When it comes to drycleaning clothes, there is no one-size-fits-all mentality. Katie Brown, who runs Rytina Fine Cleaning in Sacramento, CA, which she also co-owns with her husband, Toran, understands this notion well.
After all, she believes every garment tells a story and her job is to make sure they have a happy ending every time they leave the plant.
Incidentally, Rytina served as a secret test site for K4 prior to its availability to the general public and Katie has been quite impressed with the results so far.
Using the right tool for the job, or, in this case, the right solvent for the right article, depends on a variety of factors: fabric, dye and soil. Thus having three optional cleaning processes means an enormous amount of flexibility.
However, all that effort does not mean much if there is one vital component missing from the consumer/
“There’s just that general level of trust,” Katie explained. “You walk into our lobby and it’s pristine and it’s professional at any given time. We’re on site for our customers. If there are any questions during the day, any one of us can bring a customer back and show them what goes on behind the scenes. That’s very important to me because, as they walk through, they see how clean and organized it is. They also get an idea of how complicated it is and I think we can demystify a lot of the mystery of drycleaning.”
If anything, it makes them appreciate how tricky the process can be and demonstrates that drycleaning can be just as much an art as it is a service.
Katie has been running the day-to-day operation of the cleaning for the last handful of years, but it’s been a part of Toran’s family for over half a century.
Toran’s grandparents, Frieda and Walter Schoen, took over the plant in 1958 along with their 18-year-old daughter, Isolde, who still consults when needed.
The family had immigrated from Germany and Frieda secured work as a shirt presser at Swansons upon arriving in Sacramento.
“She gained enough experience,” Katie said. “They saved money and decided they could do the same type of work themselves.”
The timing was perfect as local company Aerojet became a major contractor for the country’s skyrocketing space program in the 1960s, leaving many engineers in need of the same-day fluff-and-fold laundry services provided by Rytina.
Isolde continued on a successful path as she became the face of the company in the 1970s and 1980s while Toran grew up around the plant.
Oddly enough, Katie had a similar experience, also coming of age in Sacramento.
Her family has owned and managed Shasta Linen Supply for four generations; the company is 110 years old now.
When Shasta Linen Supply relocated to Sacramento from Seattle, Katie’s father, Thomas Hammer (a recipient of the Textile Rental Services Association’s Lifetime Achievement Award), opted to drop drycleaning services and focus solely on the commercial linen side of the business, which turned out to be a wise move.
Katie worked there every summer; however, when she graduated from high school, her parents encouraged her to cultivate her creativity.
Her path eventually took her to Hollins University in Virginia and Paris for a year as she majored in French Studies and minored in Art History.
“My parents encouraged us to experience the liberal arts,” she said. “You could always specialize later in life.”
Eventually, Katie returned to California and worked as a headhunter for the better part of a decade. She married Toran in 1988; the two had known each other since their school days in Sacramento.
Ready to start their own family, the couple decided to move back to their hometown to be close to both sets of parents and allow Toran to take over the family business.
By that time, Toran had worked several years as a real estate developer in Los Angeles, focussing primarily on multi-million dollar commercial office projects.
Fortunately, he was able to offer his real estate expertise to his parents when they opted to move Rytina from a building they could have owned a number of times if they had not been renting for over 30 years.
At that time, Toran instigated a few changes, including upgrading technology and adding and growing delivery routes (which now account for 60 to 70n percent of their business), but mostly he wanted to stick to the company’s long-time greatest strength.
“Rytina has enjoyed 50 years of reputation and I remind Katie and the staff and anyone who will listen to me that our reputation is probably our greatest asset. I think customers come to us because they trust us and they trust that we are going to handle their items properly.”
Even while Katie raised their three children, she still found a way to contribute her strongest skills to the business.
“For me, it was very important to be a stay-at-home mom,” she noted. “Having said that, I always had a foot in the business. I wasn’t there on a regular basis but I certainly did all of our hiring and things like that to keep me in the loop.”
The process of hiring excellent employees requires precision; so does keeping them happy.
“When I hire, I go to great lengths. We take a lot of time to train. We start off slowly,” Katie said. “I think setting up expectations, being really consistent and being constructively critical as needed is important. Employees also need to hear that they are doing well. I think we all know that working behind a hot press or over a spotting table is tedious. I think it’s very important to be cognizant of their work conditions and making sure their environment is nice and give them proper positive feedback.”
Another smart strategy Katie has devised is to hire students from nearby Sacramento State University who are willing to make a commitment while they pursue their college degrees.
“It’s been a really good fit,” she said. “I look for someone who is highly customer service-oriented and understands technology so they can work on our computer system. I have always instilled in them that you may not be the person who can answer the technical question but, because of your customer service skills, you will know how to comfort or advise a customer.”
It’s not just students who work at Rytina. One “lifer” has been the “matriarch of the counter” for over 25 years. It’s all part of a carefully-crafted work atmosphere of care and respect.
Toran, who maintains an outside perspective on company matters, believes he knows why Katie interacts with employees so well.
“She was able to spend time with her children and be a full-time mom and it was an incredible experience that she still treasures today,” he said. “We happen to have a lot of women who work here, many of whom have children of all ages. She recognizes that they are mothers first and employees second. She really goes to great lengths to make sure they spend the time that they need to with their family.”
Because they repeatedly achieve amazing final results on treasured garments, it’s not a big surprise that the company has been affiliated with America’s Best Cleaners for several years. With annual certification tests and quarterly secret shopping visits, being in the group takes a deep commitment.
“It helps to validate who we are and it’s a great learning tool. In your own business you can get a little off from time to time. There seems to be a vortex when you walk through the door,” Katie said. “The group provides the support that we need to step back and look at our company as a whole and not get too caught up maybe in just one area.”
When dealing with the little details, you cannot overlook the big picture. For Katie, it was keeping sight of the big picture view that convinced her to take on her most daunting challenge as a drycleaning plant owner.
Before she had taken over the reins, Toran had kicked off a Certified Restoration Drycleaning Network franchise apart from the main plant.
It turned out to be a wise move financially; however, with the drycleaning market struggling in more recent years, it became logistically inefficient to be running both businesses at separate locations.
“We needed to really consolidate and rethink what we were doing and how we were doing business,” she recalled. “We made the decision to consolidate under one roof.”
It was a difficult experience that almost overwhelmed her. Fortunately, Katie received a lot of much-appreciated help and advice from Chris White and Ed D’Elicio of America’s Best Cleaners and Rick Fitzpatrick of Kruessler during the ordeal.
In hindsight, she now realizes that it was an invaluable learning experience.
“If I had been told how hard it was to move a plant, I might not have done it,” she laughed.
She learned all about the production equipment, how to maximize floor space and how to keep customers happy when production is halted for several more days than anticipated — all things that have helped her be a better plant operator today.