PASCAGOULA, Miss. — While Dr. Eric Lucas may not find everything that happens on the popular TV show ER realistic, he does admit that life in the emergency room (ER) is very hectic. So hectic, in fact, that he seeks out relaxation in a rather unusual way — putting in time at his card-operated laundry.
Lucas, a trauma specialist, has been practicing medicine for 21 years. He is part of the Singing River Hospital System, which includes Singing River Hospital, Pascagoula, Miss., and Ocean Springs Hospital, Ocean Springs, Miss. He also owns the Sudz Zone in Pascagoula.
“BIG EASY” BEGINNING
Lucas got his first taste of the laundry world in New Orleans in 1994. “I was looking for an investment, and saw an ad in a franchise magazine,” Lucas recalls. “I contacted the local Maytag distributor, and he sold me on the idea. I had done my laundry at home, and when my washer broke down, I visited some coin laundries in New Orleans. I wasn’t happy with what I saw. I’m the type of person who believes I can do something better. That had a great deal to do with my decision.”
The Bullard Avenue Maytag Laundry in New Orleans was born, and he says business was fair up until the time he sold the store in 1997. At the time, Lucas was practicing medicine in Louisiana and Mississippi and doing a lot of commuting. He decided to make Mississippi his home, and, even though he sold his store, he knew his future would include a laundry.
“Had I kept the old laundry, it would have been under 10 feet of water [because of Hurricane Katrina]. But when Katrina hit, there was a need for a coin laundry [in my area of Mississippi].”
In addition to being a good investment, his new laundry has helped him deal with the stress brought on by being an ER doctor.
“There’s just a different change of pace in the laundry,” he says. “It’s relaxing in there; you see people in a different environment. No one is rushed or hurried. No one is in pain. no misery surrounds people. I really like the coin laundry experience.”
THE IDEAL TENANT
In August 2007, Lucas opened Sudz Zone in Hospital Road Plaza, a 9,000-square-foot retail center Lucas constructed in a commercial area across from Singing River Hospital.
During the early days of the laundry, when there were still some kinks to work out, Lucas checked on the store regularly. “Attendants call me if there is a problem. My wife’s office is right next door to the laundry, and she can check on things in case of an emergency.” His oldest daughter works with his wife, and his youngest daughter helps out in the laundry after school. “It’s somewhat of a family affair.”
The Pascagoula area was lacking laundries, he says, and it was on the fringe of Katrina’s storm surge, making it a good location. He can easily check on the laundry due to its proximity to the hospital, but some Katrina-related problems have come up.
“Because of Katrina, the insurance market collapsed. The state had to come in and [take over the insurance market]. Insurance became astronomically high. I was limited to only the state carrier. My costs were much higher than I anticipated.”
Because of Hurricane Katrina, strict FEMA building codes came into play. “National codes were enacted. We had to elevate the property higher, which cost a lot of money. We had to add more structural support, which also increased costs. In addition, just building after a hurricane meant higher costs.”
The frustrating part, he explains, was that many new building-related regulations were enacted, yet no one in the area was informed during the process about what was happening. “The federal government was mandating things. I’m not trying to speak bad about what went on — these things were needed — but it just all happened at once.”
Overall, Lucas estimates his total costs were about 25-30% higher than anticipated.
WORTH THE EFFORT
Sudz Zone recently celebrated its first anniversary, and Lucas is pleased with his coin laundry. The card-operated, fully attended store is open from 7 a.m.-10 p.m. and has 12 18-pound washers, 12 30-pound washers and six 60-pound washers. There are 24 30-pound dryers and three 75-pound dryers.
There is plenty of seating so the customers can relax, he says, and they can enjoy the two 37-inch flat-screen TVs as well as free Wi-Fi access. Wash, dry and fold service is available at 99 cents a pound (with next-day service) and $1.24 a pound (with same-day service).
Lucas, who spends an average of about two hours a day at the store, learned a lot from his first laundry experience. “Americans are larger people now than 15 years ago. I changed my equipment mix because of this, and it has worked out well. My most popular machines are the 30-pound washers.”
When it comes to listing the advantages of running a card-operated laundry, he says, “I could go on for days.” With money taken out of the equation, there is less to worry about. It also allows him to use incremental price increases, which he believes help reduce customer price complaints. Sudz Zone charges $1.99 for an 18-pound washer, $3.24 for a 30-pound washer, and $6.02 for the 60-pound washer. Customers pay 28 cents/six minutes for the 30-pound dryers, and 55 cents/six minutes for the 75-pound dryers. The soap and snack venders also have card access, as well as the restroom (no charge).
Some owners are leery about the card education process. Lucas says the “locals” have adapted to the cards, but a few customers have said “no” to it. “[The cards] are really convenient, especially if you’re a ‘plastic’ person; you just swipe your credit card in here and you’re done.”
Owners who have trouble dealing with just one attendant may be surprised that Lucas has seven, with an average shift of five hours. “This leaves me more flexibility when employee problems crop up. Others can fill in as needed.”
Since Lucas has practiced medicine for 17 years in Mississippi, some of the customers realize that their laundry owner is also an ER doctor.
“Most of my customers, it seems, have ended up in the ER. I know a majority of the locals. I’ve been here for so long that it seems like I treated everyone here, their children and their grandchildren. Remember, I worked here and commuted in the past.”
It hasn’t been uncommon for laundry customers to ask for medical advice during the years. “Once there was a guy having a heart attack at the laundry. My attendant talked the customer into coming into the emergency room where I was working. He was worried about [leaving his clothes at the laundry], so I called the attendant and told her about the situation. The patient had a great outcome, and his clothes were also cleaned. I told the attendant to pay for the clothes, and I would reimburse her.”
While his medical skills have yet to be called on in the laundry, just recently an accident outside Sudz Zone had him putting his laundry work on hold.
“We’re near a busy intersection. There was a motorcycle accident and the person had a head injury. I just happened to be at the Laundromat shooting the breeze when this happened. One of my customers called me to go out and help. I beat the EMS workers to the scene and stabilized the person. The person then went to the ER. When a medical co-worker saw me, I heard, ‘What are you doing here? You’re not working today.’”
Five or so years down the line, he has thought about expanding his laundry involvement. “I plan on cutting back on my medical hours. The laundry is my outlet, not necessarily a financial alternative. I have a daughter in Atlanta and a son in Baton Rouge who are trying to get me to build stores so they could run them. I’ll still practice medicine, work in the laundry and teach martial arts classes.”
His goal is to keep things simple and stay relaxed. Just what the doctor ordered, one might say.