PORTLAND, ME — Why did you become part of the coin laundry industry? I’m sure you’ve been asked that question many times. Jason Wentworth joined the industry more than four years ago. His response to that question is a bit different.
Wentworth, an environmentalist, worked for an alternative-energy company and wanted to try something creative in the private sector, applying his experience with solar energy and energy efficiency in general. “Coin laundries kept coming up,” Wentworth says. “That got me thinking. I’ve been in many laundries and found them to be uninviting. I had a criticism of the industry — there was a cookie-cutter approach to laundries. It didn’t do justice to the industry, just repeating what everyone else was doing.”
Wentworth was ready to bring something different to the industry.
ACCENT ON THE ENVIRONMENT
When Wentworth said he wanted to open a different, more inviting laundry, he wasn’t kidding. Wentworth, along with his wife, Sandrine, own the Washboard Eco Laundry in Portland, Maine. He bought the store in 2002.
“The store was in bad shape; we gutted the building, sold the machines for scrap. We started just about from the ground up. We put in a new floor, all new plumbing and new electricity. We put in 20 windows, a comfortable seating area and a lighting system that was more like restaurant lighting or modern home lighting.”
The laundry is only 1,100 square feet, and features 20 front loaders and nine stacked dryers. The largest washer is a 40-pound unit. “I wish I could add a larger front loader to the mix,” he adds.
Wentworth’s goal was to design the business around the goal of minimizing the environmental impact of cleaning clothes. Here are some of the things his store offers:
• a solar system that generates the majority of the hot water
• the most energy-efficient washers, he claims, on the commercial market
• a comprehensive recycling program
• detergents sold from bulk containers to reduce packaging waste
• several natural, non-petroleum-based detergents and fabric softener available along with sodium percarbonate, a non-chlorine bleach alternative
• a partnership with a local cleaner doing wetcleaning
• a radiant floor-heating system
• four times the typical insulation found in commercial buildings, and
• a high-efficiency lighting system.
In addition, he has recently worked on a dryer heat-recovery system. By making an effort to separate the intake area from the exhaust area, Wentworth has seen a six to seven percent increase in efficiency. The secret? He built a small greenhouse on the back of the building that exhaust pipes pass through and then exhaust out into the area behind the building. The intake air enters the greenhouse through another path and goes through the louvers into the mechanical area behind the dryers and acts as make-up air. This, he explains, cuts down on the gas needed to heat intake air and also cuts down on the cycles the burner goes through.
“Our utility costs are about 12 percent of the gross.” These efforts have also won the admiration of some customers.
“We have two other stores within three blocks of us. It’s pretty intense for Portland. We probably have two, maybe three, more stores than the community needs. But a lot of the customers are very focused on environmental issues.”
Wentworth believes many operators are concerned about energy efficiency but just don’t have the expertise, or time, to follow up on these concerns. “I spent a lot of time talking to the manufacturer engineers when I was researching the industry. Many small operators are just trying to survive and run their businesses. They don’t have that extra time to focus on energy. It took me weeks to get enough information about making good energy choices.”
Wentworth also believes that while distributors supply plenty of helpful industry information, their expertise may not lie in energy efficiency. However, he believes more information may become available as more and more operators demand that information.
Wentworth realizes that one simple bit of advice won’t save operators a lot of money when it comes to energy efficiency. But he offers a starting point to those concerned with cutting costs.
“Lighting is an area that is often overlooked. The industry recipe is intense lighting throughout the store. Leave the lights on for security purposes. My lighting bill, my whole electric bill, is less than many residential bills. My lighting is not really intense; it sets an atmosphere that customers enjoy. It’s more like a neighborhood pub than a typical laundry. It’s a lower level. I turn the lights off at night; I have a good security system that eases my worries.
“My store is lit well, not necessarily well lit. I asked, ‘What level of lighting do we need to make people feel comfortable and do their laundry without eye strain?’”
Wentworth spent about $160 to bring in a lighting expert to do the laundry analysis. “I’ve saved that money over and over again.”
