By Bob Nieman | Jun 29, 2011
When brothers Greg and Jake Battiston decided to get into the self-service laundry business, they knew that their store’s location would be crucial to their future success.
So, they made sure they found a good one – maybe too good.
In fact, between the time in which the Battistons signed their lease until they actually opened the doors to Soapy Suds, located in Hartford, Conn., three other brand new laundries had opened up in their marketplace.
“We had signed the lease, but we didn’t break ground for another 15 or 16 months,” explained Greg Battiston. “We sat on it because the landlord was trying to get funding to complete the entire plaza. I kept calling him and calling him, and he kept telling me, ‘We’re close.’ We were starting to worry as to whether it was going to ever happen.”
The brothers had chosen to place their 3,800-square-foot laundry in an old department store that had been vacant for nearly 20 years. However, their landlord needed money to complete the building renovation, and he was having a tough time acquiring the needed cash.
“When we signed the lease, I was hoping to break ground the next month,” Greg said. “However, in the meantime, once we signed, three other laundromats went up in the area – three new laundries. It’s a dynamite location, and apparently other people were thinking the same thing. None of us knew about the others, but we all had it in our minds to put in a nice, new modern laundromat.
“I think it happened because of the state of the economy,” he added. “There are a lot of vacancies, and people are able to acquire locations that they couldn’t get in the past.”
Not that this was the Battistons first laundry business. The brothers had purchased an existing store – The Washtub of Hartford, which is about two miles away from Soapy Suds – a few months earlier.
And, for 16 years before that, they were partners with their uncle in five drycleaning/laundromat operations – a business that was started by their grandfather.
“Our family has a number of stores in Connecticut,” said Battiston, who finally opened Soapy Suds last November. “The primary business is drycleaning, but we did have small laundromats in some of the locations. The coin laundries we used to have are older and smaller. It was more of an add-on to the core business, which was drycleaning.”
Although the Battiston brothers got out of the drycleaning industry in 2009, leaving the five drycleaning locations to their uncle, they didn’t want to abandon the textile care business altogether.
“I still wanted to be my own boss,” Greg explained. “And the laundry business must be in my blood because I stuck with it. I wanted to get into the laundromat business because there are fewer headaches than in drycleaning – I don’t have to worry about the environmental issues, and I don’t have as many employees.”
And, despite the glut of new competitors they hadn’t planned on, as well as an approximately $600,000 price tag to build and equip Soapy Suds, the brothers remain confident that they chose the perfect location.
“The demographics are strong,” Greg insisted. “What I liked about it is that it’s close to the inner city and a lot of apartments, but it’s also in a shopping center. That appealed to me.”
Battiston noted that the majority of the store’s walk-in customers live in the nearby apartment complexes and are mostly in the lower- to middle-income bracket. In addition, approximately 70 percent of his self-service clients are Hispanic, with the remainder of that customer base evenly mixed among African-Americans, Asians and whites.
Soapy Suds – which is open 6 a.m. to 10 p.m. daily – also has been slowly building customer interest in the business’ wash-dry-fold service, which costs $1 a pound. What’s more, the Battistons have plans to branch out into some commercial account work in the future.
In addition to the coin laundry, the shopping center currently features a supermarket, a furniture store, a nail salon and a Family Dollar location. And, according to Battiston, the landlord intends to add a 10,000-square-foot liquor store, along with auto parts dealer.
Beyond the plaza, this dense, urban neighborhood is home to a number of Hispanic markets and other thriving small businesses and shops.
To attract their fair share of the laundry business in this bustling community, the Battistons have placed ads in some of the local newspapers, while also running coupons on the backs of cash register receipts at grocery stores and supermarkets in the area.
“We have some banners on the building,” Battiston added. “We have a website and we’re on Facebook. So, if we’re running some kind of promotion, we let our customers who are on Facebook know about it. The biggest thing is word of mouth. That’s probably our strength, as far as getting people in the store.
“It’s a new plaza, so I think the majority of our customers are checking out the new plaza. They’re checking out the Family Dollar, and then they’ll come in to see us, which is why we have some banners outside. Every little bit adds up.”
Perhaps the most obvious way Soapy Suds differentiates itself from the competition is through its interior décor.
“It’s not like any laundromat you’ve been in,” Battiston said. “It’s got a completely different feel and appearance to it. When I set out to do this laundromat, I wanted it to be different. I didn’t want a cookie-cutter laundromat.”
The store’s 20-foot-high ceilings were left fully exposed during the build out to give Soapy Suds’ customers a large, airy, open feel when they first walk in.
“I wanted to keep it bright in here, so I painted the walls white,” Battiston explained. “But I also wanted to add some color.”
After giving it some thought, the Battistons decided that flags representing all of the different countries and nationalities of the store’s customers – draped from the rafters – would provide the perfect splash of color they were trying to achieve.
“I have three- by five-foot flags hanging from the ceiling, all the way around the perimeter of the store,” Greg said. “They’re a great conversation piece. As soon as they walk in, customers begin looking for their flags. By the counter, I have a list of all the flags I have up. Currently, I have more than 50 different flags in here.
“And I tell people who come in, ‘If you’re going to be a regular customer, then I’ll put up your flag.’”
In the back of the store, where the ceilings are lower, the Battistons have installed a 10-foot projection screen television.
“I wanted a Wow! factor,” Greg said.
Soapy Suds also features a customer lounge area with comfy leather chairs and 50-inch television, as well as a children’s play area with a 32-inch TV. Rounding out the store’s amenities are free Wi-Fi, soda and snack vending, a massage chair, and a number of gumball and sticker machines for the kids.
“It’s a unique-looking store, and I set out from Day One to try to be different,” said Battiston, who employees six part-time attendants. “I definitely think that’s a strength of ours, because people will come in that say that they’ve never been in a laundromat like this.
“By far, the customer has to come first,” he added. “Our two main goals are making the customers happy and keeping the store clean.”
Although it took them more than a little while to finally open for business, the Battiston brothers won’t rule out building or buying more self-service laundries down the road.
“We’ll see how it goes,” Greg said. “But definitely not in Hartford. There are too many here already. In fact, I’ve had a few distributors come in to check out the store, and I’ve said, ‘Don’t even think about putting another laundry in here. There’s no room.’ And there really isn’t.
“But, if these two stores do well, I wouldn’t mind adding another one… in another town.”