MIDDLE TOWNSHIP - Pragnesh Patel studied chemistry at Gujurat University in India before becoming an entrepreneur in the United States.
Patel, of Middle Township, owns Billy Bob's Car Wash on Route 9 in Cape May Court House. The custom-built car wash has 13 employees, but much of the washing is automated by computers that take up an entire closet of circuit boards.
The business has a complex system of recirculating water pumps, vacuums, biodegradable cleaning products and sensor-controlled machinery. The technical side of the operation appeals to him, Patel said.
But he also likes being his own boss.
"I worked as a textile chemist in North Jersey, but I wanted to have my own business. My father had a trucking business, and he was educated as a geologist," he said.
Patel moved to the U.S. in 1981. He opened his first car wash in Allentown, Pa., before relocating to Cape May County in 2006. Before that, he owned a Dunkin' Donuts franchise, a liquor store and a convenience store.
"I wanted to get out of the 24-hour retail business. I didn't like it. It's a headache for 24 hours," he said. "A Realtor showed me this new car wash in Cape May County. This was a nice, laid-back area."
It helped that the business sits next to an inspection station for the state Motor Vehicle Commission. This introduces lots of potential customers to his services, Patel said.
Billy Bob's - Patel kept the name when he bought the car wash - offers four types of washes starting at $11.99 with extra services, such as carpet shampooing, paint sealing and complete detailing.
Employees scrub the car by hand before it goes through the automated machine with its multiple water jets and scrubbers.
The car wash has a short turning radius, so it has an industrial-sized turntable that spins vehicles 90 degrees to start the conveyor wash cycle.
The car wash recycles about 90 percent of its water. The final rinse is fresh water drawn from a well. Billy Bob's relies on four underground water tanks that circulate and filter the water for re-use.
"When people wash their car at home, they might waste hundreds of gallons of water. Here they use about 2 to 3 gallons of fresh water for the rinse. The rest is recycled," he said.
Employees vacuum the interior and hand-dry each car or truck with towels.
Billy Bob's is open year-round and sees steady business from customers who want to wash away road salt or saltwater from coastal flooding, he said.
Car washes nationwide represent a $7 billion industry but have had next-to-no growth since the 2007 recession. They employ 142,337 people in 13,177 businesses, according to industries analyst IbisWorld.
Customer service is the key to keeping loyal customers, he said.
Patel said the local economy is showing signs of improvement. He gets more contractor vehicles lately, a sign that the building trades might be picking up, he said.
Patel said he can fix most anything that breaks in the complicated business. Patel just replaced the conveyor chain, saving thousands of dollars in labor.
"In any business, it's important to save money where you can," he said.
Peggy Bosna, of Lower Township, got her car washed after a recent trip to Delaware.
"This is just a treat today. We don't do it very often. But they do a good job," she said.
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