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.
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.
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.
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. Getting the laundry back into full operation and outfitting a whole new kitchen came at a price tag of $70,000, the owner reports.
The sudsy side of Sweets & Suds has 15 washers positioned along two walls and 14 dryer pockets lining a third inside the modest 20-foot-by-36-foot trade area. With its long common folding table bisecting the space, congestion along the 4-foot-wide aisles is inevitable, requiring patrons to beg their pardons when ferrying clothes between washers and dryers.
Although the creature comforts are limited to an overhead TV and a few barstools, the basics are all there: a variety of clean, working machines; ample folding space; and easy access to convenient off-street parking.
The decidedly intimate interior gives way to plenty of leg room outside, where tables and benches offer a front-row view of the passing parade of bicyclists and joggers making their way up and down the Erie Lackawanna Trail, a paved recreational path stretching 18 miles from Hammond to Crown Point on what was once a railway line leading to the industrial belt at the southern tip of Lake Michigan.
As the nature trail grew in popularity, so did Sweets & Suds, the owner says. Bikers pedal on over and brake for a snack while laundry customers take advantage of the path’s close proximity to pass the time or burn off calories.
Rick Stephenson pops in for a mixed berry smoothie before his return bike ride to Chicago’s Chinatown, some 70 miles to the north. In between sips, he mentions that Sweets & Suds is the perfect midway stopping point.
While this particular weekend saw him riding solo, Stephenson and his friends have made the little spot their destination for years to not only fuel up, but to take in a taste of Goodrich’s warm hospitality.
The banter between the genial host and those filtering in either at the front door or through the coin-op’s passageway makes for a lively scene as outdoor enthusiasts and laundry customers queue up at the counter and look on in anticipation as food is prepared before their eyes.
DON’T MIND WAITING A LITTLE
Like the coin-op, the kitchen is compact and gets the job done. A flattop grill is the main attraction as Goodrich lays down thick, hand-packed burger patties to put on a sizzling show for those inside. As she deftly moves between the refrigerator, cutting board and cooking apparatus, the anticipation builds for the next red basket to make its way out.
“Everything is fresh and cooked to order,” she says. “That’s what people like and don’t mind waiting a little for.”
Most sandwiches are priced in the budget-friendly $3 to $6 range, catering to both a captive coin-op crowd watching quarters, as well as those passing through on the run. Cool treats — from flurries and floats to cones and sundaes — are customized to a patron’s liking with their choice of Flavor Burst-striped soft-serve ice cream.
For a small venue, the place is hard to miss. A bright blue awning extends along most of the building’s perimeter, capped by a rooftop sign boasting a twist cone. At street level, the wind may get its way with some of the letters on a changeable message board, but the comings and goings of (laundry) baskets offer a tell-tale reminder that clean clothes are always on the menu.
The Sweets & Suds duo is strictly a one-person operation, and Goodrich prefers to go it alone rather than leave her business to others: “I just rely on myself. I don’t take a day off.”
Her grueling seven-day work schedule is interrupted at Thanksgiving and Christmas when she locks up shop for a week and heads off to Florida with family.
When it comes to cooking versus cleaning, this operator is quick to respond.
“Running a restaurant is a lot more work. You’ve got to have a lot of dedication on the restaurant side,” she explains, noting that the nature of self-service laundry is dependent on equipment ready to do its job for the patron.
Being at the helm of a tandem business does have its memorable moments, like the time four teens biking along the trail got caught in a torrential downpour and sought refuge inside the laundry.
The drenched girls soon spilled the beans that they would face an even bigger storm when their parents caught wind of their journey. With no customers in sight, the fast-thinking operator had them strip off their rain-soaked shirts and tossed the tops into the dryer while covering them in towels from the lost-and-found box.
Goodrich chuckles, recalling the sight of the girls huddled by the dryers all wrapped up and digging into their ice cream as they awaited a car ride home. An adventure that soured, but turned into something sweet.
Miss Part 1? You can read it HERE.