CULVER CITY, Calif. — Have you ever thought about making a new mark in the coin laundry world? What about combining several business ventures under one roof? About 15 years ago, while part of the corporate business world, Marion Illies had a similar idea.
Four years ago, she launched EZ New Web Laundromat & Café in Culver City, Calif. The 3,100-square-foot operation features a coin laundry and cyber café under one roof. On-site car washing and detailing is planned for the future.
While the end result of her idea was a glamorous business, her success was predicated on something less than exciting — doing one’s homework.
SLOW AND STEADY
“I have two masters degrees in business, one in the U.S. and one from Germany,” Illies says. “I traveled all over the world and had a successful corporate career.” Illies spent about 13 years in the corporate world. Her talents include proactively identifying problems, reversing negative sales trends and controlling costs, she says.
Eventually when she realized that she was unhappy in her situation, and with further advancement stalled, it was time for a change. “I came back to my idea and executed this idea. I started slowly; it was a drawn-out process. The building, the design, the consistency of branding — every detail took a long time to build as it is today.”
It took more than two years for EZ to open. All of the elements that comprise EZ today were part of her original idea except WiFi service, which wasn’t available back then.
The mission is to create an atmosphere where customers can unload their cares and do their chores while utilizing the services of soak and sip, she explains. “We’re taking the drudgery out of doing laundry, making it a fun, relaxing and a social experience.
“The laundry industry has been around for many years; there are stores in every neighborhood. There’s great room for expanding this type of concept. You walk into my place and it almost looks like an art gallery. People sit in the café; there’s no door separating it from the laundry. I wanted people to experience a quiet lounge experience with computers. I wanted to allow them to multitask.”
Illies refers to EZ as her “laboratory.” “I’m trying to find out what works, what doesn’t. The future might mean that these two concepts aren’t married together. It might mean a larger laundry.”
EZ’s coin laundry has 10 top loaders, 13 front loaders (including four 40-pound washers and four 50-pound washers) and 28 30-pound stack dryers.
Why Culver City? She says it was the first Southern California area to offer city-wide WiFi. “It was the perfect time to launch EZ. I chose this spot because all the studios are here. It’s a highly developed area. There are only two laundries in Culver City. You can’t build any new ones here, only remodel ones or operate existing ones. I knew about the laundry situation. I bought an old laundry and built the whole EZ concept within. People drive 10 to 15 miles to use the laundry.
“Our fluff-and-fold is well known. It’s very affordable (99 cents per pound). There’s free delivery and pickup (within a 15-mile radius), and we wrap the clothes in blue paper. The professional people like to drop their clothes off and experience the café. I’m also targeting commercial customers.”
The laundry is open from 6 a.m. to 10 p.m., and the café serves from 7 a.m. to 8:30 p.m. “I have an attendant at all times because I believe, whether you wash clothes or eat at a restaurant, the washer should be cleaned just as the table should be after you finish. The attendants assist customers, do fluff-and-fold and handle the drycleaning. We have totally separate profit centers with their own cash registers and POS systems.”
Between 65 and 70 percent of the customers use both the café and laundry during a visit, she estimates. While Illies cross-promotes, she hasn’t utilized a traditional advertising campaign. “What’s worked is basically word-of-mouth advertising. This is big to me. Our customers are happy and they pass this message to others. I do some direct marketing in the way of cold-calling businesses to emphasize fluff-and-fold commercial accounts.”
Balancing the traditional laundry service with the commercial accounts hasn’t been difficult. “This isn’t a problem because I extend hours when there’s a lot of fluff-and-fold business.”
THE LAUNDRY SIDE
The laundry side of EZ has met expectations, she says. “[The coin laundry business] has huge potential. Coin laundries are huge in this country; I have never had any regrets about entering this business. The added service was a bit of a challenge at the beginning, because my concepts were tougher to introduce. People can be confused when you offer too many services. That’s why I went slowly at the beginning. I believe in building a solid foundation before taking the next step, franchising.”
Surprisingly, especially for a newcomer, she says the laundry business hasn’t sprung any surprises on her. “I did a very elaborate business plan, made all my projections, and they have been met. We have plenty of return customers. I do little marketing things.”
One of her first decisions dealt with being a card or coin store. “I went with coin. Card systems require you to purchase huge amounts of cards; customers have to pay for the cards. By surveying customers, I found that they resent that. They were concerned about losing cards. EZ is about convenience to people, making life easier. We’re customer friendly here and there is never a shortage of quarters in the store.”
A BITE TO EAT
If you crave some food, breakfast and lunch are served at EZ. Sandwiches and salads are available. Larger breakfast items include a fluffy egg sandwich ($5.45) and burritos with eggs ($5.45). Other items include cereal with milk ($2.75), oatmeal ($2.75) and bagels ($1.50) with assorted ad-ons (cream cheese, etc.). Fruit salad ($3.25) and assorted pastries ($1-$2.95) round out the morning offerings.
