We Are the Fixers (Conclusion)

presto-valet-chat-w-wrench-up-in-air_web.jpg

The Wrenchers! (From left) Michael “Chat” Chatelain, business partner and Presto Valet VP; Richard “Buddy” Gritz, owner of Presto Valet; and Frank Pannell, production manager. (Photo: Presto Valet)

Tim Burke |

Learning to do repairs on the job

CHICAGO — Is there a “fixer” inside you? Maybe you don’t even realize it yet. But drycleaning plant ownership might bring out the “wrencher” in you sooner or later. Or it already did.

Is there a DIY repair person in you waiting to get out? Who knows, you might even find out you like it. Hear from three drycleaning owners who do.

TOOL MAN

Some drycleaning operators learn to maintain and repair their own equipment. One of those, Andrew Tirpok, owner of Tirpok Cleaners in Flemington, N.J., shares his own experiences and skills:

“When I first came into the family business in the early 1990s, I had zero mechanical ability. The television show Home Improvement was popular at the time, and the employees used to call me ‘Tim the Tool Man,’ because I was mechanically inept,” Tirpok recalls.

Unfortunately, he notes, his business is located in a rural area and it’s difficult to get a mechanic to come out and perform a minor repair on the equipment.

“Because of that,” he explains, “I had to learn to maintain it myself, or I could expect long delays without a possibly essential piece of equipment. Also, because we have been in business for so long, I had a lot of older equipment on hand and it required a lot of maintenance.”

Tirpok relates, “We had presses that my grandfather bought before I was born. Over the years, I’ve become pretty good at handling most of the maintenance and repair required for the machines we have. As a result of a devastating fire last year, I’m now in the position where I have all-new equipment, which requires a lot less attention than what we had before.”

His grandfather, Andy Tirpok Sr., founded Tirpok Cleaners in 1936. He started as a presser for a haberdashery in Flemington. He started his own business with a shoeshine stand.

“Today, we’re a retail dry cleaner and shirt launderer,” Andrew Tirpok says, “with a small pick-up and delivery business. I’m the third-generation owner of the company. I have a good staff comprised of many long-term employees. Mostly, I run the administrative end of the company and do the maintenance in our plant.”

Have you ever had to fix equipment and/or machines because your maintenance person couldn’t get there? How did that go for you?

“All the time,” Tirpok admits. “Because we had well water in the old plant, even with a softener, the refrigeration cooling coils on the drycleaning machines required monthly acid washing. The first time I did it on my own, it took hours to get done, and I ended up covered in the acid solution because a hose popped off the coil.

“Fortunately, it’s a pretty dilute solution and no harm was done,” he continues. “It did get red stains all over my clothing. Another time, my father, daughter and I needed to change the bearing on a 75-pound washing machine. What we were hoping to get done in a weekend ended up taking almost a week.

“We couldn’t get the old bearing out, and broke two sledgehammers and bent a support column for the building, using it as a brace. We did eventually get it done, and the machine was like new after that.”

Are drycleaning owners and operators surprised at how much repair knowledge they pick up while owning their operation?

“Actually, I am surprised,” Tirpok shares. “I never thought I could actually enjoy working with my hands, but now I look forward to it. You get a sense of accomplishment from fixing a machine — that nothing else compares to.”

Of course, he has tips for readers about what he’s learned while maintaining his own equipment, especially in a pinch:

“Keep your compressed air dry,” Tirpok insists. “If you don’t have an air dryer, get one. When I was first starting out, a mechanic that did work for me told me that auto mechanics know the importance of dry air, and dry cleaners have no clue. That is so true.

“I would say that 90% of the maintenance issues we used to have were due to extremely wet air running the machines. It makes a huge difference.”

Another tip: “Don’t keep broken parts laying around. This is such a ‘dry cleaner’ thing to do. When I first went to work for my uncle, we were fixing a press, and he asked me to grab a part from the tool room. I did, and he told me the one I grabbed was broken.”

Don’t keep a broken part, he reminds. “Throw it out. You’ll have no use for that cracked air switch at any point in the future.”

Tirpok’s last tip for you maintenance DIYers: “Keep a stock of commonly used parts on hand. Sure, you can order that air cylinder when it breaks, but it might take a few days to get to you from wherever you ordered it from. Nothing beats having the part on hand. The lost production will cost more in the end than the few dollars you spent on spare parts.”

STILL LEARNING

Our last message about hands-on repair and maintenance is from Zach Kinzer, the owner of Bridgestone Dry Cleaners, Brooklyn, N.Y.:

“We are a family-run business located in downtown Brooklyn. My dad, Ken Kinzer, started the business in 1983. We specialize in all types of garment care and tailoring. Last week, we cleaned and preserved a $16,000 Vera Wang gown. We kept our cool and got it done right.

“I would be lying if I said we are the mechanical type of owner/general manager team. Sure, there was the time I had to remove the seized pump off of our drycleaning machine, or the time I had to rewire the spotting gun which went bad.

“Mechanical issues in a drycleaning plant, like life, come at you fast. We have attempted over the years to limit the bleeding with weekly checklists to keep up with oil levels, clean filters and all the rest. This has helped a great deal.”

Kinzer notes that, most importantly, they have tried to keep a close relationship with their local mechanic, Dino, from Evangelos Repair Service in the Bronx: “He and his team are able to help us keep up to date on annual maintenance while also jumping in when an emergency comes up.

“We are still learning to keep up to date on the little details with our machines in order to avoid the big hits of mechanical failure. I think we are getting better every day.”

Three stories out of so many from the drycleaning industry about learning to do repairs on the job. Surprising yourself and accomplishing more than you thought you could. And those tips: have an extra part in stock, keep your air dry, and make sure to pay your suppliers on time.

But, mostly, it’s all about you, and discovering you might just have a “fixer” inside of you.

To read Part 1, go HERE.

About the author

Tim Burke

American Drycleaner

Editor

Tim Burke is the editor of American Drycleaner. He can be reached at 312-361-1684 or tburke@atmags.com.

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