OTTUMWA — Phil Akin never envisioned himself in the laundromat industry.
But the parallels between Waterloo and Ottumwa were too big to ignore, and now he's bringing a slice of laundromat heaven to the area.
Around March 9, Akin will open the 24-hour Clean Laundry at 304 E. Main St. It will be the Waterloo native's first Iowa-based store outside the Waterloo-Cedar Falls area, and the first not in a strip mall.
"We wanted to do something that didn't seem to have a ton of competition. One thing that doesn't seem to have gotten it right is the laundromat business," said Akin, whose wife and two sons make up Akin Enterprises. "There was no national chain. They aren't out of vogue. When you're younger, a lot of people use them."
Akin knows the common descriptors for laundromats — dirty, crummy, unsafe and humid are all bandied about.
Not his laundromats.
"It's a business of selling 'clean,'" he said. "So, I want to set a bar. All stainless steel equipment. High, bright LED lighting. Ceramic tile floors. Attendants there to wipe down the machines after every use.
"So I thought, 'Let's call iT Clean Laundry,'" he said. "Having a company called Clean Laundry, brightly lit, and attendants wearing masks and gloves and a service where we're cleaning clothing, isn't a bad place to be. We are very fortunate we've not had to change our model to deal with COVID-19."
The Ottumwa store, which Akin said is an investment of over $1 million, will feature 50 high-end units (24 washers, 26 dryers) supplied by Dexter Company of Fairfield. The minimum load is 20 pounds, while the maximum load is 90 pounds, enough to wash and dry 80 pairs of jeans or four queen-sized comforters.
Akin's son, Wesley, is a certified Dexter technician, and will service the units weekly.
Also, there are 15 parking spaces in back of the building, and there will be a green area next to the building to match the evolving Main Street landscape. It's part of Akin's commitment to the community that he claims, "I've driven by many times but never stopped."
After establishing a pair of Clean Laundry franchises in Waterloo-Cedar Falls, the Akin family then decided to license the name, creating additional entities. There are stores in Austin, Texas, Minneapolis, and Kissimmee, Florida, among the 13 locations, some with multiple stores.
But the Ottumwa store will be a first for the family.
"This is our first build-to-suit location, meaning every other site we have has been in a strip center," Akin said. "This is the first we've done our own physical building. This is the model for other build-to-suit locations across the country."
Akin and former Legacy Foundation president Steve Dust connected about a year ago, and that got the spin cycle going. Dust, who knew Akin from his Waterloo days, sold Akin on the location.
"I said, 'Steve, tell me more about Ottumwa,'" Akin recalled on a visit. "Really, it came down to this. Waterloo and Ottumwa both have meat packing plants. They both have a community college and a John Deere plant. Waterloo spent money on its riverfront, and Ottumwa is working on that.
"It's just like Waterloo except smaller," he said. "And I like that. Ottumwa is trying to grow. It was, to me, very comforting. I just thought Ottumwa should have a Clean Laundry."
The facility also figures to staff between four and five people, including one manager, for its around-the-clock operation. There will be one big-screen TV for entertainment, but also two others tat will feature a loop of the company's services, videos, cleaning tips, etc., that will be updated weekly. There are also six video cameras "as a deterrant."
Customers can pay by phone with an app designed by Dexter, credit card, cash or token, and free Wi-Fi will be available. All signage is bilingual.
"If we're doing our job right, hopefully they're going to find assistance," Akin said. "We have very large carts to wheel to their cars. They'll help unload the car and get in and out. With machines like this, there are a lot of questions, and we'll be there to answer them."
But Akin takes pride in the green-energy efficiency of his stores, particularly the Ottumwa store. He said the stores are cost-effective, using just 9 cents of a dollar for utilities, when standard practice is about 26 cents. They use soft water, which means less water and less detergent to make clothes cleaner.
Another trend has emerged at his stores. Some customers have been known to bring in guitars, sing church hymns or play cards while waiting for their loads to finish. At first he was curious whether that was a distraction, but now it's become part of the vibe with his stores.
"They all just sit and jam a little bit. We're like, 'Cool, that's fun,'" he said. "I can't say we started off thinking as a social setting, but they find it safe and comfortable, they're getting a chore done and they find each other. I don't know if that's going to happen here, but we aren't going to discourage it."
Akin also plans to get the store involved in "Clean Laundry For a Cause," when the store, once a quarter, donates one day's worth of washer and dryer revenue to the charity of the customers' choice, such as the Salvation Army or Boys & Girls Club.
"We ask that charity to promote that fact, and they help get us on the map," he said. "We don't make anything off it, but we donate to the cause. Sometimes we'll donate anything from $1,000 to $2,000 daily sales to the organization. We try to do that beyond just opening the business.
"If a town can support a dollar store, and a couple grocery stores, it can support Clean Laundry," Akin said of the criteria for launching a business. "The store will do fine here."
Akin is accepting applications to work at the store, and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.