CHICAGO — A young family man takes over the cleaning business in California. A second takes over the family business in upstate New York, having at first never envisioned being a drycleaning owner. A third proudly maintains the family name down in Texas. And all share one thing, the love of the business....
“My son’s name is Dario. He was born Dec. 17, 2016,” says proud papa Saro Semercian, owner of Harbour Cleaners, located on Bolsa Chica Road in Huntington Beach, Calif. The business is situated along a bright, wide boulevard, in a snappy-clean little shopping center, just about a mile from the coast, close enough to the Pacific Ocean to smell the sea when the breeze is just right.
“My parents used to both work at this location, and my father would help with the plant’s daily operations. We do everything from hems, let out and take in waists, and sleeves. We do not tailor shirts or jackets from scratch,” he relates.
“We have an Instagram account at our drycleaning business. We try to keep it fun and humorous and, of course, show off our spot-removing expertise.”
Semercian, who turned 41 back in May, says, “I have proudly owned Harbour Cleaners in beautiful Huntington Beach (HB) since 2004. It was originally established in 1973. My family and I moved to HB in 1984. I went to elementary, junior and high school all in HB. My father had an agency with a full tailoring department that he and my mother grew to support the family.”
He recalls never wanting to be a dry cleaner: “Hell would have to freeze over! But I’m ice skating as I’m telling you this,” Semercian quips.
College wasn’t for him, so he became an apprentice to a jeweler. That lasted three years.
“I started working for a dry cleaner near the University of California Irvine (UCI) and started falling in love with the customer service aspect of the business and after four years I decided I wanted to open my own store.”
The location he now owns is two miles from the elementary school he attended: “Funny how things work out. I tried to never become a dry cleaner, and 16 years later, I love coming to work every day — well, almost!”
Semercian says he’s a self-taught spotter.
“I have gotten pointers from a close friend and mentor, Dan Pollock. I can repair most of the machines, outside of computer or electric, and I’m an above-average presser when needed. My first love will always remain customer service, and my second love is spot removal,” he confides.
“We are a small operation that focuses on quality work and the friendliest service in town. I have three employees. Also, my father, to this day, comes in to do our alterations.”
Asked to identify challenges that face him today at his dry cleaner, Semercian relates, “From past to present, dry cleaners are trying to compete with each other with price-cutting tactics. It bothers me that we cannot come up with basic state-by-state or regional pricing.”
He gives an example: “At a gas station today, you might find (a price that’s) five, 10 or — I'll be generous — 15 cents less per gallon. With dry cleaning, it’s ‘John Doe across the street charges $5 for pants and has twice the business that I do, so let me charge $3 and steal his customers.’
“I wish we competed with one another on giving better service and higher prices, instead of lowering our skilled work.”
About cleaning and spotting methods, he says he is “old school.”
“I feel like clothing attire needs to go back to dressier times for the drycleaning industry to blossom again,” Semercian says. “Until then, businesses will be looking for more customers to make up for the pieces that just aren't the same as years past.”
Being part of a family-owned business is meaningful to him.
“I take pride in giving service that a chain store cannot. We know our customers by name, we know their ‘likes’ and ‘dislikes.’ I believe that’s what people are looking for, they are getting tired of the chain stores. They want a familiar face and a familiar friend. Our customers become friends and sometimes are like family to us.”
He credits the generation before his for laying the foundation.
“My parents didn’t speak English when they came to this country, so they needed a business that used their skills in tailoring where the basic ‘Hi,’ ‘How are you?’ and ‘Thank you’ would suffice. They worked 12-hour days. They wouldn’t say no to work so they could give the best life to my sister and I. I am forever indebted to them for their sacrifice to give us a better life. Now I’m honored to give, and to help whenever they need me.”
On a sunny day, as he watches his infant son sleeping in his car seat on the front counter, and with the summer breeze floating in through the open front doors, Semercian’s simple message resonates: “Do what you love and be grateful for what you have.”
Check back Thursday for the conclusion.