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Timing Is Everything: Former Salon Owner’s Laundry Is a Cut Above

Paul Partyka |

In 1993, Deborah Miller was a partner in a California hair salon. After just a year in business, she bought out her partner. After five years, she moved the business to a new location. The salon experience helped prepare her for a new business challenge: a coin laundry.“The biggest thing I learned was that you had to take chances to progress. Because of that experience, I had the courage to put a lot of money into a new business.”While Miller enjoyed the salon business, there was a down side. “The salon business was stressful because managing 16 people was a nightmare. Not just 16 people, but 16 hairdressers, mostly women,” she laughs.When she gave birth to a girl in 2006, it was time for a lifestyle change. “My dad owned quite a few laundries. I knew that [coin laundries] were a good business and there was a lot less stress with them than hair salons. That was very appealing.”FAITH IN OTHERSMiller looked at many existing stores and received guidance from her father and Automated Laundry Systems, her distributor.“I was a bit uneasy about opening a brand new store with no track record. But this perfect location just pops up — 20 minutes from my home. Everything then fell into place. It was perfect timing.”She committed to purchasing the location in July 2006, sold the salon and property to her assistant later in the year, and The Laundromat of Highland Park in Los Angeles opened in November 2007.Miller left the planning to her father and the distributor. “I didn’t have a say in the project. My dad and the distributor took care of everything. I even let them pick the colors. I was given a price, and I believe [the distributor] really went that extra mile.”The upscale, 4,300-square-foot store features terra cotta-colored walls, plenty of shiny, stainless-steel machinery and a gray tile floor. “It has a very open and modern look.”The store’s 800-square-foot patio in front is also a selling point, she says. Miller hopes to some day rent this space to someone who would sell food, such as tacos, to waiting customers.Her freestanding store is located in a low-income, but safe, area, she says. “It’s close to South Pasadena, which is an upscale area, and is about a mile from Occidental College.” The clientele is about 95% Hispanic and includes college kids and mothers who bring along their children.If you doubted the trust she had in her advisors, consider the fact that her laundry had three nearby competitors, including one right across the street. “The stores were all there at the time, but the distributor had complete faith and thought this was still the best location they had ever chose. I trusted their experience.”There’s no shortage of variety when it comes to choosing a machine at the laundry. There are 12 top loaders, 14 25-pound washers, 12 40-pound washers, 10 50-pound washers and four 75-pound washers. She also offers 27 stacked dryers and four 75-pound dryers.LEARNING THE BUSINESSWhile she didn’t get directly involved with the nuts-and-bolts planning, it would be a mistake to think that she doesn’t run the laundry.For example, she chatted with area laundry customers about the possibility of opening a card store. “Yes, the cards were too expensive, but I asked a lot of people about this and their response was somewhat negative. I’m glad I didn’t go that route. Customer education was also a concern.”The fully attended store is open from 6:30 a.m. to 10 p.m. She visits the store three times a week to handle supplies and payroll and make sure everything is working. A surveillance system allows her to keep an eye on things when she’s at home.“The biggest headache is dealing with the vending machine coins — separating the nickels and dimes from the quarters and rolling them. I just bought a separator and roller for $150. That’s the best $150 I have ever spent.” Just dealing with the vending inventory and filling the machines requires two to three hours a week. “[Vending] is a nice profit, but I spend more time on that stuff than I spend on the entire business.”After being open for about a year, she has decided to raise the prices on all her equipment by a quarter. She isn’t all that concerned about competitors because she believes her prices already stack up favorably, and she offers a beautiful store.Miller is also a big proponent of marketing. “We had a well-advertised grand opening, put 20,000 door hangers on apartments surrounding the laundry, gave out free tacos, rice and beans and had a drawing for a flat-screen TV. There was a clown doing face-painting for the kids and we had Santa visit the store.” She also advertised in a church bulletin and even hired a sign lady to hold a fluorescent sign outside her store on slow days.“The door hangers were the best and the most expensive thing. They were really beneficial, and I noticed the increase in business immediately. All of these things have been good.”After managing 16 employees at her salon, dealing with four laundry employees, two part-time and two full-time, doesn’t seem so bad. “I’m lucky with my girls. Three of them don’t speak English, but the head girl, who gets paid more, handles everything. She’s phenomenal."While the attendants aren’t involved in cash transactions, Miller keeps a refund bag with 20 one-dollar bills at the store so attendants can give vending-related refunds. Ten rolls of quarters are used for refunds when people lose money in a changer, for example.SETTLING INA new business is always a challenge. So far, so good, Miller says. “I’m pleased with the store. I was scared at first, especially when business slowed in the summer when school was out. I was shocked at this, even though my dad warned me about it. Business went down, but then it came up, and then some. [Financially,] it’s meeting expectations.”She has also discovered that getting one’s hands dirty in the coin laundry business differs from the salon business. “Yes, I actually get dirty fingernails. It’s different to get dirt and grime on my nails rather than hair color,” she jokes.Expansion is definitely a possibility. “Once you know how to run one laundry, that’s a big part of the battle. The second store would be a whole lot easier.” 

About the author

Paul Partyka

American Coin-Op

Paul Partyka was editor of American Coin-Op from 1997 through May 2011.

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