Looking Good: Dry-cleaning business thrives despite business-casual popularity
When the leisure suit fell out of favor after the 1970s, dry cleaners were likely among the first to celebrate their demise. “Polyester nearly killed the dry-cleaning trade,” says John Whitley, owner of Best Cleaners in Madison, who’s been in and around the textile industry for 40 years. Polyester’s rise in popularity meant that clothes that typically made their way to a dry cleaner suddenly became machine washable.
Luckily, rayon came back into vogue, which he says saved the industry.
Inside Best Cleaners’ Whitney Way operation on a recent morning, several employees handle clothes at various pressing stations. One inflates slacks like a balloon, using steam to blow out hard wrinkles before the item is finished and creased.
“Steam softens the fabric before we press it,” Whitley explains. “Our presses have vacuums. After we press, we vacuum the item to cool it off before we move it. If we move it while it’s still warm, it will wrinkle again.”
Women’s pants and men’s slacks account for the majority of the store’s business, with dress shirts and wedding dresses coming in a close second.
Another employee smooths the fabrics on just about everything else, including shirts, blouses, jackets, and dresses. A third works on items such as sweaters and polo shirts and is positioned so he can keep an eye out for customers.
When a customer drops off items, each piece is tagged before being separated by color and fabric. Silks or sweaters have to run through delicate cycles, for example. Other items may require extra soaking.
When cleaning is complete, the tagged items are reunited with the original order and prepared for pickup.
There’s wet cleaning and dry cleaning. Wet cleaning uses water, and dry cleaning uses solvents. Instruction tags on the garments help determine which method to use.
“Wet cleaning is a little different than at home,” Whitley explains. “We can control the agitation, or soak items. We have detergents and sizing that we can add to make clothes look like new. We also have special equipment to make sure dimensions remain the same. That’s the problem with wet cleaning, particularly cottons. There can be a dimensional change in the fabric [e.g., shrinkage]. We premeasure the items and then put things back where they were.”
Men’s dress shirts are typically wet cleaned and finished to a crisp look by pressing them while damp.
With dry cleaning, fibers are lubricated so the item never changes its dimensions.
For years, the industry mostly used a cleaning chemical called PERC (perchloroethylene), until the EPA clamped down for safety reasons. In 2002, Whitley opted to rid his business entirely of PERC by changing to an environmentally friendly cleaning system called Green Earth Cleaning, which uses liquid silicone. Silicone, he explains, is an inert substance that does not interact with fabric and results in less dye-bleeding.
In the back of the 4,000-square-foot shop, a large industrial dry-cleaning machine handles the bulk of the loads. Called a dry-to-dry machine, it washes and dries garments in one hour so they’re ready for pressing. During the wash cycle, the machine adds a detergent to the silicone that helps remove fatty acids and soil. It also circulates the solvent up through a filter system, captures all of it, and replaces it with clean solvent.
“We can clean about 50,000 pounds of clothes before we have to add more solvent into the machine,” Whitley explains, adding that he’s the only dry cleaner in the state allowed to dispose of his waste in a landfill, because it contains no VOCs, or volatile organic compounds.
The solvent costs him $22 per gallon, and there are 55 gallons in a barrel. Luckily, it only needs to be replenished a couple of times a year. Every dry cleaner, he says, recycles his or her solvent.
When he started his business in 1996, Whitley had already spent years working and learning from “the best dry cleaners in the Midwest,” so he had a clear vision of what he did and did not want to do. “We don’t do anything in a hurry,” he says. “As a rule, we turn everything around in three days, with a few exceptions.”
The company has two locations and 16 employees. A third store on Cottage Grove Road struggled early on and was sold in 2008. “I tried it for three years, but it was taking 56% of our expenses and 18% of our income.”
Last year, Best Cleaners cleaned more than 100,000 items, generating over $700,000 in sales. Except for one five-month stretch when the parking lot was under construction, Whitley says the business has seen double-digit sales increases every year.
Other cleaners haven’t been as fortunate, with four locations in the area closing up shop over the past two years. “There’s been a winnowing,” he admits.
Fashion and fabric changes affect the industry on a regular basis. “Go to a women’s clothing store and what do you see?” Whitley asks. Answer: “Bling.”
To a dry cleaner, that means headaches. “Manufacturers are putting anywhere from 2% to 35% metallic in garments these days,” he says. “Imagine wadding up a piece of aluminum foil and then trying to get it flat again. That’s what you end up with. Looks like it’s been slept in.”
Sequins, beads, and glass in garments are challenging dry cleaners to do more by hand, “and we’ve seen a constant degradation of the clothes in terms of the quality of the workmanship,” Whitley notes.
But when it comes to business expenses, his latest challenge is … hangers.
About 10 years ago, he explains, the Chinese government was subsidizing hanger manufacturers in China and flooding the American market with hangers for less than U.S. manufacturers could produce them. “They put almost every American hanger manufacturer out of business.” After the U.S. government placed a tariff on hangers coming into the country, the Chinese simply rerouted them through Vietnam in a game of cat and mouse. Now, he says, they’re coming through Mexico. Meanwhile, his costs keep increasing. To compensate, the business follows the best-defense-is a-good-offense adage: It reused or recycled more than 50,000 hangers last year alone.
The company’s only cleaning operation, in the Meadowood Shopping Center, is sandwiched between an Anchor Bank and a Walgreens in a strip mall that includes a barbershop, a library, a new neighborhood center, and a Chinese takeout restaurant. At least four spaces are vacant but attracting interest, according to Whitley.
“We realized that our future growth was probably not going to come from this neighborhood,” he admits, “so several years ago we started a pickup and delivery service and we’ve converted many walk-in customers to route customers.”
Like most owners his age, Whitley, 64, whose Realtor wife, Jeanne, is also active in the business, ponders the future. None of his children are interested in taking the reins, and knee surgery has him moving a tad slower these days.
A larger question may be whether dry cleaners will even survive in today’s more casual work environment.
“Absolutely,” he insists. “There will always be a percentage of people who want to look good, who take a lot of pride in their appearance. Those are the people who support dry cleaners.”
Click here to sign up for the free IB ezine — your twice-weekly resource for local business news, analysis, voices, and the names you need to know. If you are not already a subscriber to In Business magazine, be sure to sign up for our monthly print edition here.