JACKSONVILLE, Fla. — Talk about a long commute. Every time Thomas Landenberger visits his newest coin-op, it’s a day of airport connections and a long-haul flight across the Atlantic. He’s by no means a jet-setter; just an international laundry entrepreneur living la dolce vita (the sweet life).
The American expatriate is a rare breed in an industry where most operators get behind the wheel and reach their stores in minutes, not hours sitting in coach. Although two of his laundries are just down the winding road from where he calls home in Italy, the third is 5,000 miles away on the Florida coast. Despite the distance, connecting with store operations for this tech-savvy businessman is just a click away.
MANAGING FROM AFAR
It’s not easy keeping up with this Wisconsin native, who served eight years in the U.S. Marine Corps Forces Reserve before strapping on his own backpack to discover himself and the world. These days, he balances family and business, helping raise three daughters while juggling the aforementioned trio of self-service wash-and-dry locations along with a Tuscan bed-and-breakfast.
We sync our travel schedules and catch up at his year-old Veterans Coin Laundry anchored in a strip center near Jacksonville’s Naval Station Mayport. Team member Sue Wahl cheerfully welcomes me inside and introduces me to the variety of stainless steel machinery lined up with military precision and set to a backdrop of the Red, White, and Blue.
The 20-washer, 20-dryer pocket coin-op is the proving ground for what Landenberger and longtime business partner Dr. Matt Dahnke hope will give rise to a chain managed from afar. Since their school days, the two buddies were determined to follow their ambitions. The latter established a thriving medical practice in the San Francisco Bay area, while the former built a profitable portfolio from the ground up in the Mediterranean.
It is there, tucked away in Italy’s picturesque rolling hills south of Florence, where two quaint storefront laundries under the banner Wash & Dry Lavarapido were established. At 430 square feet and housing a handful of machines, these pint-sized versions of the classic American business model put a new spin on a traditional way of life.
The routine of domestic machine washing and hang drying may be woven into Tuscany’s fabric, but there’s a wrinkle come winter when rains soak the region and render clotheslines useless. Residents warmed up quickly to the convenience of renting tumbler time even at the pricey equivalent of $4.55 (€4) for a half-hour spin in one of the two 30-pound pockets, and $5.70 (€5) in the upper or lower 45-pound basket set.
“I knew I had won their hearts when I saw the older women coming in,” the operator recalls of luring locals away from hanging wash. “Having a dryer at home (in Italy) is a luxury because electricity is so expensive.”
Wash & Dry Lavarapido’s inaugural branch, launched six years ago in Vaggio, a village of 1,500 inhabitants, is laid out with side-by-side stacks flanked by twin 20-pound and 40-pound front-load washers, vending at €4.50 ($5.15) and €7.50 ($8.55), respectively.
A second outlet swung open its doors months later with five washers and four dryer pockets in the nearby municipality of Reggello. Unlike the first leased storefront, this branch was built out following the purchase of the two-story structure.
Both Wash & Dry Lavarapido facilities are unattended and utilize a central payment kiosk accepting coin and cash to activate machines. Loyalty cards are available for purchase at €5.50 ($6.25), providing a vehicle for patrons to obtain bonus credits with loads starting at €20 ($22.75).
According to Landenberger, the biggest hurdle to store development revolves around dryer exhaust, where multiple roof or wall penetrations are a definite no-go. Reluctance by landlords to permit shoehorning ductwork from the street to the second-floor residential rooftop poses another obstacle, best overcome by locating a storefront — as in the case of Reggello — with an existing chimney grandfathered in.
While self-service laundries dot Italy’s cosmopolitan areas, they’re a novelty out in the rural landscape. Earning a reputation as a responsive operator helped the expat cultivate a following and put Wash & Dry Lavarapido on the map.
“If there’s ever a problem, my number’s on the wall — call and I’m there in two minutes,” the owner says, noting the proximity of his farmhouse residence to his storefronts.
FROM LATTE TO LAUNDRY
The laundry biz was introduced to the now-47-year-old Landenberger when he first put down roots in the Italian countryside. He resettled overseas from the Midwest after his Italian-born wife’s emigration process became bogged down. Serving as coffee barista in a café he co-owned with his brother-in-law, he struck up a conversation one day with a Speed Queen equipment importer who had a successful track record setting up shops in the market.
While rolling out an American-style, do-it-yourself wash-and-dry format in his adopted home was intriguing, the plan would have to wait. After having his fill of latte, and inspired by the classic Frances Mayes’ memoir Under the Tuscan Sun, Landenberger hung up his apron so he and his wife could start life anew raising their family in a farmhouse-turned-B&B.
Laundry re-entered the picture as he ferried his daughters past a shuttered newsstand in Vaggio.
“It was a light-bulb moment,” he recalls. “‘I’m going to put a Laundromat in there.’”
After securing the site and circling back to his distributor contact, Wash & Dry Lavarapido took shape.
The novice owner tended to the laundry, including opening and closing up shop. A guest at his bed-and-breakfast offered him a little sage advice.
“‘Success,’ he said, ‘is three things: delegate, delegate, delegate,’ and that stuck in my head,” Landenberger relates, explaining his decision months later to hire a security firm to take over twice-daily door duty.
The move, which didn’t sit well with his spouse, underscored the direction he was headed.
“When I have 10 Laundromats, how can I open each one? I gotta get a system into place,” he recounts telling her. “And with one Laundromat, I was already putting systems in place.”
Check back Thursday for the conclusion!