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Tumbleweed Monopoly (Part 1 of 2)

Small Texas store offers ice cream parlor, coffee shop and Laundromat

MARFA, Texas — A well-known business strategy is to run two businesses under one roof, share the overhead, and mingle the clientele. Perhaps the best example of this in our industry is Tumbleweed Laundry.

Daniel Browning is the “Laundromateur” who pulled off the magical feat of combining an ice cream parlor, coffee shop and Laundromat. The genius is that Browning has a monopoly in all three markets.

Relaxation and Art

Marfa is a small town of 2,200 residents with quite a bit of tourist trade. The reason for tourism is twofold: the place is a relaxing area to visit, with Big Bend National Park nearby, and it is the home of Chinati, the contemporary art museum, which designates Marfa as an art town.

In the 1970s, a successful New York artist named Donald Judd purchased a 550-acre former German prisoner-of-war camp. He began creating his abstract sculptures—large metal boxes as well as concrete shapes—and setting them all over the grounds as well as inside the 30-odd buildings. Then he invited other artists to come and work, and encouraged them to leave many works at the facility.

He got backing from the Chinati Foundation, thus Chinati was born. With daily guided tours at $25 a person, Chianti attracts serious art fans. All this is most unusual for a remote west Texas town that’s a 21/2-hour drive to the nearest city, El Paso, and close to the Mexican border.

Laundry Born in Former Hospital

So, back to Browning. Moving from Austin to Marfa, he and his wife envisioned a Laundromat since there wasn’t one in town. He produced a 130-page business plan, purchased a building, and set about creating a going concern. He dealt with Dexter equipment because he thought the company offered a good financing package. The total equipment cost came in at the $75,000 range, but he only had to put $40,000 into the venture.

The building he found that would work was an old, tiny, seven-room hospital. “Half the people living in Marfa today were born where the dryers are,” Browning says.

By doing all the construction work himself in nine weeks, he converted the hospital into a Laundromat and upstairs apartment.

His idea was to combine retail, commercial and wash, dry and fold (flip and fold). He went after flip-and-fold volume, but found that it was too sporadic and created too many hassles to make it worth dealing with. But he won hotel and restaurant trade, and his commercial operation was off and running.

One day, Browning was doing a side job, fixing a coffee shop’s espresso machine, when the owner said they were closing. Browning’s wife had been in the coffee business in earlier years, and she sometimes talked about opening a shop in Marfa. Something clicked. Why not combine a coffee shop alongside a laundry, and throw in ice cream to boot?

Browning studied his floor plan, and it became clear that he could give up some space for a coffee shop. Approximately a year and a half ago, the coffee shop/ice cream parlor came into being. It helped that the second coffee shop in town had closed, so he has a monopoly.

Perhaps Kaki Aufdengarten, Browning’s regular employee, says it best: “We’re the only Laundromat in town, the only coffee shop, the only ice cream parlor, so in a sense, we’re not a company. We’re a public service.”

Wednesday: Ingenuity is what makes America great...

Tumbleweed Laundry

Tumbleweed Laundry is located in an old hospital. “Half the people living in Marfa today were born where the dryers are,” owner Daniel Browning says.

tumbleweed's coffee shop

Browning got the idea to add a coffee shop while he was doing a side job: repairing an espresso machine for a soon-to-close “brew-er.”

Have a question or comment? E-mail our editor Bruce Beggs at [email protected].