There are those in the industry who would be quick to tell you that drycleaning has recently gone to the dogs. For Sweeney Cleaners in Macomb, Illinois, that has literally been the case.
A handful of years ago, the company captured a few local headlines for an impressive achievement of reaching its 50th anniversary; however, just a few years later, owners Mark and Lisa Sweeney had to make the hard decision to begin farming out their drycleaning production to another cleaners.
A room that once teemed
Sweeney Cleaners continues to take in garments to be cleaned, but now they are also taking in dogs (and even a few cats) to be cleaned with a new business known simply as Tidy Tailwaggers.
There certainly are not a lot of places to which you can take your Dolce Vita and your Dachshund in order to make them each look better, but difficult times have called for creative solutions.
“We never could have kids,” noted Mark. “We always have had four-legged kids. We’ve always had big dogs and my wife always wanted to put a dog wash in. I couldn’t really find a place to do it over on the laundry side. I couldn’t find the space to do it in. Of course, when we shut down the drycleaning part we had a spot to put the dog wash in.”
Though the transition began taking place back in September of 2011, it has taken a while for the public to respond to the pet cleaning service.
“It’s been slow but it’s catching on,” added Mark. “It’s catching on more because it’s getting colder out because people can’t go out in the yard, hose them down and give them a bath.”
In the very beginning, it took Sweeney Cleaners a little while to gain its footing, as well.
The business was started in 1948 by Mark’s parents, Donald and Jean Sweeney, with help from his uncle John. They tore down a building located across the street from where it is now and started from scratch.
Donald had been a carpenter by trade, but after returning home from World War II, he decided to start a new business of his own. Drycleaning seemed to be the smart choice.
Macomb, which now has a population of about 20,000 people, was never a big town, but back then its residents knew how to dress well.
“I just think that he found a business that was kind of growing in popularity. People dressed a lot in suits and stuff. Sweeney’s used to do hats because people wore a lot of hats back then,” Mark explained.
“My father strived very much for quality,” Mark said. “Of course, he did the cleaning and the spotting, but he was also a very good presser… the creases in the pants and the way the suits were pressed. He just strived for perfection. That’s the way we always were and that’s the way he taught me to be, as well.”
Mark, who was born in 1956, certainly has many early memories of long nights at the plant while his parents sorted and spotted clothes and ran a few loads.
When Mark was still young, the family bought another building across the street from Sweeney Cleaners and turned it into a coin laundry business also bearing the Sweeney name.
Between the two businesses, there was pretty much nothing in a household that couldn’t be cleaned at one of their locations… laundry, drapes, fire damaged garments, rugs, wedding gowns and even leathers at one point.
Sweeney’s operated as a full-service cleaners for the majority of its history. They also offered pick up and delivery service just to be more convenient.
While Mark spent most of his high school years helping with those deliveries and also maintaining the coin laundry equipment, he had designs on another career after graduation.
Mark attended the Colorado Institute of Art in Denver with the intention of becoming a photographer. He spent five years there before he decided that photography was an overcrowded profession with an unstable future.
Meanwhile, the business was becoming a bit overwhelming for his father back in Macomb. Mark returned home in 1983 and his father started teaching him the keys to perfect drycleaning.
“He was a little tough at times but he was a good father,” recalled Mark. “I watched him take out stains that most people wouldn’t even know how to begin to work on and I found that kind of interesting.”
Late in the 1980s, the Sweeneys moved the drycleaning and coin laundry businesses to a single location, where they remain today, not very far from the original site.
Local business boomed so much that, at one time, there were six drycleaners in Macomb. When things slowed down, though, Sweeney’s benefited from the fact that a lot of college kids attend Western Illinois University and have a big need for access to a local coin-operated laundry.
Unfortunately, drycleaning demand dwindled due to a struggling economy and trends of people dressing down for work and play. Now, only two drycleaners are left in town. In fact, the competition also quit processing garments on site recently.
For Mark and Lisa, dropping drycleaning on the premises was a tough decision to make.
“I guess the reason why we did it is because we were a perc cleaners and, I don’t have to tell you, that solvent is just so regulated,” he said. “I remember when solvent was like $350 for a 20 gallon drum where we are. Then, it changed to like $700 for a drum of solvent. In Illinois, anyway, you’ve got that Environmental Response Trust Fund and I was paying $3,000 a year for that, and they had a $10 a gallon tax on the solvent. That stuff just kept going up and up and up. We are in a small town. I was just giving more money, or all of my profit, to all of that and it was just getting too hard to do.”
Another factor involved was that his perc cleaning machine was getting older and it would soon be time to invest in another or perhaps an alternative solvent which means starting over with the training process.
“I think we made the right decision,” Mark said, though he still advises other cleaners to keep up the fight on behalf of perc. “I think it should be allowed to be alive for another hundred years. The industry has come so far and it is state of the art and it is safe. I think government should lay off that.”
One thing that has made his life more difficult since he began farming out his production work is that it is very difficult not being in 100 percent control of the final product.
Clearly, he has retained the spirit of perfectionism handed down from his father.
“That’s been hard for me,” he said. “When I get things back and they couldn’t get a spot out of it, I know it can come out.”
If necessary, Mark will ask to use the spotting board and take the stain out on his own. He also has kept some equipment in the building in case he wants to improve the overall quality before he returns garments to customers.
“We’re still very particular on how stuff comes out,” he added. “I did keep the steam iron. If I have to press a cuff or collar out, I’ll do that.”
If Mark had decided to pursue photography, he certainly would not be worrying about stains and wrinkles these days, but he also would likely have never met his wife.
“Lisa worked at one of the banks and I was taking a work deposit up to it and that’s how we met,” he said. “Of course, I kept going to her window every time.”
The two have always been avid animal lovers and have had their share of big dogs for pets. Currently they have a Labrador Retriever and a St. Bernard that aren’t the easiest animals to clean in a bathtub.
For a long time, Lisa petitioned Mark to consider adding pet grooming at the plant. Now that they have, Mark admits that it is much easier dealing with four-legged customers than the two-legged variety.
“I’m not scared of dogs,” he said. “I’ve had people come in and say, ‘He or she will not like this or that.’ Then, they leave and the dog is an angel. After the owners leave, the dog is a totally different animal. I’ve never had a problem with any of them not liking us doing something.”
Customers have the option of washing their own pets, or dropping them off for the Sweeneys to do the dirty work. The couple has also contracted with some local groomers to offer extra services like ear cleaning and nail trimming.
“We’ve provided all of the cages and all of the tools. We supply it all,” he said. “The groomers pay a little rent to come in to start their own business. They give a little bit of percentage when they wash the dog. As far as all the grooming services, that goes to them. So, really I’ve made it so groomers have a nice place to open a business for themselves.”
There are times when Mark misses drycleaning and spotting, but he doesn’t miss dealing with all of the equipment breakdowns and government regulations for drycleaning solvent. Fortunately, the pet grooming has been an enjoyable venture to date.
“It’s pretty rewarding because you get to see some pretty neat dogs,” he said. “You get to know some people who really love their pets. It’s a lot of fun.”