Philadelphia Laundry Owners Are Changing Lives in the Neighborhoods They Serve

The Laundry Café is the creative vision of owners Brian Holland and Tyrone Akins – two former Big Pharma executives who grew up in the inner city and share a commitment of providing an upscale laundry experience to customers in underserved communities.

The company’s website says it all: “We respect and appreciate how hard you work, and we feel that you deserve the very best in high-quality laundromat performance and superb customer service. One of our main goals is to deliver an outstanding customer experience to every patron, on every visit.”

However, the owners of The Laundry Café – which now boasts two locations in Philadelphia – have another goal that is equally important to them. They want to positively impact lives and affect real, meaningful change in the communities they serve. With this goal in mind, The Laundry Café conducts informative and inspiring Café Community Seminars, which focus on topics that are important to a successful life – such as financial literacy, voter registration, resume writing, job interview skills, maintaining a work/life balance, motivation and so on.

Let’s talk about some of the customer-focused Café Community Seminars you host at The Laundry Café, as well as where those ideas come from.

Brian Holland: They type of events we run are guided less by our own wants and more guided by what our customers ask of us. And I think the more we do, the more they see – and then they come up with additional ideas.

When Tyrone and I started out, there definitely was a healthcare bent to our events, because both of us came from the pharmaceutical industry. What’s more, this is an audience plagued with some of common healthcare-related inner city perils, such as breast cancer, prostate cancer, obesity and diabetes.

So, our very first program was on breast cancer awareness. We asked a local radio personality if she could come in and give a presentation on breast cancer awareness from a woman’s perspective. Everyone who attended received a free mammogram. It was a great partnership. It cost us almost nothing, and it was very well received.

On the heels of that, we focused on cardiovascular health. We offered cholesterol and blood pressure screenings. Again, those are issues plaguing both African-Americans and Latinos in the inner city.

We followed our gut and took on what we knew were issues in the inner city. From there, we branched out, based on customer requests.

Tyrone Akins: The first events were healthcare-focused. The second path we took was more socially focused. We looked at things like the family and youth academics.

For instance, parents would come in on the weekends and talk to us about the challenges of doing laundry and all of the other things they needed to do, along with trying to keep up with their kids. So, we created what we called “Family Night” on Wednesday nights. We invited families to come in for free pizza and a movie. The parents could get their laundry done, while we were actually taking care of the children in the back with a two-hour movie. That was a social thing that really impacted local families.

Another popular program dealt with youth academics. In Philadelphia, there’s quite a challenge with our young people, with regard to getting great grades in school. Sometimes, being a good student is even frowned upon, so we wanted to flip it around and showcase our local academic talent. As a result, we created a program for honor roll students in the neighborhood – we put up their photos on our “Wall of Fame,” and we also give these star students an iPad or a Wii game for their efforts.

Brian: Being a good student isn’t always celebrated. You might get called names or made fun of – so we wanted to make it clear that these kids who are really trying to protect their futures by honoring their grades and their coursework should be celebrated.

Not every kid you see out on the street is gangbanging and stealing. Some of them are trying to keep it on the straight and narrow, and many of these parents are working hard at bringing up kids with an academic focus.

So, we decided to celebrate them. There are enough rap songs out there that celebrate rappers, and enough commercials that celebrate ballers. What about the kids trying to broaden their horizons and focus on education?

Tyrone: We had one kid who was so impacted by neighborhood stuff that – even though he earned a Wii game because he was on the honor roll – he had the hardest time smiling and removing that tough exterior. Brian and I said to him, “It’s OK to be smart!” And we finally ribbed him into laughing and smiling about his accomplishments. But, initially, he was more concerned about what his friends would think when they saw his photo on our Wall of Fame.

Another socially focused program revolved around home ownership. Our customer would tell us, “First, I want to own a home, and once I own a home, I’m going to do this and that.” The theme of home ownership kept coming up in conversations, so we decided to bring in the top real estate agent in our area to discuss the steps needed to purchase one’s first home. We put together an agenda that really worked for the community, and it was a phenomenal program. More than 50 people attended.

Brian: The home ownership program was cued up by the interests and needs of the community we serve. We don’t have a formula for choosing these topics. Our programs serve our audience, but it may be very different in another community. Your customers will tell you what they want.

There is a lot of potentially productive time in laundromats, if used correctly. There are people here who are hungry for knowledge and have nothing to do but stare at the TVs or the dryers while waiting for their clothes. So we try to give them some useful, productive alternatives.

Of course, this won’t appeal to everyone, but it will appeal to a large enough audience that your customers will appreciate it and they’ll see that you’re trying to support the community – because, at the end of the day, it’s about reciprocity.

You can’t just take, take, take, and expect people to support you. We believe this has to be a reciprocal relationship, where we support the community and they hopefully will support us.

Tyrone: If you talk to your customers, they’ll tell you exactly what they need and what they desire. Sometimes we give them what they desire, and many times we give them what they need.

Brian: A great example of that is a voter registration program we held. Voting is important. You couldn’t have a greater opportunity to help shape your landscape, particularly in some of these hard-hit areas where it seems like the voice of the constituents is either forgotten or at least not listened to. Voting is perhaps the best way to be heard.

We brought in volunteers to talk to our customers. The goal was to get people registered to vote, and to make sure that those who already were registered were aware of the political landscape, as well as the location of their local polling place and so on.

This program was another overwhelming success. In fact, one of our volunteers was actually invited to the White House because of her activities with grassroots voter registration.

What goes into putting on these programs?

