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Back in the Game

Mark Benson |

CHICAGO, Ill. — If there’s one thing for certain in this industry, it’s that coin laundry customers have a diverse list of wants and needs. For example, many customers are anti-bleach, afraid they might “erase” the color from their clothes. But others prefer bleach. They are your chefs and painters trying to keep their work clothes snow white. Oh, and don’t forget your bank robbers.The bank robber was seeking riches, but he needed the rags first, apparently. This would-be criminal mastermind graced our presence a couple of years ago, looking for loads of bleach and a public bathroom to clean the exploded red dye from his stolen greenbacks.This individual couldn’t have looked more suspicious if the phrase “call the cops” had been written in red dye down the front of his shirt. The police were called, and his attempt to literally launder money ended when armed officers stormed the stall.Just another day at the coin laundry.Welcome to the World’s Largest Laundromat in suburban Chicago. We are well known all around the area and some of you may be familiar with us if you read the trade publications. The weekly intrigue of our operation is fueled by some simple numbers: 13,500 square feet plus 301 machines plus “Open 24 Hours” equals about 5,000 people darkening our doorways each week. Half of that number chugs through on Saturday and Sunday alone.How did we reach these numbers? Tom Benson, my father, bought this store in 1999. For years, he was a business broker specializing in the laundry industry. My dad put his own personal stamp on this decades-old store and revitalized it. It wasn’t easy. He stayed around day and night and introduced himself to the customers. Free coffee and donuts became a daily treat. Our slowest day, Wednesday, was boosted by free pizza.Our neighborhood is primarily Hispanic, meaning that it’s incredibly family-oriented. With this in mind, my dad added clowns, entertainers and even a bird sanctuary to keep the kids occupied, and thereby ease the parents’ burden.He then set his sights on what were potentially fatal energy bills. The largest commercial solar display in the state went up, and Enron went out.BACK TO SQUARE ONEJust as the world was starting to take notice, tragedy struck. A small spark led to a flame, and by the time it was all over, nothing was left of the store but the original concrete slab. My older brother, Eric, and I were there as it burned. Everyone got out except the birds.The next day tested all our senses. There was the smell of everything smoldering. The taste of ash in our lungs. The feel of charred paper and plastics. The sound of trucks tossing the rubble around.My father, who had been in London on a vacation, rushed home from his trip, and using his sense of sight, saw a most stunning and important thing: customers, employees and neighbors alike hovering around the ruin, mourning the loss of a neighborhood fixture.AN EVEN BETTER STOREYou expect people to watch a fire. But when the flames were long gone, the customers were not.They wanted their laundry back, and they got their wish. We reopened a year ago, with customers lining up the night before knocking on the door, hoping we would open a day early.Everything that was lost is back, plus we added a children’s education center and play area, an expanded arcade with more machines and more space.The customers came back and brought their friends. Sales records fell and the world started to notice again. We’ve been featured in newspapers from the Chicago Tribune to the Shanghai Daily, and everywhere in between. We’re made for TV, too, with everyone from CNN to the Sundance Channel coming by to give us a look. News shows did live feeds with the morning crowds, and Reader’s Digest called us “America’s Best Laundromat.”I believe the World’s Largest Laundromat is like no other store, yet we have something in common with all of your stores. Our stores — no matter the scale, features, the type of machines or the energy costs — become our own unique universes the second a customer walks in the door. There are families of every race and creed with kids riding in the laundry carts; there are the college students writing papers on laptops as their clothes go around and around; there are the seniors who come in for the wash but also for a much-needed ear; and there are those, like the bank robber, who aren’t customers at all.And that is where this column was born, with our customers. This isn’t a “how-to” in customer relations, though hopefully lessons can be learned. No, this is a tribute of sorts to the odd, wonderful and even scary characters who bring character to our four walls. Rarely a day goes by when my father and I don’t look at each other, shake our heads and say, “endless entertainment.”From our perch here in suburban Chicago, please allow us in the coming months to regale you with stories of the characters who color our world.This is Mark Benson’s inaugural column. Mark would like to hear any comments you have about the column, as well as any tales you have about the people who patronize your store. 

About the author

Mark Benson

World's Largest Laundromat

Manager

Mark Benson, manager of the World's Largest Laundromat in Berwyn, Ill., would like to hear any comments you have about the column, as well as any tales you have about the people who patronize your store.

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