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South Side Suds is more than a Laundromat

South Side Suds is more than a Laundromat

John Lee, owner of South Side Suds, is passionate about his business and it shows through in talking with him.  Innovation, collaboration and integrity are the best words to describe John.  The service he provides to his customers extends beyond the laundromat -- he has hopes of improving the Corvallis community as well.  

Read below for more on John and his inspiring business, which he took over 12 years ago:

Q: In your own words, please tell me more about your laundromat, your background, your story and how you came to existence.

John : I came to Corvallis 25-some years ago to be with my fiancée, and fell in love with the place. I’d grown up in Orangevale, a suburb of Sacramento, and I really wanted to get out of California.

First thing I noticed about Corvallis were that most of the people were pretty genuine. What you saw was what you got. After getting my Associates Degree in Electrical Engineering Technology, I got a job at Hewlett Packard where I worked for 12 years and obtained my Bachelors of Science in Information Systems at Western Oregon University. I think I’m one of the last people to take advantage of a HP program that paid for college.

When the layoffs started happening, I wanted a plan ‘B’. Sara and I had been talking about laundromats for a couple of years because they were something we felt we could manage on a part-time basis while working full-time.

We purchased the 3rd St Laundry from a couple from Vancouver who’d purchased the business for the scrap value of the machines. They made a go of running the laundromat, but decided it wasn’t worth the weekly commute to fill up the change machine.

From the get-go, we decided that we were going to be different from other laundromats. While we weren’t going to sell alcohol like the now-defunct Suds and Suds, we weren’t going be the generic “3rd St Laundry” either. We took down the “Tide” posters on the walls and replaced them Dali and later prints from the XKCD comic. We added plants, tables and more comfortable seating. We added automatic door locks so we could extend business hours, then wifi. We tookout a home equity loan to finance our first set of machine upgrades. We did a paper survey asking customers what they wanted in the store and acted on it.

Five years ago we saw that the Coin-op side wasn’t growing anymore, so we started the Wash Dry Fold service. Last year we started delivery, and we keep on growing as a result of good prices and a commitment to excellent customer service.

 

Q: You have owned the laundromat since 2006. What has changed about the business landscape since you first started over 10 years ago?

John: Everything and nothing. There have been some “On demand” demand laundry services pop-up with mixed results. Washio is probably one of the more spectacular failures. How do you blow through $16.82 million in investor dollars, have outlets in 7 major metropolitan centers and still fail?

Wet laundry really hasn’t changed much in the last few hundred years. You’re still essentially beating your dirty clothes with a rock at the river, and drying them in a box heated by fire. Granted, it is a very fancy rock and drying box.

 

Q: What distinguishes your business from others?

John: My mindset for running my business it to make money without taking advantage of either my customers or my employees. Sara and I will go the extra mile for both. We listen to our customers and we own our mistakes.

Our employees are the core of our business. Like all business owners we have to balance costs vs prices. But we try to pay more than minimum wage to our employees, we support the minimum wage increases, and we support protected sick leave. We give our employees 20hrs of paid sick leave even though we are not required by law to do so. Any business that states that a minimum wage increase will make them go bankrupt needs to better understand their business model.

Q: What is your background and why did you / your family purchase this business?

John: After working for 12 years at Hewlett Packard, the company offered me money to leave. We purchased the laundromat with the proceeds of that buyout. I’d been told by HP managers that I didn’t understand business..or that I didn’t get the “big picture”. Running my own business and obtaining my MBA was my way of proving to myself that I did, in fact understand business.

 

Q: What are some of the challenges as well as joys about this business?

I love it when we get compliments from customers. Sometimes it’s “Employee X is just awesome.” Other times people will see the place for the first time in a number of years and say, “Wow, I love what you’ve done here. “

Homeless folks are probably our biggest challenge. We hadn’t had any one trespassed in the first seven years of business. Now I’ve lost track of how many folks we’ve had to ban.

Homelessness is a complex and expensive problem to solve. I’m extremely frustrated with the City’s inability to rope in state resources and implement the Housing First model. If it worked for Utah, it will work here. As for the cost, we’re all paying for the cost one way or another.

Jails are notoriously more expensive than apartments.

Q: You focus a lot on being as sustainably responsible as you can. Can you tell me more about that?

John : One of the cool things about owning a laundromat is the more efficient you are, the better your bottom line is. The engineer part of me likes solving the challenge. When we purchased the business the winter gas bill was over $900/month. In part because the water heater was old, and in part because the business was literally heating the outside. We updated the water heater to a 96% efficient model, installed an energy efficient heat pump, and updated all the lighting to use more efficient ballasts and bulbs(40% energy reduction). We continually update our washers to models that use less water and energy, and we are the ONLY laundromat that sets our prices based on the resources consumed.

We’re also the only laundromat in the area that purchases our power from Arcadia Power. A ‘B’

Corporation that provides power from renewable wind energy.

Recently, we’ve had to change our recycling efforts for waste due to a change in policy from Republic services. (Plastic detergent containers, etc.) We haven’t quite figured out a solution to that yet.

Q: You place a lot of efforts on Social responsibility. Why do this and please elaborate on ways that you contribute to community. Why is community an important focus for you?

John : There’s an interesting dichotomy when it comes to Corvallis and it’s “specialness.” There are a lot of people that see a very rose-colored future for the town without taking into consideration what it takes to get there. We want to solve the homeless problem...but are we willing to raise our own taxes and acknowledge that we can’t simply build a homeless leper colony out by the airport?

Creating affordable housing is further complicated by the SDC charges the city imposes when someone wants to build anything in town...or buy an existing building and change its use. This is not City government imposing its will...it’s implementing those rose-colored solutions the citizenry asked for that I mentioned earlier. For example: Got an existing sidewalk where you want to build your affordable housing? Great! Now move it in by 10’, make it 6’ wide, add another green strip that’s 4’wide on the other side of the sidewalk. Why? Because Corvallis is special and the citizens like green stuff, but sometimes they don’t understand the inherent costs. And once a policy like that is in place, they will fight tooth and nail to eliminate exceptions. Meanwhile, we have people sleeping under bridges.

We try to contribute to the community in ways that make sense both for our business and for the charities we interact with. We are not a homeless shelter, and in recent months we’ve had to take a “Zero tolerance” stance on people hanging out and charging their phones, using our wi-fi. But it wasn’t enough for folks to charge up, check e-mail then be on their way. They would camp out for the entire day. We were warm, had free power and free entertainment via wi-fi. Homeless folks would bring in their dogs off leash...not a good thing for a mom with a small child to deal with when she’s actually doing business in my establishment.

However, we see the suffering of the homeless folks. Some are developmentally disabled, or have other mental issues. Some are alcoholics or drug abusers. Some are people that just had life deal them a really, really crappy hand. There is no one “type” of homeless person. While we can’t let them hang out and literally scare off our other customers, we can find indirect ways to help them and / or the folks helping them. We’ve worked with Love Inc and their “Loads of Love” program when other laundromats turned them away. We’ve offered free services to the men’s cold winter shelter when their own equipment broke down. We donate left clothing to a small church up the road and to Vina Moses. We do what we can to help others.

a day in pictures

a day in pictures

a day in pictures

a day in pictures

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