SALAMANCA, N.Y. —When you enter PJ’s Laundry in Salamanca, N.Y., you can’t miss the Hiawatha Belt, which symbolizes the unity of the Iroquois Confederacy. This symbol, which is more than 400 years old, was originally made of wampum (shell beads) strung together into a belt.
“The Belt lets everyone know that this is a business owned by a native,” says Pauline John, the laundry owner who is also a Native American and part of the Seneca Nation.
The Seneca Nation of Indians (SNI) is one of the six tribes of the Iroquois Confederacy who occupy aboriginal lands in New York State set aside by the Treaty of Canadaigua of 1794. The SNI has a total population of more than 7,200 enrolled members and holds title to three territories in New York, one of which includes the City of Salamanca, according to SNI.
“We’re the Keepers of the Western Door to our territory. Our area went into Ohio. We kept the enemies out,” adds John.
If you’re expecting to read about a small Native American-run coin laundry on sovereign ground, you couldn’t be more wrong.
A NEW CHALLENGE
John knew it was time to change course. She had been running a mail-order cigarette business since 2000 in Salamanca, a city of about 6,000, which is just north of Pennsylvania and about 60 miles south of Buffalo.
“My mail order business was having problems with the State of New York. They were trying to shut me down so other stores would have equal footing. Our treaty allows me to sell cigarettes,” she explains. The treaty also meant she could sell cigarettes tax-free.
When the chance came to explore a different business opportunity, she took it. She noticed that the other laundries in town were aging. She recalled hearing the Speed Queen name from a past laundry experience, and took to the Internet to check out a host of coin laundry equipment manufacturers. She decided on a manufacturer and was eventually directed to Statewide Machinery in Rochester, N.Y, the distributor in her area.
“[Statewide Machinery] was so helpful. We had several meetings before I decided. They laid out the building and suggested the equipment mix. They helped me avoid a whole lot of mistakes.”
PJ’s, the 3,800-square-foot laundry, opened in 2006. There is also a 400-square-foot convenience store in the building.
“When we opened, we were just glad to be open. There was a little accident during construction,” she recalls. “Two days before the city walk-through for the temporary certificate of occupancy, the water main broke. Fortunately, my liability didn’t start until the opening.
“Everyone was so eager for us to open. People would stop and talk to me about the store. They told me ‘hang in there, we need a good laundry here.’”
The laundry features six 60-pound washers, seven 30-pound washers, eight 20-pound washers and seven top loaders. There are six 75-pound tumblers and eight 30-pound stacks. The store also utilizes NetMaster, a management system that allows the owner to do a variety of things such as offer multilevel pricing and audit machine operation.
A RECEPTIVE CROWD
“I don’t think many of our customers come from around the store,” John admits. “We are in a residential area, but on one of the main streets. We’re in a visible location. There are a lot of single-family homes nearby.”
However, there is a casino in town, and this has helped generate customers. “Some people work at the casino, but don’t have a home here. Other customers come to the casino, drop off their clothes for wash, dry and fold, and pick up the clothes on their way home. Even some of the people with home equipment come here to save time.” Attracting customers from out of town is not that uncommon. “One customer comes from 40 minutes away.”
The laundry has plenty of amenities such as a big-screen TV and air conditioning. “People just like to hang out here, talk and read the paper. We’ll sometimes give away coffee. It’s really a friendly place.”
Customers can take advantage of drop-off drycleaning and alterations, as well as the wash, dry and fold service. “We do camp items. In the summer, we do wash, dry and fold for the area lacrosse team. Since things slow in the winter, we have started to dabble in commercial accounts.”
John says summer is an especially busy time at the store due to campers. “We are in a resort area; the nearby state park brings camper business. In the winter, things die down a bit, but there is a skiing area nearby and we get some of their business.”
John has noticed that customers flock to the larger machines, especially the 60-pound washers and large tumblers. “People will wait for the larger machines. I’ve been told that we keep the water a bit hotter than most stores and this helps with the whites.
“I’m also pleased that the utility bills are somewhat lower than expected.”
A CUSTOMER CONVENIENCE
“The convenience store business is up and down,” she says. Originally, the convenience store area was just going to be used for supplies, but with the tax situation, she realized, people would come in for cigarettes as well as novelty items, soda, ice cream, etc. “People go back and forth between the two businesses.” There are separate doors for each business, but the staff has access to both businesses at all times.
“I knew that the main business was going to be the laundry, and it is. Bad weather has hurt the convenience store business. Customers come from all around to purchase cigarettes, but the bad weather slows the traveling down.”
The laundry is open from 7 a.m. to 9 p.m. (last load), and the convenience store is open from 9 a.m. to 8 p.m.
At this point, one of the greatest challenges is scheduling and dealing with the staff, John admits. “We have a full-time staff, and because of the drop in winter, we realize that the staff isn’t as busy as it could be. For the duration of winter, we have cut down on the customer service window hours.” However, there are always people working in the convenience store, and they can chip in at the laundry when needed, she adds.
A SPECIAL PLACE
“People tell me this is the best laundry they have ever been in. It’s the cleanest. Our stainless steel machines shine. Plus, this is a social gathering place. A few people even come in without laundry just to watch the news or read the paper. I don’t mind because they are customers; they bring in their laundry at other times.”
John is always looking for ways to keep people occupied. There is a children’s play area and she is looking to set up a community puzzle table. “We’re looking for a table suitable for the puzzle. It would have to be a higher table. Even the customers are helping us, trying to find a suitable table.”
Even though the laundry is still new and popular, she isn’t sitting back. She is a strong believer in marketing.
“We advertise in the vacation guide because this is a vacation area. We advertise in the skier guide. Our signage advertises the wash, dry and fold service. We have tried a lot of things. Some worked, some haven’t.
“When we first opened, we tried discount pricing. We had ‘breakfast hours’ from 7 a.m. to 10 a.m. It was 50 cents off all washers. It went pretty well. We did get more people in the morning. Some of these people still come in the morning even without the discount. We’re also trying to do other specials like a ‘soap opera’ afternoon.”
As a new owner, pricing was a concern. “At first, I was a little leery about pricing; I thought it might be too high. We were told that people didn’t like price hikes so it was better to start high. I found that with the machines working well, people didn’t care about the prices as much. It was also important to keep the dryer prices lower.”
John’s washer prices start at $1.75 (top loaders) and shoot up to $6 for the 60-pound washers. With drying, the 75-pound units are 50 cents/eight minutes, and the 30-pound stacks are 25 cents/eight minutes.
John is somewhat unique. She refers to herself as a double minority: a Seneca woman. She’s proud to operate a business on sovereign ground. About 80 percent of the city is on Seneca Nation territory, she estimates.
Salamanca pays a lease amount to the Nation. The Nation even has a loan program for small businesses, but John didn’t use it.
The best part about her laundry experience is the people, be it Native Americans or others, she says. “I really enjoy the people. We have the nicest customers. Most of them even clean up after themselves.
“On the flip side, there are those customers who don’t take care of things. There are the helpers and the non-helpers,” she laughs.
The laundry business is proving to be a stable business, and John expects this to continue. “There will always be a need for coin laundries. I think both small and large stores can succeed. It’s a good business to get into. People need to clean clothes. Customers provide the labor, we just have the machines.”
It was a big leap to open PJ’s. “I’m still learning the business. I’ve made some mistakes, but haven’t stumbled too bad. It’s just been a few bumps. I will always try to make this store better.”