Making the best out of the worst

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Sources: National Clothesline August 2018

As a man who regularly moves back and forth between three very different lives, Chuck Horst still isn’t quite content. Instead, he continues to look for new challenges to occupy his time.

At times, he’s a professor of Astronomy at San Diego State University, and at other times, he develops apps and software for his software company or oversees his family’s 61-year-old business, Margaret’s Cleaners of San Diego, CA.

Now, he is trying to expand the scope of his drycleaning company by helping cleaners from all over handle specialty items.

“Now we are starting to do a fair amount more with other drycleaners, about 20 drycleaners now send us predominantly handbags, leathers, some of the real, real high end wedding gowns and some of their problem garments, but the bulk of it is handbags and leathers that make up probably a little over 50 percent of what comes in from other drycleaners,” noted Horst.

“That’s been our whole purpose in life is to differentiate ourselves and not try to take away the work from the more typical drycleaner, not trying to compete with the typical drycleaner, just do the other stuff,” he added. “Everything is done here by people who are highly trained.”

Margaret’s has about 100 employees altogether with five locations including a 23,000 sq. ft. processing facility. They have a full-time re-beading specialist, multiple seamstresses, a full-time cobbler and several leather cleaning experts on staff.

However, having the right employees to handle special garments is not enough; Horst also insists on using the right equipment… and not just being able to process several solvent options such as GreenEarth, Greenjet, DF-2000, K4 and wetcleaning on site. Sometimes he has to be a little more creative.

Horst, who holds B.S. degrees in Physics and Mathematics from Westminster College in Pennsylvania and a Master’s in Astronomy from San Diego State University, once worked with General Dynamics as a materials tester and researcher. He participated on some amazing projects in his younger days, including space shuttle work and the Hubble telescope.

So, whenever he discovers that the machinery available cannot do everything he wants it to, he simply designs new equipment.

“We make a lot of our own equipment, particularly the treatment cabinets. We even make our own spray booths, equipment like that,” he said. “We have modified sweater boards so they have automated timers so they have the right amount of steam and such. We make our own drying cabinets.”

Horst has also designed his own software that takes pictures of every step in the cleaning process so everything is documented thoroughly.

“Everything is photographed in our plant numerous times. I have a patent on how we do the photography,” he explained. “We photograph everything many times so we have the incoming condition, we have after it’s cleaned, as it going through inspection. I haven’t had a claim on a handbag or a bridal gown in like eight years. Everything typically gets photographed about 25 times before we even touch it. So, it really just takes care of a lot of those types of issues.”

Horst also makes it easier for drycleaners who are reluctant to send difficult cleaning jobs in by offering Facetime and video conferencing so they don’t have to wait long for a price estimate of the work involved.

“If something is in really bad shape they can show it to us to see if they should bother to send it or not,” he explained.

Being meticulous and always looking for new ways to be more streamlined and efficient are just a couple of the reasons many of the best dryleaners in the industry wouldn’t hesitate to recommend Margaret’s for its impeccable results.

Richard Aviles of King Garment Care in New York considers Horst a good friend and tutor and speculated on why he is so good at his job: “What’s interesting about Chuck Horst is he’s not your typical cleaner. He approaches the drycleaning business in a very analytical way, in a way that doesn’t cut corners and in a way that epitomizes your quality cleaner.

“Chuck servicing other cleaners in the industry is a testament to his vision of his own business. I think it’s super smart of him. I think it’s responsible and a benefit to the industry. So many cleaners would close their doors to a guy down the block.”

Closing doors is just not Horst’s style; he prefers to open new ones (or even build them himself). Though he has been in the drycleaning industry for over 30 years, his tenure began as simply a way for him to keep busy when he was temporarily unemployed. He had grown frustrated with the inefficient nature of working on top secret defense projects slowed way down by stringent security measures.