Lunch includes a special ($7.09), lasagna ($5.25) and EZ chicken ($5.55). The sandwiches include chicken breast/spinach ($6.95), smoked turkey with brie ($6.50), tuna ($6.50), vegetarian ($6.25), smoked salmon ($6.95), and ham and cheese ($6.50).
“I wanted to create a café where people had the convenience of food and drink. It took me a while to figure out the right menu and eliminate waste. If you don’t have your concept down, there will be problems.
“If you don’t have restaurant experience, I don’t know if this would be such a great idea for you. In terms of food, our biggest loss is waste. How do you project the number of customers, eating [which] sandwiches, salads or cakes? In the beginning, a lot of money went toward waste of food. There were miscalculations. But now, things are perfect.”
Another area of concern is deciding what items to offer and not having too many items. “We aren’t a restaurant. We’re a coffee shop. Fine-tuning is required. I would encourage others [interested in the same type of venture] to study, talk with experienced people and go from there. Check out the competition.”
Illies isn’t concerned with nearby fast food restaurants. “Fast food is no competition. Everything I do is freshly made.”
DRINKS FOR ALL
Are you picky when it comes to drinks? Well, there’s probably a good chance that EZ can satisfy your thirst. While no alcohol is offered, there are a variety of frappes (two sizes priced at $3.55 and $4.95), smoothies ($3.35 and $3.95), hot espresso-based drinks (three sizes from $2.35 to $4.25), espresso shots ($1.55 for a single and $1.90 for a double), coffee blends and iced coffee (three sizes from $1.50 to $2.50 — flavors 65 cents extra), tea (several blends, three sizes from $1.50 to $2), iced tea ($1.95 and $2.50 — syrups 65 cents extra), chai latte (three sizes from $1.50 to $4.25), and chocolate drinks (three sizes from $1.25 to $3.35).
If “specialty” drinks aren’t your thing, you can still sample soda, water, juices, lemonade and assorted sports drinks (Powerade, energy drinks, protein drinks, etc.)
“Drinks are not as difficult to put together because you can buy in bulk. Most of these products have a long shelf life. There are different markups and different margins on different drinks.
“Our most popular? We are famous for our frappes. We make them differently. We don’t cut corners. I believe in offering quality even if I make less of a margin. I’m going for return customers. I’m going for volume.
“Espresso-based drinks are also popular. We are very confident about the hot or cold beverage offerings. Starbucks started a trend. Look at the global economy. I went with coffee because it has a great margin. I factored in everything, such as how much milk goes into a certain drink. I know what my loss leaders are. I don’t make much on certain drinks, but people come in here for them and spend on something else.”
SURFING THE WEB
WiFi service is free of charge. EZ has two outlets for laptops and four computer stations. The stations are free to use for 30 minutes. Every additional 30 minutes is $5 unless the user purchases something for $5 or more.
“Not everyone has a laptop or wants to carry around a laptop. Everyone is using my computers. The stations have a desktop computer with flat screen.”
She admits that offering Internet service may not be ideal for all laundries. She has seen some laundries with computers that aren’t used much at all. “This is a completely different environment. There is no washer noise while using the PC. It’s relaxing to use the computers. The attendants will keep an eye on your clothes.”
BRINGING PEOPLE IN
One of the reasons people like the coin laundry business is because they have to deal with few, if any, employees. Illies has eight employees. “Whatever you do, you will have good and bad people. In any business, there will be good and bad decisions. I have gone through a lot of people.
“I treat my people well. I just took the group to Las Vegas, paid for the trip and gave them money to play. It’s a matter of respect and how you deal with people. I believe in paying more. You get more of a commitment [from the employees] this way, instead of having lower-wage people who don’t show a commitment, just come in and leave. I’m now extremely happy.”
After four years, there is certainly much to discuss about EZ. The “sip, soak, surf” concept is in play. Illies says the positive customer feedback has been one of her most pleasant surprises. “I find this out without even taking surveys, although I have. People leave notes, send Christmas cards, tip employees. They say they have had a ‘wow’ experience. I put a lot of emphasis on customer service. That’s what EZ is all about. Treat customers with respect and give them the best quality of service.”
Illies’ next step is to explore the franchise process.
She has some advice for others looking to open a similar operation: homework, homework, research, research.
“If you really want to get into something like this, don’t get too complicated. We’re not a mini-mall. You might end up working with another franchise or chain, but some people want to do too much. It’s important to take things step by step.”
On the other hand, if EZ becomes a franchise... “You won’t have to figure out anything,” she laughs.