competitive advantages to hiring people with autism (see “7 Autism Advantages here:  http://risingtideu.com/; also, listen to Autism Advantage podcasts).  We need to help businesses understand the business advantages of hiring people with autism.  
  • Offer flexible hours (at Rising Tide Car Wash, people work between 4 and 9 hours).  
  • It is an interesting time for disabilities employment because the unemployment rate is so low.   Studies are saying entry level jobs ae the hardest to fill now.
  • We are aware of issues around Social Security; we sometimes refer people to a benefits planner.  (some take a “hit” on Social Security, but are fine as long as they don’t lose Medicaid benefits).
  • We have learned that some of our employees with disabilities from lower income families are the primary breadwinners in their families.
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