CHICAGO — With many dry cleaners in survival mode for the past year and then some, the idea of building new facilities at this moment, for most, would seem like a strange idea. As society rebounds, however, and cleaners adapt to what comes after the pandemic, the option should start to appeal to many looking to capitalize on new opportunities.
For some, new plants will allow them to adapt to meet both the continuing and the new demands of their customers. For others, changes in demographics or their leasing situation will require a move. Whatever the reason, relocating a plant to a new facility — or building one from scratch — is a defining moment for a drycleaning business.
And still, even if that move is months or years away, the homework done now can make the process easier and allow owners to reap the benefits of such an investment.
SIGNALS FOR CHANGE
For Mark Watkins, changes to the road outside of his Alabama store ultimately meant finding a new location.
It wasn’t the first move for Watkins, owner of Mark’s Cleaners in Birmingham, but it had been a while since he pulled up stakes. Watkins started in the industry in 1981 (“I bought the business from the guy who owned ‘Ma and Pa Cleaners,’ believe it or not,” he says) and quickly outgrew the space where he started. In 1988, Watkins began looking for a place “over the mountain” in the more affluent area of town and settled into his next store, where he would stay until it became time for another change a few years ago.
The four-lane road in front of his store was expanded to six lanes, which completely altered the traffic flow.
“The Alabama Department of Transportation came along and changed the traffic lights I depended on,” Watkins says. “It changed the egress and ingress of my business. People weren’t seeing me anymore, and they weren’t able to get to me. My front-counter business dropped like a rock, and the location became untenable.”
Besides the traffic flow situation, Watkins knew that he was starting to outgrow that location.
“We also didn’t have more than 3,400 square feet there,” he says. “Our front counter area was getting jammed up. We had also gotten into the route business, and it was growing. I decided we needed more space to accommodate that. That building never was really that conducive to a drycleaning location, although we did quite well there for a while. When the road expanded, my thought was, ‘Let’s move, have some more space for growth, and diversify a little.’”
With all these reasons in mind, Watkins began scouting for his next location. The search took longer than he thought it would. “I started searching three or four years before we actually moved,” he says. “We looked at existing buildings and properties, but nothing we were looking at seemed right.”
So, Watkins widened his scope.
“We finally found this piece of dirt here,” he says of his present location. “The price was decent, and the area was fantastic. The visibility was better than we had before, and we built 2,500 more square feet than we had before.” Following construction, Mark’s Cleaners moved into the new plant in April 2019.
By building a new facility instead of moving into an existing building, Watkins was able to design the plant he wanted with no compromises.
“The new building has about 6,000 square feet, 28-foot ceilings, and the airflow is fantastic,” he says. “We air-conditioned the front and the back, and it all just works a lot better. The front wall is practically all glass, and the side is about half glass. We have an automatic sliding glass door for the drive-thru and sliding glass doors inside to hold the air pressure back in the back the way it’s supposed to be.”
The new space also met Watkins’ goal of being able to expand offerings: “It’s more efficient for routes,” he says. “We’ve got two, big 12-foot-tall roll-up doors in the back where the vans fans can pull up and load and unload.”
In Part 2 of this series, we’ll meet Jon Simon of Parkway Custom Cleaning, located in the Washington, D.C. metro area, who also recently built a new plant — and how the pandemic affected him and Watkins as they opened their new doors.