MONONA — It’s just before 8 a.m. and freshly dry-cleaned sport jackets, shirts and blouses shrouded in clear plastic are being hung on racks in two Nissan delivery vans.
Tara Hopmann’s route on this day will include stops in McFarland, Fitchburg, Monona and Cottage Grove. Abraham Nebel’s deliveries are farther west in communities such as Verona, Middleton and Cross Plains.
Four days a week the two drivers for Klinke Cleaners spend their mornings organizing racks of clothes as part of a pickup and delivery program launched just a few weeks prior to the start of the COVID-19 shutdown in 2020.
The now two-year-old service is a way to further diversify and expand the company’s offerings to its customers, many of whom are already having groceries delivered, do their banking electronically and shop at their computer.
“We’re getting close to needing another driver,” said Kathy Klinke, who oversees deliveries. “When we started it, I didn’t know how it would go, but people like it not because they don’t want to leave their house. It makes it easy, convenient and fast for them.”
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Business at Klinke and other dry cleaners in the Madison area has rebounded from the early days of the pandemic, when sales were off by more than 80%. Most say they are now down less than 10% when compared with the days prior to the pandemic, but changes in the industry abound.
Some dry cleaners, unable to weather the plunge in business, closed their doors for good. Others have added or are increasing their emphasis on wash-and-fold services as more casual wear becomes the norm. Meanwhile, staffing continues to be an issue for most.
Lake Mills Cleaners has five trucks that pick up clothing from homes and businesses in Dane County and parts of Columbia County and another that services Jefferson and Rock counties. But the number of employees has shrunk to 18 from 28. For the past year, it has forced owner Lance Tarnutzer, whose grandfather founded the company in 1938, to take on a route.
“We work with a skeleton crew right now getting everything done,” said Ellie Tarnutzer, Lance’s wife, who also works in the business. “It’s stressful at times. Everybody is giving an extra hand.”
About 85% of Lake Mills Cleaners’ business involves picking up and dropping off clothes at individual homes, where route drivers can use garage codes or keys to the home, or place the item in an enclosed porch. The remaining business comes from those who visit the store in Lake Mills or from those who use one of 18 locations inside other businesses, such as the Ace Hardware in Cambridge, the Lodi Kwik Mart, Deegan’s Hardware in Edgerton and McFarland True Value Hardware.
Lake Mills Cleaners has not increased or decreased its service area since the pandemic, but it has eliminated plastic bags in favor of green fabric garment bags. Business is also returning and could grow further if young professionals in the Midwest follow the trends of the East Coast, where suits and ties are returning to work wardrobes.
“Whatever happens on the East Coast takes about 18 months to get here,” Ellie Tarnutzer said. “I think you’re going to see young people starting to dress up again.”
No staff, no service
At Middleton Cleaners, 6617 University Ave., Craig Daubenspeck has owned the business for 26 years and is overwhelmed with work. He has just two other employees, one of whom is his 82-year-old mother, but could use two more workers.
He’s working 12- to 14-hour days and is working after hours and on Sundays when the business is closed to catch up on orders. The staffing issue at one point this month forced Daubenspeck to post signs for more than five days in his shop saying he was no longer accepting any cleaning.
“It’s not tenable for the long term,” said Daubenspeck, 58. “It’s more like how long can I put up with it. It doesn’t make for a great home life.”
Among the dry cleaners that have closed recently in the Madison area are Pilgrim Cleaners at 7475 Mineral Point Road and Best Cleaners, 5712 Raymond Road. The Best Cleaners in Middleton remains open but is now owned by Maria Perez, who owns Master Cleaners in Cottage Grove and has another location on Madison’s East Side.
Perez, who founded her business in 2008, has diversified her revenue by offering alterations, embroidery and wash-and-fold services, but dry cleaning accounts for the vast majority of her business. Like other businesses, staffing is an issue, and she admits that purchasing Best Cleaners in April 2021 was a leap of faith.
“It was risky because we didn’t know how the market was going to behave,” Perez said. “But really, sales are good over there.”
5 sites closed
At Klinke Cleaners, wash-and-fold services were added in August 2021 for its delivery customers, while the company has closed five of its 19 locations in the past few years, all of which were being considered before the pandemic, according to Steve Klinke, the company’s president.
Its Downtown location on East Washington Avenue was shuttered due to a redevelopment project, while the store at 1726 Thierer Road was closed after the building in which it leased space was sold. Stores on North Gammon Road, University Avenue and on South Park Street have also closed.
But this fall, Klinke plans to launch an automated program that will allow customers to drop off and pick up their dry cleaning anytime of the day, seven days a week, at two Dane County locations and another in Waukesha County. The system would include text messages sent to customers as soon as their order is finished.
“The future of dry cleaning is what we’re working on right now,” said Steve Klinke, who runs the business with his brother, Rich. “It will allow for higher degrees of customer access.”
Klinke Cleaners was founded in 1958 by Maurice Klinke, who had converted a former chicken hatchery that had been producing 50,000 chicks on Monona Drive into a shopping center, and used one of the spaces to open Klinke Econo-Wash Laundry. To keep up with customer demands, dry-cleaning machines were added, and the business was ultimately converted from self-service to full-service, according to the company’s website.
Today the operation includes 10 locations in Dane County and four in Waukesha County. The Monona store does all of the dry cleaning for the delivery and wash-and-fold services. It also serves as the local dropoff for Monona and East Side Madison residents, and provides clothing services for guests at some of Madison’s larger hotels in the Downtown area.
Klinke calls the delivery service launched in 2020 a “game changer” for the company, and it has helped accelerate the recovery from the pandemic as “a large portion” of the company’s regular customers have moved to pickup and delivery, Klinke said.
Sales began to rise in fall 2021, but when the Omicron variant struck, business tumbled once again before climbing at a steady rate in February as more people returned to the office and mask mandates began to end.
“Every day has been a new benchmark to our sales normalizing,” Klinke said. “It just keeps climbing day after day.”
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“Whatever happens on the East Coast takes about 18 months to get here. I think you’re going to see young people starting to dress up again.”
Ellie Tarnutzer, of Lake Mills Cleaners