An Interview with Multi-Location Laundromat Owner and Serial Entrepreneur Daniel Marrazzo
Daniel Marrazzo is a lifelong resident of Bucks County, Pa., who started his professional career in the construction industry, after graduating from Norwich University – The Military College of Vermont in 1977. Marrazzo initially worked with residential clients doing home renovations.
Eventually, his construction business grew into a larger company, which handled multi-million-dollar commercial centers and health clubs. And, while building several commercial laundries, Marrazzo decided to diversify into the laundromat business – building 20 vended laundries, and presently owning and operating five in both Bucks and Mercer Counties.
His many real estate projects have found him owning and managing a number of residential, commercial and industrial properties, including two 35,000-square-foot shopping centers. Marrazzo no longer builds for the public, but he has several construction projects of his own still in the works. He and his son, Dan, along with a seasoned staff, manage the five laundromats, as well as the varied real estate portfolio.
Marrazzo is a serial entrepreneur with interests in several businesses. Additionally, he sits on several boards of directors, including the executive committee for the Washington Crossing Council of the Boy Scouts of America. He is a self-described “frustrated cook,” who hosts an annual Christmas dinner for at least 100 homeless people in his warehouse in Penndel, Pa. – preparing the meal along with his son and other volunteers.
Personally, how are you coping with these unprecedented times?
I contracted the COVID-19 virus in mid-March, so I have a personal insight into this pandemic that perhaps most laundry owners, thankfully, don’t have. I was on an abbreviated schedule for the six days that I had a fever. Fortunately, I have a great support staff that covered for me. I did manage to sneak out to my office that was unoccupied during that week, but most days I was exhausted by 3:00 in the afternoon and left early.
I was extremely fortunate that in spite of my age – which everyone, but me, thinks is a vulnerability – the virus was not a horribly difficult experience. Breathing was never an issue, and my fever stayed below 103 degrees.
The only area that was terribly affected was my culinary addiction. The loss of taste and smell can be “terminal” for most Italian-Americans.
On a very serious note, one of the most personal losses was a customer of 30 years who succumbed to the deadly virus. Harriet had been a customer back when my son was still in a stroller in an earlier location of mine. Twenty-five years later, he would make her a tray of tiramisu, knowing how much she loved it. I still automatically look for her every Friday at my Morrisville location, before coming to the realization that she won’t be visiting anymore.
The COVID-19 outbreak has impacted everyone on so many levels. Given this, what do you see as the main challenges laundromat owners are facing these days and in the near future?
The challenges to our industry moving forward is the customer concern – and sometimes phobia – regarding who has used the washers and other equipment before them. As a result, it is incumbent upon every store owner to allay these fears as much as possible, even boosting the strong perception of safety as well.
Your cleaning practices will need to be more vigorous, take place more often and become more obvious to your customers – perhaps even including technologies such as UV light or ozone.
If you were running a dirty, mediocre laundromat in January, this will no longer work for the remaining months of 2020. In addition, I believe that, with the coronavirus outbreak, size now matters more than ever with regard to the laundry business. In fact, I’ve seen many new customers who were patrons of smaller stores, who now prefer a larger environment in which to do their laundry, where physical distancing is possible.
And, once autumn arrives and coats and sweaters will increase the average load size, there may be an increased challenge to avoid overcrowding inside laundromats – especially when colder weather might dissuade some people from going outside or to their vehicles.
How has business been for you over the last three months or so? Is your self-service business up or down? How is your WDF and commercial accounts business doing?
During the height of the pandemic, our sales suffered a double-digit downturn. During that time, our wash-dry-fold business was almost non-existent, save for the desperate bachelors and others with time constraints. With so many people working from home, they can put their clothes in before their Zoom conferences and then hit the home dryer after the meeting. This has had a negative impact on wash-dry-fold as well. Meanwhile, commercial accounts – assuming these businesses are allowed to be open – have been reduced but steady.
As of this writing, all but one of our laundromats has stabilized, and revenues are where they should be. The still-affected store is in an affluent neighborhood where no one ventures outside right now.
Specifically, how have you had to adapt or innovate to work around this “new normal,” at least for the time being?
Working around this pandemic has been difficult. We have requested masks and six-foot distancing from our customers. I have asked our managers to avoid being confrontational, in order to reduce customer “friction.” Due to my frequent visits to Home Depot for my construction business, I have realized the type of environment a regimented, totalitarian approach to safety can create. I’ve experienced customers yelling at and confronting the Home Depot staff for being stopped from going out the “wrong door.” And I, too, have left a few full carts in the checkout area, simply because it can at times be such a challenge to get through the store.
To avoid such problems, we have moved our laundry carts so as to keep then out of the way of arriving customers. Also, most of our stores have multiple entries to avoid bottlenecks. We’ve posted notices, asking customers to wait in their vehicles between the phases of laundering.
What’s more, we’ve installed 60-inch television monitors in each store. On these monitors, we display COVID-19 safety reminders. For instance, one scene features 30 mouse traps and a bouncing ping pong ball setting off all of the traps – and then the next scene shows six mouse traps “physically distanced,” with the ball bouncing safely between the traps and not setting them all off. Another scene displays the CDC guidelines for shopping.
And, since it’s hard to determine whether or not people are smiling behind their protective masks, we lean on humor as a calming factor. On all of the screens at all of our stores, we also show a man with soiled underwear over his head and face, with a caption, “Guaranteed Social Distancing!”
