FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. — John D’Eri opened Rising Tide Car Wash in 2013, convinced that a business whose primary mission of employing adults with autism would be a financial success.

Three years later, Rising Tide continues in Parkland, and now it’s expanding to a second location.

D’Eri paid $1.5 million for 1.5 acres on State Road 7 in Margate — less than 5 miles south of the Parkland store. He hopes to break ground in July and open by early next year.

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At the Parkland business, on State Road 7 north of Hillsboro Boulevard, 35 of the 40 employees have autism. The Margate location is expected to employ 60 people, including 50 with autism.

D’Eri, 57, says the business is economically viable because it offers excellent service, not because customers feel sorry for the workers.

“You can’t have a product that’s not good and drive it on sympathy,” he said.

Parkland Mayor Michael Udine said Rising Tide’s concept has impressed local residents and merchants.

“The community is so taken and enamored with that business,” Udine said. “People stop me on the street and ask me about it.”

A New York native who lives in Oakland Park, D’Eri is an entrepreneur who formerly owned document management and electronic data discovery businesses. His son, Andrew, now 25, was diagnosed with autism when he was 3, and D’Eri became increasingly concerned about his son’s employment prospects.

People with autism have difficulty understanding perspective and struggle in social situations, said Terri Daly, director of the Center for Autism and Related Disabilities at the University of Central Florida.

Many businesses screen potential hires online or through a kiosk, and people with autism find it hard to answer certain questions adequately, Daly said. Job interviews are especially stressful.

“That gives a lot of (employers) discomfort about hiring people with autism,” Daly said.

While sitting in a car wash one day several years ago, D’Eri realized that Andrew could do that job, so he set out to learn about the business.

After 10 months of research, D’Eri was ready to buy an existing car wash, but nothing was available. Then he got a call from a real estate broker, who told him a deal for a Parkland car wash had fallen through. It was D’Eri’s if he wanted it — but he had to complete the sale in two weeks.

D’Eri and his older son, Thomas, 27, temporarily shut down the car wash and renovated it, changing the name and the business model in the process.

Now customers who want to vacuum their own cars can get in and out for about $6 rather than having to commit to a full-service wash for $14.

Rising Tide washed 147,000 cars last year — more than quadruple the number in the last full year under the previous ownership, D’Eri said. Over the same period, annual revenue has tripled, to about $1.5 million.

Part of that has to do with Parkland’s growth. Hundreds of rooftops are being built in the city, which has some of the last available tracts in Broward County for home construction.

But D’Eri also credits the revised business model and his employees, who start out making minimum wage of $8.05 an hour, plus tips. They can earn more through promotions.

They value their jobs, follow instructions and come to work on time, he said.

“They appreciate the opportunity, and it shows,” D’Eri said. “They follow the protocol, embrace it, and that creates a quality product.”

Andrew D’Eri says his favorite task is shining tires, while vacuuming is his least-favorite chore.

His colleagues, Matt Keller, 23, and Sean Gervil, 21, both said they struggled to find jobs before coming to Rising Tide.

“This was my last stop,” said Keller, now a supervisor.

“Working at the car wash is where I belong,” said Gervil, of Deerfield Beach.

D’Eri said he no longer worries what will become of his son.

“He’s going to own a car wash — or maybe 100.”

© 2016 Sun Sentinel
Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC

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