Originally posted – Aug 26, 2013
Before her retirement this past January, Colleen Unema had spent decades as a nationally certified high school science teacher in Bellingham, Wash.
However, it was a self-imposed break from teaching that actually prepared Unema for her “encore career” – as a laundry owner.
“Both of my parents passed away about 10 years ago,” she explained. “At that time, I took a couple of years off of teaching, and I did outside advertising sales; I sold Valpak coupons.
“Of course, I had to learn the different industries that worked well within the Valpak envelope, and laundromats were one of them. So, I kept a file of all that I learned from the laundry owners I talked to. And, even when I went back to teaching, I kept that little file. It planted a seed in my head.”
Over the years, Unema considered other business ventures as well, such as rental properties; however she kept returning to the idea of owning a laundromat.
But not just any laundromat.
Unema wanted her store to mirror the community in which she lived and wished to serve. For being a relatively large city, Bellingham – located about 90 minutes north of Seattle – is a close-knit community that seems drawn together by its residents’ collective enthusiasm for outdoor activities, as well as their passion for environmentalism.
“I wanted to build a business with an eye toward environmental sustainability,” she explained. “It’s top-of-mind awareness for everyone around here, so creating that type of laundry was a huge opportunity.”
Unema studied the self-service laundry industry for a full year before finally taking the plunge.
“I taught for another year, and I just pushed,” she said. “I kept asking questions. I visited more laundries and talked to more people. I wrote a business plan that turned into a book – and I forced it on all of my entrepreneur friends, anyone who would read it.”
Along the way, Unema created a running list of potential locations for her new laundry. And, once that list grew to a dozen possible sites, she reached out to local distributor Rich Boyd of CESCO Laundry Systems in SeaTac, Wash., for some expert advice.
“I took Rich on a little guided tour,” she laughed. “We spent an entire day, and he would say, ‘This site is lacking this. That site needs that.’ So, we got to the bottom of the list. It was the 12th one, and it had only been on the market for a week. We drove there, and he said, ‘That’s it!’
The future home of Unema’s Q Laundry was a vacant 3,000-square-feet storefront in a strip mall on a busy corner with a coffee shop just 40 feet off the corner. What’s more, the popular organic grocer, Trader Joe’s, is just two doors down from Unema’s store.
“It’s the only one here for miles, so it draws a huge crowd,” she noted. “They’re on one end, and I’m on the other end – and in between is a children’s consignment store. Plus, on the other side of Trader Joe’s is a women’s consignment store.”
There also are several rentals within a mile of Q Laundry, and most of the houses within the community are quite small.
“You can’t really get big machines in most of the homes around us, so our laundry comes in handy,” Unema explained. What’s more, the store is near Western Washington University, as well as two community colleges.
It’s the type of place where the term “green” means something to people. And Unema took that to heart during the design and three-month build-out stages of her new laundry, which opened in June.
The store features natural wood, warm colors and complementary LED lighting – and the store’s service counter is an attractive, sweeping, focal point.
“It’s artistic and crafty,” Unema said. “It’s not what everyone would do.”
After all, not every self-service laundry boasts a custom chandelier from Italy hanging above the front counter.
“This place is gorgeous,” said Unema, who employs seven part-time attendants. “It’s like Pottery Barn meets Restoration Hardware. This whole store has an REI/outdoor feel. We cater to people who are active in the outdoors.”
The store features a roll-up overhead door for ease of loading and unloading. And, with Bellingham being a hub for outdoor activities, Unema created a unique drying area that utilizes a hanging metal frame for hoisting laundered tents for drying. The space has floor-to-ceiling tile and two large fans to make short work of the drying process.
“I’ve also programmed the machines to appropriately wash tents, down sleeping bags and so on,” she explained. “We’ve created little niches for the store.”
And community certainly has bought into Unema’s vision.
How else do you explain a man stopping in during construction to tell her that one of his cedar trees fell over and that he was going to use the wood to make her custom coffee tables and stools – for free?
Or how about the concrete contractor who decided stained concrete would work well with her store’s color palette, and did the staining work at no cost?
There was a buzz in the community well in advance of Q Laundry’s grand opening this past summer.
“People just want in on this,” Unema said. “There’s a lot of satisfaction in building this business and serving my community.”
Q Laundry – which is open from 7 a.m. to 10 p.m. daily – also includes custom bags to fit the store’s laundry carts, which were created by a local sail maker, along with folding tables featuring solid butcher block tops.
The store boasts 39 washers, ranging from large-capacity solid-mount units to high-extract soft-mount machines in 18-, 25- and 45-pound capacities. Eighteen 45-pound stack dryers complement the washers.
Moreover, Q’s customers are treated to a fully attended laundry, free WiFi access and music from a revolving iTunes playlist.
“I don’t have a TV in here. My customers read books,” said Unema, spoken like a true former teacher.
And, in addition to offering a wash-dry-fold service, the store has a professional come in to perform alterations once a week.
“If I don’t know something, I put a team together,” explained Unema, thinking back on the last year of her life. “On the other end of the phone, I’ve got the answer – a lawyer, an accountant, a bookkeeper, a marketing specialist, someone.
“My husband, Barry, and I went to the CLA’s Excellence in Laundry Conference in Palm Springs last year,” she added. “We both split up and just listened. If you take the best of what everybody said at that conference, you have this store. We listened to things like square footage, machine type, what kinds of people like what kinds of things, how to set up a wash-dry-fold business, how to stock products, how to clean stains. We asked, and we listened.
“Our goal is to have three laundries in the next few years.”