Have you added new services, programs, features or products to your laundry business in order to better serve your community during this time?
With many businesses feeling the pain of reduced revenues, the first item to see the chopping block often is marketing. We’ve tried to increase our marketing by offering a flat-fee wash- dry-fold bag program – all you can stuff into a laundry bag, excluding comforters, for a fixed price. In addition, we have offered a reduced rate for nurses and other medical staff, to encourage increased drop-off business. We also tried curbside service for our drop-off laundry customers. Moreover, our presence on Facebook has grown, and it’s been effective for a very minimal expense.
As the rest of the country slowly opens up and business begins to increase, how should laundry owners address customer and employee concerns and questions regarding store policies and preventive measures?
As we regain control of our daily lives, it may be even more challenging. The protective mask discussion has created two separate factions – those who refuse to wear them and those who will call the police if you aren’t wearing yours. I think you will need to see where your store and your market fall between those two extremes. Summertime temperatures may reduce the amount of masks you will see in your stores. In many states, it’s an option whether or not to wear a mask, thus making enforcement even more difficult. COVID-19 has taken less of the headlines lately, and Dr. Fauci is no longer a primetime TV star. As we inch closer to fall, we will have a much better understanding of how to act in the laundromat.
What steps have you taken to help assure your customers’ health and safety during these times?
In order to keep customers safe, we have locked some of our restrooms – requiring a key for entry, which reduces non-customer traffic and overall restroom use. We also have placed hand steamers in some of our stores, enabling the steam-cleaning of door handles between uses. And Lysol and Clorox II use has become an hourly regimen at our business to help maintain a sanitary environment in all of the stores.
What measures and safeguards have you implemented to keep your employees safe?
Our employees are equipped with all of the obvious personal protections. Our stores all feature service counters, which isolate our managers during transactions. Plus, early on we posted guidelines, based on CDC recommendations, for safely running the stores.
You’ve been an entrepreneur for a long time. As a business owner and employer, have you had to change your leadership style at all in the last few months?
Over the last few months, as a business owner I’ve needed to become more tolerant – not by choice, but more by necessity. Customers who don’t follow guidelines clash with those trying to stay safe. Things don’t move as quickly, and revenues are down, often with the same overhead. We have reduced our maintenance staff in the stores, as not to conflict with visiting customers in the laundromats. Overall, if you’re a Type-A entrepreneur, you need to downshift a bit to accept the present conditions. To be completely honest, I can talk about it much more easily than I can actually practice it.
What do you see as the keys to effective leadership during times of crisis?
To be an effective leader in these recent times, I think you need to be a strong communicator with all of your staff members. Certainly explaining that business is off can be effective in discussing why the stores may be a little less crowded. At the same time, it’s important to stress to your employees that they are still on the job – unlike workers in many restaurants, for example – and that laundry business revenues are on a rise and heading toward normal. This message will go a long way toward ensuring the retention of your staff.
Do you think COVID-19 has forever altered the small-business landscape, especially for laundromat owners? If so, in what ways?
I may be the outlier, but I don’t see the COVID-19 pandemic as being a permanent business game-changer. My customers are some of the most resilient people I’ve ever met. I think they will determine how much your laundry business will return to what it once was. I also think there may be more political and less scientific reasons for the way business has changed during this pandemic.
I’ll just say that, during a recent trip to Florida, I noticed a much different attitude among the residents. They had open restaurants, and many daily operations were normalized. In the Northeast, where I operate, this return to normalcy may take a bit longer.
Are there any silver linings to come out of this experience of the last few months? If so, please elaborate.
If there is a silver lining to any of this crisis, it may be the fact that it represents the final nail in the coffin of what my dear friend Brian Grell calls the “ZombieMat.” The tolerance for dirty, dank and unsafe laundromat very well may be over. Today’s modern laundry customers are looking for – and deserve – a pleasant and safe environment in which to clean their clothes. The concept of the “dump around the corner,” which automatically pops into the average American’s cerebellum upon hearing the word “laundromat,” may be on the verge of extinction. And that’s a great thing.
What are your business plans and goals for the second half of 2020?
For the remainder of the year, our goals as a company are to find additional ways to promote the size and quality of our stores – and to run these businesses as efficiently as possible. I can’t read enough of the Google reviews that begin with, “You can’t believe the laundromat I found in my neighborhood…”
Enticing people through the front door for that very first time remains the eternal challenge.
What’s your biggest business concern heading into the summer?
Our largest concern for the summer lies in the governors’ mansions in Harrisburg and Trenton. As of this interview, we have most businesses still closed or running just partially in both Pennsylvania and New Jersey. With so many people unemployed, our concern is – if small business is not allowed to open soon – it might not matter that we are still open. There are many difficult decisions to make at the state level, but if it continues as is, it may be irreversible for many businesses that employ the majority of our customers.
What would you most like other laundromat owners to take away from this interview, with regard to doing business in this current “new normal?”
If you’ve made it to the end of this interview, I hope you realize that you have an overwhelming amount of control over how well your laundry business performs within this storm in which we currently find ourselves. Keeping your facility in prime shape with as few pieces of paper taped over your acceptors as possible, keeping your floor free of trash, and employing a highly motivated manager can do more to overcome these difficult times that sitting at home worrying. You may not be able to control the swirling winds of COVID-19, but you can certainly adjust your sails… as well as your “sales.”