Known for fostering a reputation of cleaning and fixing treasured specialty items, it’s not often that Crystal Cleaning Center of San Mateo, CA, turns down requests. Still, some challenges are absolutely impossible to refuse, like a recent one from a little boy named Ryan.
“He has a favorite bunny that he sleeps with. It’s about eight inches long and it’s made out of one of those nice velour-y fabrics,” recalled Lynnette Watterson, the plant’s owner. “Its neck seam is just stretched out and distorted and keeps opening.”
She asked the boy when he needed it fixed by to which he replied: “Could I have it back before dark time?”
“It was so cute,” Lynnette said. “So, I stepped over in the sewing area and stitched up the bunny and handed it back to him and he said, ‘It’s
Even with a catalog of about three decades’ worth of memories with Crystal Cleaning, that one certainly ranks among the sweetest.
“I think I thrive on things like that,” she said. “I’ve spoken to people in the industry and everybody has a different model and a different philosophy. Something I’ve heard sometimes is ‘Wow. You’re spending that much time with a customer? Do you know how much time you’re wasting?’ I feel quite the opposite. I’m so bonded to those kinds of relationships. For me, that’s what it’s all about.”
That’s why Lynnette once took the time to go to a grocery store and buy a “Get Well Soon” balloon to wrap around the wrist of a more difficult stuffed animal repair project. The family dog had used a young child’s beloved teddy bear as a chew toy.
Caring a little bit extra has been part of a successful recipe that traces back to the beginning of the company when Lynnette’s mother, Violet Janks, first started it in the same location it stands today.
She built up a memorable reputation in the community by handling all items with delicate precision and adding a personal touch, such as giving children who came into the store Smarties candies to take home.
“Luckily they still make them, so we still do that,” Lynnette noted. “When I have second- or third-generation customers coming in, the parents will say to the kids, ‘I use to get these candies when I was a kid here.’”
Lynnette still laughs when she recalls the time a customer confided in her that her child had dumped out all the candy he collected on Halloween. When he saw some Smarties, he said: “Look Mom. I got drycleaner candy!”
Earlier in August, the company officially celebrated its 50th anniversary and was paid a visit by State Senator Jerry Hill.
To mark the milestone, Crystal Cleaning was decorated festively, including a big 50 on the storefront window. Lynnette handed out goodies to customers, including reusable bags, decorated cookies and sheets with information about what life was like during the company’s first year in 1963. Gas was only 30 cents a gallon, minimum wage was $1.25 and postage stamps were a nickel a piece.
Recently, the color purple could be seen throughout every aspect of the store, a subtle tribute to her mother’s name. Violet passed away eight years ago, but Lynnette is positive she would have been proud of the way she has carried on her tradition, especially considering it’s amazing the store even was started in the first place.
Violet and her husband, Cyril, emigrated in 1960 from Johannesburg, South Africa, where Lynnette spent the first nine years of her life.
Her parents wanted to provide their children with more opportunities, a prospect that inspired Lynnette to try to convert her strong English accent into a more American dialect when the family made the decision.
Eventually, the family arrived in the U.S. and settled in San Francisco where Cyril used his retail clothing experience to land a job with City of Paris. Violet, however, still needed to find a vocation. She opted to own her own drycleaning business even though she had no experience in drycleaning or business.
“In the early days, the back half was dedicated to a self-service coin-operated laundromat with pink washers and dryers. It was very 1960s. I remember helping my mom and dad pick the formica for the countertops. It was yellow with little designs that kind of looked like boomerangs. Our drycleaning machine was turquoise blue,” Lynnette recalled. “My mom had a little handle-pulled adding machine. That was her initial cash register. She brought clothes from home to hang on the conveyor so it looked like we had work.”
What she lacked in experience, Violet made up for in passion and determination. After all, this was the same woman who, when 12, saw her future husband (nine years her senior) play saxophone in a band at a wedding. She told her parents she would marry him. Five years later, she did.
While Violet built up the business and endeared herself to customers, Lynnette opted for a different direction. She had grown up working in the plant, but she chose to take secretarial training in college and began working for the FBI before the age of 19.
She worked there for the next 17 years, first as part of a big stenographer’s pool and later as a secretary for a squad of agents and, finally, as an analyst. It was a very rewarding career.
“At the time I saw information that obviously wasn’t for public consumption,” she recalled. “The most interesting and outstanding cases that I can remember was the kidnapping of Patty Hearst and the Zodiac killer, while they were investigations.”
By 1986, Lynnette had a son and daughter with her husband, Bob. Lynnette decided to leave the FBI and help her mother with the business, which enabled her to be free to spend afternoons with her children.
For the next eight years, Lynnette worked alongside her mother and had a ringside seat to witness her dedication to her craft.
“She just had this tenacity and passion that if she was going to do something, it was going to be the best and it was going to be right,” she said. “She taught me how to sew early in my childhood and if it wasn’t right, I had to pull it out and start over, no bones about it.”
Apparently, Violet approached everything that way. As a young woman, she once took up golf to spend more time with her husband. She worked hard and studied the game, eventually boasting an 8 handicap and sharing the fairway with some elite company.
“She actually knew Gary Player before he was on the big world circuit and she played golf with him,” Lynnette noted. “I can remember in the early 1960s he came to our house for dinner one time.”
Lynnette often refers to her mother as a “character” who seems very much alive in Crystal Cleaning today. She was a strong influence in her life.
“When she was working full bore, she’d be here early in the morning. She’d go to her car in the afternoon — I’m not kidding you — and she’d nap for an hour,” Lynnette said. “She just had her little pillow and she could fall asleep in an instant and wake up with no alarm clock and go back to work.”
Of course, “character” might not be a bad way to describe Lynnette, as well. These days, she often spends close to 12 hours a day at the plant and she almost always makes a point of answering the phone herself.
She loves interacting with people and seems to possess unlimited stamina, so she doesn’t need to nap at work. Regardless, she feels fully energized the whole time she’s there. She loves fabrics enough to have possibly developed a sixth sense for them.
“You know, I’m always fascinated with the strange phenomenon that I can look at fabric, as a general rule, and without touching it, know what the fiber content is,” she said.
Over the years, Lynnette has certainly made a lasting impression on her customers, but she has also played an active role bettering the drycleaning industry.
She has been a long-time board member of the California Cleaners Association and served as president for them from 2004 to 2006.
“My whole platform was about unity,” she said. “It has been such a struggle to boost membership because of the change in the composition of the industry.”
Despite the frustration, Lynnette believes the associations are a great strength for the industry and she intends to keep giving back. That selflessness was likely factored in when she won the Drycleaner of the Year Award from CCA in 2008 and the International Drycleaner Congress Drycleaner of the Year Award in 2010.
These days, Lynnette has no desire to slow down. Fortunately, she shouldn’t become bored anytime soon. There always seems to be an influx of interesting specialty items to handle, providing even more sweet memories — like the time she once cleaned and heirloomed a costume worn by opera star Placido Domingo who wore it for a production of “Othello.”
She also enjoyed the chance to work on a 1939 Ted Williams-autographed baseball jersey. Perhaps the most startling item was an outfit of one of the Beatles.
“Our customer is a musician and he acquired a suit of John Lennon’s at an auction event,” she recalled. “It was a sharkskin, nehru collar, with the black piping on the edge and a grayish color. That one was really extraordinary.”