Winning over customers is always a challenge for a new laundry. Wentworth’s laundry was no exception.
“I had an idea that focusing on the environment would be popular, and I have been impressed by the customer reaction. It’s tremendous. We would be a failing store if not for the environmental concept due to the competition. This store was failing when I bought it. It was too small, had poor parking and building limitations.”
Wentworth believes he has an advantage over the competition because of lower utility costs.
“This gives me the ability to offer slightly lower pricing. It’s worth doing, if you advertise. I started with lower prices but no one knew it. Now, with a renovated operation, people know about us. They know about the lower prices.
“This attracts some customers. I would say one-third of the customers come to us because of our location; one-third come because they like the atmosphere and feeling of the store; and one-third come because of the environmental method.
“We get feedback from customers all the time. Three or four times a week, customers talk about our environmental efforts. Some customers will pass several stores just to use our store.”
In addition to having a good atmosphere and an environmental “buzz,” Wentworth says he also pays his staff better than other stores, leading to better employees and better customer relations.
“This is a cool place to hang out. We’ve got momentum which builds on itself. The reverse can also be true. I’ve seen this with at least one of my competitors.”
Wentworth believes some operators rely too much on their location for success. “These operators take for granted that customers will come to them, no matter what. If you miss out on key elements, that equation starts to change. A person with a car will drive to the next store. It’s different with walking customers.”
VARIETY OF GOALS
Wentworth is not your typical operator, yet he faces many of the same challenges that most operators do.
“I got into this industry for different reasons than the typical operator. I worked in the non-profit sector; I focused on offering people great value. This motivates me. For me, this is important. For others, it isn’t.
“I could never let this store slip or raise prices just because I could. Everything I do is because I have a certain set of values in mind.
“Of course, I do want to make a decent living from this for myself and my family. But that’s just one of my motivations.
Wentworth isn’t interested in expanding his operation, but he wishes that his model would be copied by others.
“I don’t have a lot of interest in opening another store, but look for opportunities to help others who may want to do this. For me, personally, the franchise approach doesn’t have a lot of appeal, although my model might work. My motivation is to try new things; just replicating something can get boring.”
SURPRISES AND CHALLENGES
While he researched the industry in a variety of ways, such as visiting other stores, and focused on issues such as utilities and energy efficiency, he admits entering the industry with some naive ideas of what was needed to be successful.
“The biggest surprise was not realizing how much time goes into the ‘nuts and bolts’ of keeping your store functioning. I thought I could devote time to marketing my concept; developing signs and brochures about the store.
“The first couple of years I was tied up in the operation. There was no time for the bigger picture things. I hear this a lot from others: ‘Once things get rolling, it’s easy to keep them rolling.’ But every week, I’m holding my breath about something going wrong.”
Wentworth sees two major challenges ahead. “One, you can’t let your guard down. Maintaining high standards can get tiring. The more time you spend in business, the easier it is to get complacent. When you walk into your own store, it’s easy to miss the little things. Those are the things that get you in trouble.” Customers will notice dirt and scum, he adds.
“You also need to walk into your store as if you were a customer. Some operators get tired of providing the energy required to keep things fresh.”
Maintenance is Wentworth’s second challenge. “You pay a lot for new machines, and if the equipment gets a lot of use, there comes a point where it costs a lot of money to keep them going. You must maintain them. When I reach that point, where the machines are in need of major maintenance, that will change my focus.”
LOOKING OUT FOR OTHERS
Wentworth grew up on an organic family farm started from just fields and woods. He rides his bike nearly every day. He is also convinced that making genuine environmental protection a cornerstone of a business generates loyal customers who recognize that doing business with him has benefits far beyond the direct transaction.
Wentworth truly values his customers. “My lower prices are a motivator for some customers, but others come to our store because they are concerned about the environmental impact of doing laundry. They would pay a premium price to wash here, but I don’t force them to.
“Some customers can’t afford higher prices. A lot of my customers live paycheck to paycheck. They can’t take a cab to the next store. I offer them good value, but I’m not comfortable making a profit off of poor people. I feel strongly about this.”