DOLTON, Ill. — I am now celebrating 50 years working full-time in the dry cleaning business. Just after I graduated from high school in 1962, my dad needed help. I worked a 40-hour week while attending Chicago Teachers College in the business department. After graduating from CTC in 1965 on a trimester plan, I started taking night courses at Roosevelt University; I graduated with a master’s degree in accounting in 1967.
I was married in August 1966, and our daughter was born in October 1967. The family business paid three times that of a first-year high school teacher. I chose the dry cleaning business to support my family. It took several years of taking classes part-time but I completed my doctor of business administration degree in 1984. The basics are the same today but the tools are fantastic.
A plan began to develop to expand our business, but it was impossible to do that at our location in Chicago because we were located in two connected buildings in the middle of a city block. Father, I and a contractor buddy of his found a location just outside of Chicago, in Dolton, Ill.
Our location was keyed to the entrance of the I-94 expressway for easy access to the Chicago Loop area for commercial business. We had already expanded into the commercial wholesale business, which helped us financially through the transition of relocating and establishing our new retail base business in Dolton. Grand opening was June 22, 1969. With my second child on the way and retail sales of $15 per week, the financials could only get better, but how fast?
We designed the building to be as big as the lot and village codes would allow. We have easy access to the road and plenty of parking. It was not an ideal location for retail work, but it is a good spot for easy route services, which was our main focus.
We had great help from our conveyor company in designing our plant. I have to credit Ron Terry, Harold Rodin and their crew for being a major influence in layout and design as well as décor. Our huge call office looked like a hotel lobby. The local newspapers and village hall officials, along with Miss Dolton, were on hand on for the grand opening. Dad spent a lot of money and put an enormous amount of time and effort into creating what we are today.
He was a route driver for another dry cleaner that serviced hotels, and one particular hotel executive housekeeper inspired him and sparked the future of our business. Dad made pickups and deliveries to this hotel daily; the housekeeper often complained that the bedspreads were not delivered and blamed him. Dad’s only excuse was that they were not ready in the plant for him to deliver. Many times the plant was called, and the office claimed Dad did not take the spreads for delivery. The executive housekeeper believed my father, however, and told him if he ever opened his own dry cleaning business, she would make him a priority.
When we moved to Dolton, we had to clear up a branding issue that had plagued us for years. Dad’s first location for his curtain cleaning and dry cleaning business was on Normal Avenue, from which came the name Normal Cleaners. Not long after opening, there was a fire at the plant and he had to relocate. He found another location more conducive to his business but retained the name.
Unfortunately, there was another company with almost the same name—Normal Laundry—and this created confusion for commercial and retail customers. Prior to opening our new plant, I was in charge of changing the name. To retain some sort of familiarity to our customers, I followed a marketing trend of combining words to form a new logo. Our final decision was Norco Cleaners Inc. There was no longer confusion between the two companies’ names.
Our 30-foot stand-alone sign near the main road displayed our new logo. The call office was clean, bright and neat. The décor was Mediterranean, with black-and-red flocked wall designs, and the red carpet was spectacular. The counters were custom-made, and the traditional National Cash Register had been adapted for dry cleaning sales. The neon sign featuring 6-foot-tall letters on the upper front of the building looked great, and still does. Customer service representatives wore red smocks with our logo.
Our commercial routes expanded by word of mouth. At that time, one pleased customer, a member of a major executive housekeeping association, told another about us. When employees who were in administrative positions were satisfied with our service, they often recommended us at their new property. Word of mouth remains our primary source of new customers.
We remain dedicated to fine retail dry cleaning, but we have chosen to concentrate on the commercial side of the business. Our retail hours are 6:30 a.m. to 1 p.m. six days a week; we consider ourselves a “breakfast” retail dry cleaner. Our plant starts operations at 3 a.m. daily to accommodate the commercial routes, and production continues until all work is processed. The retail store closing at 1 p.m. gives us the ability to serve other commercial properties with some of the same employees in the afternoon.
We are now beginning our 44th year in this location. Many things change in our environment. Neighborhoods, politics and regulations transform, and taxes only increase, but keeping a steady focus on where we want to go is critical to success. Being able to change directions, as well as adapt to different markets quickly, is often the key to profits.