CICERO, Ill. — While many people know that Al Capone built his criminal empire in Chicago, outsiders may not know that Capone moved to Cicero, Ill., to escape Chicago police. Cicero, a neighbor of Chicago, has had its share of ups and downs.The town, now largely Hispanic, is often associated with government scandal. Some business operators might shy away from this town. Angel Reynoso and Robert Renteria disagree.Reynoso has three coin laundries in Cicero. Renteria, executive vice president/co-founder of WashPro USA, Westchester, Ill., has developed all three of Reynoso’s laundries. The newest store, El Rio Laundry, opened in 2005. It is nearly 6,000 square feet. The other laundries, a 2,800-square-foot store and a 3,400-square-foot laundry, opened in 1992 and 1995.What’s interesting is that Reynoso initially wanted to open his first coin laundry in Chicago, Renteria recalls. “Reynoso had a grocery in the area and was familiar [with Cicero],” Renteria says. “People knew him in Cicero, it was his own backyard.”MAKING IT WORKThe newest laundry is off a corner, a great location, Renteria says. It’s an all-front-load store. The El Rio Laundry has five 18-pound washers, 20 25-pound washers, 18 40-pound washers, 31 50-pound washers and three 75-pound washers. There are 43 stack dryers and two 75-pound stacks. Renteria believes the neighborhood had been underserved by the other stores’ washer sizes.One unique store feature is that goods are sold over the counter rather than through venders. “[Reynoso] sells food, laundry supplies, candy, cowboy boots, belt buckles, cowboy hats and CDs. It’s going very well. By selling over the counter, you can make more profit. Distributors don’t educate the operators enough and give them these tips.“It was my idea to do this; Latino people do business with Latino people. He’s known in the area and this helps. This turned out to be a home run.”Renteria believes the store’s great visibility and high traffic count contribute to its success. The store has a 3-D curve on the corner with wraparound windows. “It has great curb appeal.” Despite the fact that there are about a dozen small laundries within a mile of this store, Reynoso exceeded his projections by $4,000 a week, Renteria adds.At this point, crime and vandalism haven’t been concerns, Renteria says. The store utilizes a 24-hour surveillance system, and the customers respect the business.“Customers even wipe down the machines they’re using. A lot of this has to do with the owner being present. His presence is a big deal. His family helps him manage the stores, and he pops in unannounced several times a day.“This is important because this needs to be a feel-good industry. No one walks into a laundry with a smile on their face. If the owner is there to greet you, he can make it the best possible experience that you can have and turn that frown around.”Parking is the biggest concern, and if the Reynoso/Renteria team could do anything different, they would create a larger store, an 8,000-square-foot laundry.AN IDEAL LOCATION?Why are some laundries so successful? One can certainly debate that question, focusing on a variety of factors. In this case, due diligence played a key role as well as discounting a negative perception.Some might not see Cicero as a good location, but Renteria wasn’t deterred by this.“I came from the armpit of the barrio myself. I’m not unfamiliar with the people and I’m not afraid of the area. If you’re afraid to go into a particular area, I would advise you not to do it.”Why Cicero? “It was a good choice when you think about a laundry’s need to attract large families and people who don’t have washers and dryers. These people are on the lower economic scale.“Just because an area is pretty doesn’t mean it’s going to make a good area for a laundry. Being safe also doesn’t mean it’s a good area for a store. That’s just one pitfall of this industry — a lower economic area can be a good area for a laundry.”DOING YOUR HOMEWORKIf you’re considering opening a new store, Renteria has a bit of advice: you need to check out the credentials of the individual you’re working with, not just the company. “Tell this person to show you 10 stores he personally built and check with the operators of the stores.”Renteria believes the coin laundry industry lacks enough experienced people to go out and do things such as survey the other laundries in a one-mile area of a proposed location. “You have to find a location that accommodates parking, is zoned properly and is priced affordably. These are the first challenges when opening any store.“You have to see what other stores have and don’t have in order to make your store competitive. You have to base things on demographics, determine what machines would be appropriate, and not just have a ‘cookie-cutter’ store and tell someone it’s only going to cost a certain amount.“If a store isn’t put together right, it doesn’t matter if the store is affordable.”Once you open your door, an operator will be judged on many factors, Renteria believes. “Having people say ‘Everything is working’ is one of the best compliments you can receive. Customers are upset when things don’t work. Customers don’t like to be treated rudely and discover that no one is at the store to help them out.”Even something as simple as maintaining clean bathrooms is key, according to Renteria. “People tend to forget that laundries cater mostly to women, and cleanliness is important to them.”The Reynoso-Renteria team are even considering building another new store.THE HUMAN ELEMENT“I treat my customers like family. [Reynoso] is on my Christmas list and I’m on his Christmas list. I know his family.“He had a choice to go anywhere and spend $4.3 million (his total industry investment). We don’t ever talk about equipment. We discuss marketing, employee issues, vending questions, what machines are doing well, etc.“After all is said and done, you still have to roll up your sleeves and get to work. If he doesn’t succeed, I don’t succeed. The human element can get lost because others are just trying to make quotas. I don’t practice that.”
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