Tyrone: First, we decide on the topic, based on what the customers have told us they need and desire. Then, we talk to those who can help us pull it together. For example, with the home ownership program, we went to the top real estate agent in the market. If it were a program on veterans’ benefits, we’d seek the leading individual in that industry. After that, we put together an agenda that works for the customers who will be attending the event.

And then we promote it. Our marketing can range from TV ads to radio spots to more intimate programs, like a Constant Contact mailing. We have about 2,000 people who have opted into our mailing program – so we’ll send out a promotion to 2,000 people and ask them to tell a friend.

Our approach is not at all passive. We will have our employees invite our customers to these events. When one of our attendants engages a customer, they may ask, “Are you aware of the program we have coming up on how to buy your first home?” That starts the conversation.

Brian: Most areas of need also have experts who are willing to come speak. For example, the real estate agent from Coldwell Banker knew exactly how to talk about preparing to buy your first home. We also hosted a program on financial literacy for teenagers and adults – and Wells Fargo was quick to stand up and volunteer.

All we ask is that the presentation not be self-serving. It needs a community focus and not be about building the speaker’s own business.

Logistically, we just choose a time when we know we’re going to be busy, but not so busy that customers can’t participate. Typically, Saturdays are great, or Sundays before it gets too crazy.

The beauty of the laundry business, which is unlike most industries, is that you can count on about 75 percent of your customers to come back week after week. So, if you post some flyers in your store a few weeks in advance, your customers are going to see your message and likely tell others. Basically, you have a ready-made audience.

Why do you feel it’s important to hold these types of events?

Brian: Our business model deliberately targets some of the most densely populated areas in the inner city – and, with that, usually come some underserved areas. There are so many programs that would be helpful in these communities, whether it’s parenting skills, financial literacy or voter registration – all of those issues are screaming needs. It’s hard to ignore something when you know full well it’s something you could easily address.

It doesn’t mean we can solve the problems, but if every small and medium-sized business did something, we wouldn’t have half the problems we have now. We’re just saying, “Step up!” And we send that message to the businesses in our local shopping center. If a humble laundromat can do it, certainly a supermarket or a sneaker store can, too.

Tyrone: Working in pharma, we knew we needed to have a corporate responsibility and a community responsibility. And we’ve always done that. Along the way, we’ve developed some core values of our own: to serve with honor, to live with respect, to grow with humility and to repay with generosity. We’re living those values.

The second reason these programs are important is because, once you invest in the community, you become part of the fabric of that community – not just a business within that community. That’s an important distinction; when you become part of the fabric of a community, your customers will treat your business as their own. Our customers treat The Laundry Café like they own it.

Here’s an example of how that’s helped us: we had an employee who was trying to do some illegal things to make money on the side. Basically, he was trying to start up our machines and have our customers pay him.

Fortunately, we had three customers come forward and alert us to his behavior, which enabled us to actually fire this gentleman before he could do too much damage. Those customers weren’t going to allow that to happen – and that’s only because we are part of the fabric of the community, not just a business.

Personally, what do you get out of giving back to the communities in which you do business?

Tyrone: I grew up in neighborhoods that looked just like the ones we serve today. In those neighborhoods, there were a lot of good, hard-working people who just needed a little bit of help. I don’t mean financial help; they needed help with information, academics and things like that. And, once they got that help, they excelled.

During my earlier professional career with Johnson & Johnson, we had a commitment to the community. We would coordinate clothing drives for the homeless – and I would see the appreciation and the pride on people’s faces when we would say we’re here to help you out because we know you’re a good, hard-working person.

Brian: It’s easy to characterize an entire group of people, based on what you see on the news. But, in fact, if you are actually here, you see that every one of these people has a heart and a soul and a personality. Every one of these people is an individual trying to make it. Some of them have been beat up and knocked down, but these are everyday people. They could be my family.

It’s not often that this audience gets a concierge-like experience, but they deserve it. I think many have come to think that, if you have wealth, you deserve a special experience. However, we believe that, whether you have wealth or not, you still deserve a special experience. For me, this is about treating people the way they deserve to be treated.

Tyrone: We want to be inspiring and motivating to others. Just having a platform to be able to have conversations about what people can achieve in life is fulfilling to me. I enjoy leading a conversation, hoping I’ve left that person in a better state of mind than when we started our conversation. There’s nothing financial about it. It’s just an innate feeling that makes you feel good about doing well for others.

Brian: We’re not doing this for financial gain. If business owners are doing it just for financial gain, it will come off as disingenuous. Tyrone and I feel connected to this community, and we feel we’re part of the community. If someone is going to hold community events just as a P.R. stunt, I suggest not doing it, because the backlash from that would be harmful.

Tyrone: You have to set your business to be community-focused. For example, if you have a sheet of Plexiglas between you and your customers, you’re not really community-based – you’re financially based within that community.

At The Laundry Café, we intentionally designed our stores to eliminate any barriers between us and the customers – this invites a conversation, a handshake and even a hug.

What advice do you have for other laundry owners who may be looking to hold similar events in their markets?

Tyrone: Be sure that your community commitment is evident throughout the look and feel of your laundry. You can’t say that you’re community-focused and have barriers between you and your customers.

Also, our programs are not-for-profit. If we can make a profit, we don’t allow those programs in The Laundry Café.

Lastly, sometimes you just have to give away your services. At both of our locations, we held free laundry days for the homeless, and they were both huge successes. That alone makes you feel good about what you do. So, sometimes you have to give away your services, because it’s the right thing to do.

Brian: Just do it and know that you can’t go wrong. Whatever you do, if you’re serving people, you’re serving people.
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