By Bob Nieman | Feb 28, 2012
Sisters Donna Christopulos and Julie Grillakis have always known that they work well together.
And the fact that they’ve been involved in their family’s high-end retail lighting business since they’ve been in school has only served to strengthen that relationship.
“We both currently manage our family's lighting showroom,” Christopulos explained. “Design Lighting is an upscale lighting showroom just 25 miles north of Boston. We have sold the finest in residential lighting for 30 years.”
However, in August of 2010, the two decided to take their sisterly bond to a new level – opening Spin City Laundromat in Lowell, Mass.
“For a couple of years before we opened, we had been thinking about another business we could open that would not have the stress level that we have had with running the retail lighting showroom,” Christopulos said. “Most importantly, the laundry allows Julie and me to spend more time with our families. We wanted to own a business that would sustain itself and support us comfortably later on in life.”
Not that a self-service laundry was necessarily their first choice.
“At first, laundry was not on our radar at all,” Christopulos admitted. “We would bounce different ideas off of each other. Having more of a design/retail business background for the past 30 years, we were thinking more along the lines of a children’s clothing store. But the more we researched it, the more it seemed that a laundromat would be a viable business for us.”
Coincidentally, at the very same time, their father had purchased a building in Lowell. He was moving his electrical contracting business to this larger facility, which also featured a 4,500-square-foot retail space in the front.
“He tried to lease the front of the building for a couple of months, and then he looked to us, knowing that we wanted to open another business,” Christopulos said. “We had told him, as well as our husbands, that it would be perfect for a laundromat – because of its high visibility from the road, the floor-to-ceiling windows, the large parking lot and the great demographics. Then, one day, Julie and I looked at each other and said, ‘Why should someone else put a laundromat there? Why don’t we do it?’
“It really is the perfect spot for a laundromat. I couldn’t imagine any other business in there.”
However, over the years, there had been a number of different businesses at that location.
“When I was growing up, it was a plate glass retail business for many years,” Christopulos recalled. “After that, the front of the space was leased to a national automotive parts chain, while the back of it – where my father now has his electrical warehouse and offices – had been a printing business.”
Converting the empty space to the self-service laundry turned into a five-month process, which wasn’t without its headaches.
“We originally planned on saw-cutting rows underneath the washers,” Christopulos explained. “Ultimately, it ended up better to remove the entire middle section of the floor and re-pour the concrete as one complete new slab, rather than having several smaller slabs pinned together. While we knew we chose the more expensive construction method of burying the utilities, this gave our equipment a stronger, more stable foundation. That took four or five weeks to complete, and it was one cost we hadn’t planned on.”
All in all, the entire project carried a price tag of about $1 million – $500,000 for the construction and another $500,000 for the equipment.
Open a year and a half, Spin City Laundromat – named to pay homage to Lowell’s historic past as one of the largest producers of spun cotton in the U.S. during the 1800s – has taken advantage of its location on a busy state road, which is near a major highway and commuter rail line that travels to and from Boston. The store is surrounded by several apartment complexes, fast-food restaurants, ethnic markets, gas stations and other small businesses.
“Lowell is a melting pot, so our customers are of all ethnicities, and include many of the commuters traveling to and from Boston every day,” noted Christopulos, who currently employs six laundry attendants. “The majority of our customer base is Asian, but we attract a good mix of all ethnicities.”
In addition, the University of Massachusetts-Lowell campus is within close proximity to the store.
“Being a state university, it has seen a dramatic increase in enrollment in the past few years, due to rising tuition costs at private institutions,” Christopulos explained. “Therefore, the student housing has spread throughout the city – and closer to Spin City. We welcome the UMASS- Lowell students by offering free WiFi access and a discount on our wash-dry-fold service.”
Since opening, the owners also have advertised heavily in the local newspaper and some of the more popular ethnic publications, as well as distributing flyers to area senior centers promoting their discounted “Senior Days.”
“We will be putting more thought into our advertising this year,” Christopulos said. “During the first year, we really had to feel our way for what was giving us the biggest bang for our buck. Right now, we’re in the process of putting together an ad for our wash-dry-fold service.”
Spin City, which is the only card-operated facility in the market, also boasts window banners touting the store’s drop-off laundry service, along with its water filtration system.
“Julie and I toured many laundromats before we even thought of building this laundromat,” Christopulos said. “We came across one store in the Boston area we thought was superior to the others, and it had a water filtration system. We thought it would behoove us to install something like that, and it is one wonderful way that we differentiate ourselves from the competition. We feel we are a notch above the rest with our system that filters out phosphate particles and other pollutants in our incoming water – and customers have told us that their wash has never looked better.”
And, of course, the coffee is always brewing at Spin City. “Julie and I feel, first and foremost, that it is important to make our customers feel welcome as they walk through the door,” Christopulos said. “So, as our customers are warmly greeted by our attendants, the aroma of freshly brewed coffee fills the air. Our clients look forward to relaxing with a cup of coffee and catching up on local news with our complimentary newspapers and three flat-screen TVs.”
Despite all of the work they put into their new business venture, Christopulos and Grillakis – who now split their time evenly between Spin City and Design Lighting – still were shocked by the reaction they received from the community.
“During construction, we were surprised by the number of people who would stop in to tell us how excited they were that a new laundromat was opening,” Christopulos said. “We honestly didn’t know how people would feel. They all were used to going somewhere else every week to do their laundry. We wanted to make the store feel welcoming to everyone. My sister and I, along with our husbands, are very easy-going, accommodating people. We have always been in the customer service business, and I feel we make everybody feel like they’re at home here.”
From the beginning, the two first-time laundry owners made all the right moves to ensure their future success – from ordering extensive demographic studies of their prospective marketplace; to visiting other laundromats throughout Massachusetts, New Hampshire and Connecticut; to maintaining a solid relationship with their banker.
“We also trusted Mac-Gray, our local distributor, to steer us in the right direction during the construction phase and when purchasing our equipment,” Christopulos said. “And, most importantly, we have a wonderful support base in our husbands, family and friends.”
Not to mention a working relationship that surpasses most business partnerships.