At the car wash: Turbulent airline industry lifts the entrepreneurial spirits of two Pacific Northwest pilots

Ted Clarke and Pat Easter are like most small-business entrepreneurs. They identified an opportunity, created a business plan, scouted commercial space, and took that exciting leap of transforming a vision into a profitable business enterprise.

But unlike most entrepreneurs, Clarke and Easter are more comfortable inside the cockpit of an airplane, rather than behind the CEO’s desk. After flying for nearly 20 years (F-14 Tomcats during the Gulf War, and commercial airplanes for United Airlines today), the pair was looking for something to support a shaky airline economy after the attacks on September 11th.

With help from Business Loan Express, Clarke and Easter opened Jet Stream Car Wash in Bonney Lake last month. Though they they still fly commercially for United Airlines, they are clearly excited about their new business venture.

TACOMA DAILY INDEX: How did you go from flying airplanes to owning a car wash?

TED CLARKE: The decision to start a business in general came about because the airline industry isn’t what it used to be. When we first started, it was post-9/11, the airline industry was in a crisis, and a lot of folks were wondering what’s going to happen if this whole house of cards caves in. That’s what first got us thinking about what we could do instead of the only thing we’ve known how to do for years and years, which is fly airplanes. My partner and I were both looking for various business models to explore, and whittled it down to the top five that met our objective. Through that list we came down to the car wash. I’m a detail freak. I grew up spending two or three hours detailing my car. I really just enjoy the model of the car wash itself. I spent so much time at it as a kid.

TACOMA DAILY INDEX: Was there a particular reason for opening a business in this area?

TED CLARKE: We did a lot of exploration from Renton to Tacoma, and all points in between. Property acquisition is the really challenging part of a car wash location. You look at the competitive picture, you look at the demographic of the area, marketing analysis, growth — hands-down, this particular location is far superior to anything else I could find. There were some great locations, but there was little property available and/or the competitive outlook was not conducive to another car wash. You just can’t beat the location. We’re between two big box retailers. Next to Jiffy Lube, Bank of America and Starbucks. It’s just ideal. When you look around here today, it actually looks a fair bit different than when we first saw the property a few years ago. Target wasn’t there. Bank of America wasn’t there. Even though we’re in front of a Wal-Mart, there has still been a fair amount of growth.

TACOMA DAILY INDEX: I understand this is pretty state-of-the-art equipment for a car wash.

TED CLARKE: It’s totally automated, and we are open 24 hours a day. No brushes touch your paint. You don’t have to worry about mirrors getting yanked off or antennas getting in a knot. The beauty of the touch-free system is that it really works. I was really skeptical when we were first learning about the operation and what sort of equipment we wanted. My partner and I flew out to Atlanta, saw the prototype of this operation, and we were both very impressed. It’s unlike any other car wash around here. In that respect, it’s a little bit unusual.

TACOMA DAILY INDEX: You haven’t given up your day job, correct? You’re still a pilot.

TED CLARKE: I’m still a pilot. We’re able to alternate our schedules. In fact, he’s flying right now. In a few days, I will be flying, and he will be here. That way we have coverage on the site everyday, and it allows us to keep our day jobs. I like to be here because I enjoy interacting with the customers. We are new, and I think it’s a great idea to be on-site and show customers how the operation works. It’s very comforting for customers who aren’t familiar with the operation, to know there’s a presence on the site and to be able to answer their questions.

TACOMA DAILY INDEX: How long have you been a pilot?

TED CLARKE: I started military flight school in Spring 1987. I ended up flying F-14s, which are prominently featured on our logo. That’s where I met my partner, during the Persian Gulf conflict in 1991. We were in that same squadron together for the better part of four years. At that point, I decided to get out of the Navy. It was time for me. He went on and did another short tour. I was hired by United in January 1996, and he was hired shortly after that.

TACOMA DAILY INDEX: Are you looking to retire from the airline industry and run the car wash full-time?

TED CLARKE: Eventually it will give me the opportunity to retire. It’s certainly given me some options. But I’m not ready to give up flying. I love it.

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Jet Stream Car Wash is located at 19311 Highway 410 in Bonney Lake.