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In the Beginning ...

Fledgling store owners compare pre-ownership expectations to industry realities

CHICAGO — Think back to the time when you were first thinking of becoming a self-service laundry owner. Remember the work you put in researching the industry, sizing up equipment, studying the market where your store would be located?

You went into laundry ownership with certain expectations about what the experience might be like. So, does your reality of today differ from your expectations of yesterday?

American Coin-Op recently spoke with three relatively new store owners from around the country who spoke about their experiences during the brief time they’ve been operating.

Vivian “Vivi” Bueno is the owner of Vivi’s Laundry, a 3,500-square-foot attended store in Carson, Calif., that features Electrolux washers ranging from 22 to 80 pounds and dryers in 30- and 50-pound capacities. She offers fluff and fold services and says she will soon be incorporating dry cleaning and alterations. She just celebrated the store’s third anniversary on Oct. 2.

Gilbert and Mary Valenzuela are the owners of Tornado Laundromat in Amarillo, Texas. Their two stores—both around 3,500 square feet in size and offering Maytag washers and dryers—opened within the last few years, and they are preparing to open a third store in February. All locations are attended during business hours, plus require a full-time attendant to manage the new wash-and-fold delivery service.

John Templin Jr. and wife Ceara are brand-new store owners, having just opened their attended Laundry Lounge featuring Huebsch equipment in Winslow, Maine, in February. When Ceara found local Laundromats to be lacking, the couple decided to open their own. John worked nights and weekends remodeling and converting a former furniture store.

While Bueno considers store ownership her only occupation after a lengthy career at Intel, the Valenzuelas own and operate a concrete and construction company, and Templin works full-time as a power company lineman.

Each of the owners say they put in quite a deal of time researching the industry, spending years learning what was involved and finding the right properties for them.

Understanding the customer-facing nature of providing a service, all believe they were prepared to interact with those who frequent their stores.

“You’ve got to create that environment for what people want,” Templin says. “Listen to your customer base when they come in.”

And, of course, there was dealing with employees.

“We knew the steps it took to handle employees, and we take pride in our relationships we have with all of our employees, regardless of the business we are in,” Valenzuela says.

“Finding reliable and honest folks was hard,” says Bueno.

What aspect of laundry ownership has proven most challenging?

“The most challenging aspect we found to be to hold our standard of cleanliness at our Laundromat locations,” Valenzuela says. “Getting our employees to understand what standard is acceptable was the first step. After that, it is actually implementing those standards when there is demands for our drop-off services, and just the nature of a Laundromat.”

“Promoting and marketing” has proven most challenging for Bueno.

“There are new ways to make your name known and get the word out there to invite customers to come in,” she says. “We have to consider old school and new ways to advertise, to reach those who don’t like to rely on the digital world as well as those who are … using a smart phone.”

Does the reality of owning a store match your expectations?

“Yes, regarding running the business. No, regarding promoting it,” says Bueno. “I learned from folks who have had their Laundromats for 15-20 years and things were very different then. Self-service laundries were really self-service then; they ran with more autonomy than now. The business is essentially the same, it’s the clientele that’s evolved. Now we need to be attended as much of the time as possible, and be creative in attracting customers.”

“We had expectations to always be busy and find ways to fill the gaps of downtime that come with a self-service Laundromat … with other revenue producers and we feel as if we have done a great job doing that,” Valenzuela says.

What you have realized about the industry in the brief period you’ve been operating?

“We realized that there is a high demand for laundry business in a lot of locations that you would never think of,” says Valenzuela. “Even if you have the mindset that there is no way in an area, there is an abundance of people that need a washer and dryer or a place to do laundry.”

For Templin, it’s more about what he might have done differently.

“Knowing what I know now, I would have cut even more off my store to create more parking,” he says. “The main (water) line was small, so I had to have a big holding tank and a pump. And that took up room and I wasn’t able to put in tanning (beds) like I wanted to; it was going to be another revenue stream.”

What advice would you offer to an investor thinking about becoming a laundry owner?

“I’ve had the opportunity to chat with folks that wanted to know more about the business and learn what it takes,” Bueno says. “They seem to think that a Laundromat can be a side business that runs itself. Well, it used to be like that, (but) it’s not so independent anymore. My advice is plan to be present and active so you can learn everything about the business and your customers.”

“Some advice we could offer is don’t come into owning a Laundromat with the mindset of this is going to be a revenue generator if you just build it and let it run itself,” says Valenzuela. “There is so much more you can accomplish with a Laundromat when you hire quality employees, invest your time and push other ways to build revenue out of these facilities.”

It’s not surprising for Templin—who says he, family and friends did 90% of the construction work to get the Laundry Lounge ready—to recommend focusing on making the most of your time.

“Everybody has that same opportunity in the beginning,” he says. “We all have 24 hours a day, seven days a week, and it’s up to you to use that time to further … whatever you choose.”

And we all have enough time to look back and remember what it was like in the beginning.