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Goin’ with Cohen: Soft Serve Meets Self Serve (Part 1)

GRIFFITH, Ind. — It’s approaching noon, time to decide whether to do some laundry or grab a bite to eat. You’ll find both on the menu at Sweets & Suds. Here, front loaders start at $3, and so do the mouth-watering burgers. Fill machines along with your stomach — a one-stop combo that has put this tiny enterprise squarely on the map here in northwest Indiana.

Forget dine ’n dash. It’s dine ’n wash for regulars like sisters Lisa and Andriana Gaston as they munch down on chili cheese dogs while Lisa’s daughter Adryn nibbles some fries at the folding table. What may be strictly taboo in other laundries is just another day at this coin-op where soap and softener meet ketchup and mustard.

“We were amazed by both the convenience of the food and being able to wash our clothes at the same time so we thought we’d come here,” Lisa says, telling me the siblings bypass two other laundries along the drive from their Merrillville home to clean up for $20 and eat up for another $10.

FOODIE AT HEART

Satisfying a coin-op crowd craving more than washers and dryers is Bertha “Bertie” Goodrich. From late morning to early evening, she churns out 40 freshly prepared food menu items and dozens of ice cream creations just a laundry pod’s throw from the front loaders.

That hot Reuben sandwich and tossed chicken Caesar salad will be ready to be enjoyed alfresco or in the wash aisle well before the rinse cycle completes. Be sure to leave room for a colorful cone or the “Charlie Brown” specialty sundae — topped with hot fudge, marshmallows and peanuts.

Sweets & Suds may be soft-serve ice cream and self-serve coin-op, but its owner is a foodie at heart. Dishing out edibles next door to where the public is cleaning unmentionables wasn’t the intention of this one-time general manager for the fast-casual Boston Market dining chain — it just washed out that way.

Goodrich longed to run her own eatery and decided 15 years ago to trade the corporate world for an aging storefront restaurant in downtown Highland. But leasing space was merely a stepping stone; owning a property was on this entrepreneur’s radar.

The search led her to an unassuming coin-op and drop-off service hawking pop and penny candy a short drive away. With a footprint not much larger than a double-wide trailer, the building was small in size but big on opportunity.

“I didn’t want to do laundry. I just wanted to open a restaurant,” shesays of the acquisition 13 years ago.

Goodrich chucked the wash-dry-fold, which occupied about 400 square feet on the western third of the building, and shoehorned in all new food service equipment. And while she knew her way around the kitchen, the laundry was uncharted waters.

“People would come up and ask how to remove a stain, and it was ‘OK, I’ve got to Google this one because I don’t know,” the operator recalls, later confiding, “I’m not very good at doing laundry.”

The equipment on offer had few working pieces. She scrapped the top loaders for new ones. What front loaders were salvageable received attention from an independent contractor and the balance replaced. The tumblers — all single pockets — were eventually given the heave-ho, swapped out for new stack models to bring wash and dry capacity into sync.

Getting the laundry back into full operation and outfitting a whole new kitchen came at a price tag of $70,000, the owner reports.

Being an industry novice, Goodrich leaned on her patrons to improve the laundry. She employed a comment box in the round-the-clock operation to serve as a conduit for feedback and customer suggestions during the hours the place was unmanned, as well as keeping her apprised of what things needed tweaking.

Check back Tuesday for the conclusion!

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