Touchless Car Wash’s Employees Share Their Stories, Plan For The Future

After we reported that Touchless Car Wash may be demolished to make way for residential and retail development, we caught up with Roy and Patty Shimek, the longtime owners of the car wash and gas station, to learn about how it began, and how the business may come to an end.

But the owners are only half of the story; the car wash employs dozens of people, many of whom have worked there for years and speak limited English. “[Just] walk by this place and you can tell there are rich stories to tell have about struggle, hardship, and the impacts of a changing city,” reader abolish commented on our previous story. “Who are these people? How did they get here? What will they do?”

Employees come from diverse backgrounds, including Mexico, China, Iran, Ukraine, Belarus, Eritrea, Nigeria, and, yes, from the United States as well. Manager Moises Bonia joked, "Basically, this car wash is the United Nations." There are immigrants, students, recent grads, ex-criminal offenders on probation, and a former professional soccer player. We talked to a handful to learn how they came to work at the car wash and what their future plans might be.

Theo Drose

Theo Drose moved here from Ethiopia, where he had worked as a professional soccer player for the Ethiopian Coffee Football Club. He made the move in 2012 to follow family; his older brother had moved to America first, followed by his mother when Drose was still a little boy. Now all four of his brothers live here; his two sisters, who raised him, still live in Ethiopia, but occasionally come to visit.

Drose came to work at the car wash two years ago, joining his younger brother at the job. Their family had a loose web of connections that led his brother to the job; other Ethiopians worked at Touchless, one of whom was referred by Drose’s brother’s ex-girlfriend. “You know, I like this company because you fill an application and the next day you start working,” said Drose. “They don’t give you a long wait” (Co-owner Patty Shimek emphasizes that, despite their quick response time, they do e-verify all workers to make sure their employment is legal.)

He now shares an apartment with his mother and three of his brothers in San Francisco. Thinking back on his soccer days, he said there are a lot of memories. With the job came popularity ... but in some ways, he prefers his current situation. “Playing soccer, I made money, but not enough,” Drose said. Now, he says there are more sponsors and therefore more money in the sport. But at the time, his brother who was already working in the U.S. had been supporting the family. “Here, I make dollars. The exchange rate is good, so I can send money back.” Soccer is far from gone from his life, however; some of the people from his team now live in Oakland and other cities nearby, and he sometimes trains the daughter of one of the managers.

Hui Hua Zhu, Chan Mei Dan, and Jin Pan Tan

Other employees also moved to the U.S. to follow family. Hui Hua Zhu moved from China after her parents. “They said that this was the place to be. It’s really good here ... So I followed them and came here, too.”

Zhu said that at first, life in a new country was tough. She didn’t speak English and barely knew anyone. She enrolled in a three-month English course, and the school passed on word that the car wash was seeking employees. “In the beginning, it was hard,” she said. “But after I got a job, I felt better. I felt that there was a future when I got a job.” 

Zhu started working at Touchless five years ago; she is part of a team of three people (all Cantonese speakers) who spray and wipe down the interiors of cars. She acknowledges that sometimes it can be tiring.

And is it difficult working in a place where so many languages are spoken? Chan Mei Dan, who is on Zhu’s team, says no. “We’re just here to work, and if anything, we just find the people that we can relate to more, who we can communicate with. Sometimes other people will help with the translating if necessary, but we always work it out somehow.”

Elia Rodriguez and Moises Bonia

While some Touchless employees came to the U.S. after their parents, others are parents who were making a new path for their children. Elia Rodriguez moved to the U.S. in 1998 for her family—she had four daughters and was working as a single mom selling chicken and eggs from her small farm. “There was a need in the family,” she said.

Rodriguez was one of the first female employees at the company, and has been working there for 16 years. According to Patty, around that time there was an immigration raid in San Rafael that scared many of the car wash’s employees. “This was pre-e-verify, pre-9/11 days,” she explained, “and we lost quite a few employees.” Until that point, the company had recruited through word of mouth, and mostly men applied for positions. But to fill the new openings, Patty turned to an agency. “They asked, ‘What do you need?’ and we said, ‘Someone who’s willing to work!’ … And they sent a lot of women.”

Rodriguez shrugged off the idea that being one of the first women might have been an obstacle. “Yes, there were not other women. I liked it because it was a job. And I wanted to work.”

Another agency is how the car wash has come to employ former criminal offenders on probation. America Works of California partners with the Alameda County Probation Department and the San Francisco Adult Probation Department to help residents find employment. The program provides job readiness training on topics such as interpersonal communication and anger management, and helps people get food, housing, clothing, and even substance abuse treatment before a person is matched with a job opportunity. (Viewers of the Netflix show House of Cards should note that Frank Underwood's America Works is in no way related to this program—in fact, the show's use of the trademarked name has caused some strife for the real-life organization.)

For some, the car wash is still a college job. Fengji Tan started working at Touchless at the recommendation of her longtime friend while she was earning her liberal arts degree at De Anza College in Cupertino. “In terms of our schedules, [Patty] was always able to adjust to our classes whenever a new semester started. It was very helpful,” she said. “You also get to learn about everyone else’s cultures.”

She has recently graduated from De Anza and is looking for another job—she's eying a Java programming bootcamp as a way to enter tech.

So, what will people do after the car wash is closed?

At this point, the currently proposed development is far from a done deal. It took Forest City’s 5M development in SoMa eight years before it was approved. So people’s jobs at Touchless will be unchanged for some time. But the unanimous plan for what people will do after the car wash closes is unsurprising: find new work. 

“I don’t want to stop working,” said Rodriguez. "While I can work, I’ll continue to do so. Because, though I don’t have to support anyone anymore, I still have my needs. While I’m here in this country, I still have to work.”

Some people may take on additional jobs before Touchless closes. Drose’s brother has already taken on two new positions: one at the nearby Arco and another parking cars.

“We do like this place,” said Dan. “We enjoy working here, and we’re just worried about what we’ll do once we’re unemployed. Of course, I would like this business to continue. But since the owner wants to sell it, there’s nothing we can really do.” 

Zhu voiced her hope that there would be job recruiters who would come out when the car wash, which Dan seconded. “I’d like some recruiters or job openings if this place ever closes down.”

When we relayed the hope for job recruiters, Patty responded, “We will have an organized method in which interested employees will have the opportunity to visit the other car washes we are associated with and meet management. Actually, many of the employees already know of the other car washes. Especially those who live in Oakland, Daly City, or even in the Mission, but come to Divisadero for work.”

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