CHICAGO — When it comes down to it, the drycleaning industry is a people-based business. Customers trust their cleaners with everything from their daily wear to priceless heirlooms. And, while cleaners always try to make a good impression on their customers, there are customers who also leave an indelible mark on their cleaner.
Here are some tales from the front counter of customers that these dry cleaners never forget, and some they would pay to never think of again.
A Brush with Fame
John-Claude Hallak, president of New York City-based Hallak Cleaners, will never forget when one of his jazz idols came into his store in the early 1990s.
“Percy Heath, all 6-foot-6 of him, walked in,” Hallak says. “He was born in 1923 and had played with almost every jazz great through the years. Cannonball Adderley, Clifford Brown, Charlie Parker, Miles Davis, Bill Evans and countless others. I had the privilege and pleasure of seeing him perform many times over the years. Of course, I let him know what a big fan I was — it was probably embarrassingly similar to a teenage girl meeting Taylor Swift.”
Heath, who played bass, needed his snow-white lined linen jacket, worn the night before during a performance at the Lincoln Center, cleaned.
“Due to the hot lights, and the incredible energy he would expend during his performances, the jacket had underarm perspiration stains the likes of which I had never seen,” Hallak says. “He proceeded to inform me that he needed the jacket back the next afternoon for another concert. I explained the difficulty of the job and the time normally required to have even a chance of restoration. He smiled and said, ‘Just do the best you can, man. I’m sure it will be OK.’”
To his team’s credit, Hallak says, they got the job done —“Not perfect, but darn near perfect,” Hallak says — and Heath expressed his gratitude for the rush job by handing Hallak an autographed LP.
About a decade later, Hallak and a friend visited a jazz club and watched Heath perform at the legend’s 80thbirthday party. During the break, Hallak couldn’t resist wishing him a happy birthday.
He started to remind him about the white linen jacket 10 years earlier. “Before I could finish my thought,” he says, “he hugged me and lifted me about 6 feet off the ground and exclaimed, ‘Hallak!’ I remember it like it was yesterday.”
For Jan Barlow, owner of Jan’s Professional Dry Cleaners in Clio, Michigan, one memorable client has made an impact on her at various times in her life.
“I met Eugene Williams when I was a 19-year-old college student in the 1970s,” she says. “He was a sales representative at the finest men’s store in my hometown. I purchased the coolest shirt and tie for my dad for his birthday from him. He continued to be a salesman all his life, and I bought some incredible garments from him.”
Williams became one of Barlow’s best customers when she opened her cleaners, and stuck with her over the years.
“Fast-forward 35 years and I was really struggling with hiring — and this was before the pandemic. I was working all sorts of hours and days of week to cover all the cost centers of my business. Eugene called me one day out of the blue. I hadn’t seen him for a while, and we decided to go to lunch to catch up.”
During lunch, the two discussed the economy and workforce, and he said he had a present for her.
“He gave me the book, ‘Sticking Points,’ by Haydn Shaw,” she says. “I have never had a client give me a book — and this book was so impactful! It helped me beyond words to comprehend and understand what was happening in the world. It explores five generations working together and how each of them thinks.”
It’s required reading for Barlow’s team, and she shares it with colleagues.
“Thank you, Eugene Williams!” she exclaims. “This was one of the most unforgettable experiences of my life.”
Come back Tuesday for Part 2 of this series, where we’ll have tales of miracles and missing khakis.
Have a question or comment? E-mail our editor Dave Davis at [email protected].