February 26, 2010

A new spin on laundry

— Q: What did you used to do?

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Gregory Rec/Staff Photographer: Jason Wentworth and his wife Sandrine Chabert own and operate the Washboard Laundromat on Danforth Street in Portland. They bought the laundromat in 2002, completely renovated it and installed washers that use less water and dryers that use less gas.

click image to enlarge

Gregory Rec/Staff Photographer: Jason Wentworth and his wife Sandrine Chabert own and operate the Washboard Laundromat on Danforth Street in Portland. They bought the laundromat in 2002, completely renovated it and installed washers that use less water and dryers that use less gas.

A: I served in the state Legislature, representing Arundel, Kennebunkport and Lyman, for a couple of terms back in '90-'94. I was Bates College's environmental coordinator from 2001-2003. I also was director of the Alliance for Transportation Choice, a nonprofit working for changes in transportation policy. I've never held any job more than two years. I like getting new ideas off the ground and when they become routine, it's hard to stay excited about them. And in between I've done carpentry work. My father was a builder, and I learned from him. I did a couple of years at Clark (University) in Worcester and finished at USM, majoring in political science. Then I went into the Legislature. I was elected the year I graduated, so I thought I could put everything I'd learned to use right away. But the classroom work we did bore no relation to the Legislature.

Q: Even Machiavelli? Anyway, how long have you been doing laundry?

A: This is our eighth year. We remodeled the place and started in our current form in January 2003.

Q: How long has there been a Laundromat in the building?

A: For 50 years. Before that it was an A&P supermarket. People in the neighborhood still remember it, and the bakery that was across the street. Everything you needed for daily life was here, but when the move out of downtown came, the neighborhood started to change. The (Nicholas) family who ran the Laundromat years ago still owns the building. The owner I bought it from was maybe the third owner since.

Q: How much did the business cost?

A: It didn't cost very much at all. I paid, I think, $5,000 for it. About $4,000 too much. It was a mess.

Q: What did it come with?

A: A bunch of machines that, except for a couple, all went to the scrap yard. And a few customers, most of whom just didn't feel like walking to the next Laundromat. Everything inside was dilapidated, the electrical and plumbing; the gas service didn't meet code. The dryers were actually doing well, for being like 40-year-old dryers. Those we have now are seven years old and need more maintenance, but they are more efficient. We took everything out and replaced all the (systems), insulated the place, restored the tin ceiling as best we could. There were only three windows, and none operated; now we have like 22 to help make it a more pleasant place.

Q: What got you started?

A: It was something I'd wanted to do, and when the opportunity came at a price we could afford, we jumped on it. My wife was super supportive. We had no idea what we were getting into, how hard it is to start a business when you don't have much money and you're trying to do things differently in a competitive industry. For the first three years I was still working at Bates or doing carpentry, and my wife was taking shifts for a small amount of money, what we'd pay an employee, and we could not pay employees that well. We were generally worried that financially we were gonna get in a real mess. But three years ago we started to go into the black and have not gone back since. It took a long time to build a loyal customer base, a lot of really nice people. We get some who drive across town from the East End; they have to pass three or four other places to come to us. There are two Laundromats within three blocks in either direction. Anyone in a car has no reason to choose one over the others. And if someone's walking from Spring Street, in the middle, they could go in any direction. I didn't realize how hard it would be to change people's habits. Most people have a particular day of the week and time to go, machines they like to go to. Having a crew of three great people helps a lot.

Q: How do your services break down?

A: About a quarter of the business, a little over, is wash-dry-fold and commercial accounts. And then just under another quarter is wet cleaning and dry cleaning, which customers can choose, but 80 percent choose wet cleaning. There's a small amount of revenue from sales of soap and laundry bags and stuff. And the rest, 45 percent, comes from customers doing washing and drying themselves.

Q: What about the ''eco'' part?

A: Wet cleaning is a big part of the business, but not the biggest part. We contract it out to Accent Cleaners. When we started working with them, they were the only place doing wet cleaning, a cleaning process for delicate fabric types -- wool, linen, silk, pretty much any fabric that says ''dry cleaning only.'' It uses water and a detergent specific to the fabric type, and no other chemicals other than stain or spot treatment, so there's a lower impact on the environment. We're able to offer it at the same price as dry cleaning; the only difference is it takes a day longer to get back. But another positive is that it doesn't have that odor from the chemical residue. The clothes smell more like regular laundry. We're also as energy-efficient as we can be. We generate one 15-gallon container of waste a week; everything else, such as lint and cardboard and containers, is recycled. Customers help a lot with that. We also have a really efficient lighting system, and we're now able to produce 40 percent of the hot water with solar, although it was originally designed to be 65 percent. The machines start at $2.25 a load to start on cold, so saving money is an incentive. People have this idea that hot water, which I think is $3, cleans better. Drying costs a quarter for 6 minutes, a pretty standard price in Portland. The dryers, when we bought them, were among the most efficient. That's changed, but there's not a huge variation. I'd love to replace them, but it would cost like $40,000. We just paid off the loan for the others. Overall, our utilities cost about half of what a typical Laundromat pays. Our electricity bill is about $230 a month on average.

Q: How much money does a washer hold?

A: Depending on the coin box, about $150 if you let it fill.

Q : Must be fun to empty them. Like winning slots.

A: The first couple of weeks it was kind of exciting. It was also kind of depressing to finish the counting and realize that we'd come up way short of where we needed to be. And counting quarters can get really dull. I wish we'd been in position to do a card store.

Q: Is crime an issue?

A: We've never had outright vandalism of machines. We got broken into twice early on, but the security system worked and stopped the whole thing. We did get held up by a guy with a knife about two years ago. The employee did the right thing, didn't try to be a hero, and he took off with all the cash in the register. I don't know if he got picked up or not, but I hope he's paying his debt to society.

Q: In the prison laundry, maybe.

A: That would be totally just. These things can happen to any business. But there is a class of thieves out there that believe they are particularly skilled with crowbars and that the Laundromat is the place to go. It's pretty easy to case because you can come in and hang out for an hour for $5, so they do get hit fairly often. If there's no security system every machine can get busted open. But try to run down the street carrying $50 in quarters.

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