Instead, he worked at Margaret’s, owned by his father at the time, though the business was not started in the family. The business was originally founded as Margaret’s Knit Blocking in 1953 by Margaret Clutter, a widow who tried to keep her mind off her son’s capture. He was a POW in the Korean War.

Eventually, they were reunited, but that didn’t stop Clutter from striving for quality and excellence for 35 years as the head of the business. In fact, Horst’s father offered to work for free for her for six months in an effort to prove that he would take extra care of the business if she sold it to him.

It’s been in good hands ever since. The business has unusual, difficult and cherished items shipped to them on a regular basis — all because of its stellar reputation.

“Right now, in house we have a wedding dress that was $170,000 and the same customer brought in another dress that was worth $125,000,” Horst noted. “We had one a couple of months ago… all they would tell us what that it was well in excess of $250,000, but they wouldn’t tell us how much it was.”

With so much on the line, Horst believes many drycleaners simply do not have the resources and experience to handle such items.

“Any city is going to have some of these things and it doesn’t make sense for cleaners in mid-markets to get used to handling those types of things. There is some of it everywhere. They may have a fine beaded cashmere sweater, things like that. Just feel free to reach out to us and we’ll be glad to help out and please customers and they typically don’t need to worry that we’re going to steal their customers,” he said. “We’re not looking for them to send their suits, their workwear to us through the mail. It’s just those odd, one-off pieces. It literally took us 12 years — we’ve been doing handbags for 12 years. It’s taken a long time to get it all down to a science, but we’re there.”

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One Price

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ZIPS Cleaners in Santa Fe Springs, 13473 Telegraph Road on Dec. 4, 2017

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ZIPS Dry Cleaners, a rapidly expanding dry cleaning franchise built on a same-day, one-price business model, has opened a new location in Santa Fe Springs.

And that’s just the tip of the iceberg.

The company, which unveiled another store in Costa Mesa earlier this year, plans to expand to 110 Southland locations over the next 15 years. The development rights for that expansion belong to ZDry, LLC, whose partners currently own and operate 10 Planet Fitness gyms in the Los Angeles area.

“ZIPS is a price-based and volume-based model that we feel will perform well in this market,” said Joe Bernatowicz, one of ZDry’s partners. “And Southern California has the most dry cleaners per capita than anywhere else in the country. We’re confident about our brand.”

ZIPS opened in Santa Fe Springs at 13473 Telegraph Road on Dec. 4, and Bernatowicz said the partners are already eyeing several other locations in surrounding cities, although they are still in negotiations.

At ZIPS, a customer can have any item of clothing dry cleaned for $2.29, whether it’s a necktie, a coat or a pair of pants. That price is about half the industry average. Garments are cleaned on-site, allowing for same-day service. The company has additionally invested in a closed-cleaning system that reduces waste, uses biodegradable plastic bags and recycles hangers.

That doesn’t surprise Alan Spielvogal, a spokesman for the National Cleaners Association.

“There are new solvents that have been introduced to the industry that are more environmentally friendly and more compliant with state and federal guidelines,” he said. “And we’re seeing more and more technology as far as dry cleaning equipment is concerned.”

Spielvogal acknowledged that ZIPS’ expansion plan is aggressive — but not necessarily unrealistic.

“There are opportunities out there,” he said. “It really depends on where you are. It should be a market that’s not a blue-collar area but more of an area where people are getting their suits and other things dry cleaned and going to work. If the demographics are there, they should be able to successfully tap into the market.”

Aaron Goldberg, ZIPS’ vice president of development, said his company is happy to be partnering with ZDry.

““The rapid growth we continue to experience proves that the ZIPS franchise investment resonates and continually attracts high caliber and savvy developers,” Goldberg said in a statement.

Headquartered in the Baltimore-Washington area, ZIPS has more than 50 stores operating in seven states, with more than 250 additional locations in various stages of development.

“Our goal is to create brand awareness in Southern California,” Bernatowicz said. “The main similarity we see between ZIPS and Planet Fitness is the disruptive pricing.”

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