FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. (AP) – The ripple started in Parkland. Then it became a wave in Margate. Now there’s a Rising Tide coming to Coral Springs.

Rising Tide Car Wash, which hires mostly people on the autism spectrum, has now found enough success in its business model to expand to a third location.

John D’Eri co-founded the car wash business with his son Thomas in Parkland back in 2013. His mission was to create a social enterprise to give people with autism an opportunity to have real opportunities and real jobs that would challenge them and give them skills.

D’Eri was inspired by his other son, who was diagnosed as being autistic when he was a toddler.

“My son Andrew is on the spectrum,” he said. “There were no opportunities for him whatsoever. I have always been a serial entrepreneur. So I decided that the best thing I could do was try to give him empowerment through employment versus some form of institutionalization like a group home.”

The original Parkland car wash at 7201 N. State Road 7 was so successful that the family decided they should open a second location in Margate in 2017. Now, the success of Margate location at 2970 N. State Road 7 led them to pursue a third location in Coral Springs at 10340 Royal Palm Blvd., which is slated to open in late 2021 or early 2022.

“It took us two years to finally hone in on the Coral Springs spot to see if we could make it work,” D’Eri said. “Coral Springs really showed their desire to be an inclusive community by getting involved in our social enterprise.

“In Coral Springs, we expect to hire between 20 and 25 people,” he said. “Those are not all full-time positions. A lot of people with autism don’t have the ability to work full time. There are transportation issues. There are school scheduling issues. Some of them are in the last year of school because school goes on longer for people on the spectrum.”

Unlike his locations in Margate and Parkland, D’Eri has aspirations for hiring a team that is completely on the spectrum.

“Within the first two years of operation, we want to be 100% staffed with diversity, meaning employees on the spectrum. That includes the team leaders. That’s our goal with Coral Springs, which would be the first of its kind.”

ADAPTING TO COVID-19

While the pandemic has been challenging for everyone, D’Eri said that Rising Tide has found ways of adapting that has set them apart from other car wash services. He also recognizes the positive aspects of the year.

“You have to look for the silver linings in 2020,” he said. “Rising Tide has been committed to our expansion into Coral Springs. We kept our head down and kept pushing through, even with all the bad news and everything going on with COVID.”

D’Eri said that perseverance is a quality that has made a huge difference in getting things done, despite the health crisis.

“I always feel a sense of hope, like we always do at Rising Tide,” he said. “The coronavirus, too, will pass. And when it passes, we don’t want to be left behind. Even when it was challenging this last year, we kept calling the city of Coral Springs to get approval for the business. We never stopped.”

The changes that have been made to help prevent the spread of the virus at the car wash are thorough, and D’Eri said many of them should be continued beyond the pandemic.

“When we opened up again in 2020, we developed a protocol whereby we would disinfect the car with fogging equipment so that nobody would enter a car unless it was already COVID-killed,” he said.

“On the full-service side, people would stay in their car and they wouldn’t get out. They wouldn’t congregate in the lobby. When they did get out of their car, our team member would immediately fog the door handles and the dashboard and disinfect all the high touch areas along with them.”

Procedures for customers weren’t the only thing that worried D’Eri. He was also concerned about the way his teams would respond to the pandemic.

“Often our employees, who are on the spectrum, fixate on news and things going on in a fearful way during the pandemic,” he said. “We were really concerned about how the team was going to react. Amazingly enough, they reacted like champions. And the idea of people with autism helping the community to limit the spread of the virus through a carwash … that’s pretty cool!”

CAR WASH AS VEHICLE FOR CHANGE

Who would think that a car wash would be an important way of impacting the autistic community? D’Eri said that he and his son Thomas did a lot of research, and that’s how they came up with a car wash as a high-impact model for a social enterprise for people on the spectrum.

“Thomas did a lot of research into socially-oriented businesses,” he said. “We spent a year and a half in what we call ‘thinking mode’, researching many businesses to try to find out the one we wanted to try.

“The car wash was the most capital intensive, compared to anything we look at. But it had the highest upside of community impact, not only for the individuals that work there but for people in the surrounding community.”

What made this model have its most impact was the visibility of the workforce for the customers. The car wash model also was good for workers who are on the spectrum since the tasks are sequential and are repeated throughout the day.

“People with autism, because of their social disconnect, have an affinity for repetitive function,” D’Eri said. “That affinity is to feel comfortable that they’re doing it correctly and then they move forward.”

He said he had no interest in creating a business in which customers would patronize them simply because they’re helping a part of the population.

“Having an effective, quality business is key versus relying on autism, and a ‘feel sorry for’ cause to drive the business,” he said. “We don’t do that at all.

“The fact is, that if customers don’t get a good product, it’s my fault,” he said. “We really didn’t emphasize the autism cause, except for a little publicity at the beginning. After that, we didn’t even talk about the autism aspect of the business.”

Rising Tide is a model of a more recent trend in businesses that operate both for a profit, as well as for a cause.

“Our social enterprise is not a nonprofit. It’s a social enterprise, just like B Corporations,” D’Eri said. “We don’t have a single dime of government money involved in our business. We don’t even take contributions by individuals, even though people always ask if they can.”

THE TEAM ‘FEELS LIKE FAMILY’

Breyana Marie Mathis, 22, of Coral Springs, is a member of the Rising Tide Car Wash team at the Margate location. She is on the spectrum and is an enthusiastic member of the crew. She started working at the company a year ago.

“I love it here,” she said. “I love the whole family and I really, really enjoy it. Hopefully in the future, I will teach the new recruits about Rising Tide.”

Her family has been supportive of her working with the company.

“My family found out about the opportunity and brought me to Rising Tide to interview,” she said. “After I visited, I thought, ‘Oh my God, I really want to apply here, because that’s the job that I want to have’.”

“When I met the work-family here, they treated me with respect,” she said. “We say ‘hi’ and ‘goodbye’ to each other. We talk with each other. Now I always buy them treats. They’re always supportive here. They’re always cheering me on.”

Frantz Francois, of Lauderdale Lakes, is also a team member with autism. He has been working with Rising Tide for the last three years, ever since the Margate location opened.

Frantz acknowledged that the 46-step process for learning how they clean a car was a bit challenging at first, but he learned to master it and that everyone there is helpful.

“It’s like a family, working here,” he said. “It’s really great working for them.”

Over 180 individuals with autism have been hired through Rising Tide with 80 current employees on staff with autism. There are over 75 Rising Tide alumni with autism working at new jobs in the community.

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