People in the drycleaning industry don’t always recognize Jeff Schwarz in his civilian clothes right away. However,
as soon as the regional vice president for A.L. Wilson Chemical Company changes
into his stain-covered lab coat and
his blue-and-yellow wizard hat, his “Stain Wizard” alter ego is immediately greeted with enthusiasm.
“Without my lab coat, I’m just Clark Kent. With my lab coat I’m actually Superman, I guess,” he mused. “You can
get more with a kind word and a lab coat than you can just with a kind word.”
In this case, the clothes really do
make the man. The coat draws a lot
of attention because it contains a
rogue’s gallery representation of
the stains that regularly plague
drycleaners: makeup, blood, red
clay, perspiration, shoe polish, red
wine, ketchup, mustard, lipstick,
coffee, ink and more.
It’s Jeff’s job to help cleaners
remove such imperfections from
garments. In fact, his ultimate goal
is to see all “Sorry” tags stomped
out in his lifetime.
To add a touch of professionalism
to his colorful costume, he had “Dr. Jeff, Stain Removalolgist” embroidered over a breast pocket, although an initial
attempt to do so caused confusion.
“When I got the coat back it said: ‘Dr. Jeff, Rheumatologist’ — it was misspelled. Somebody who replaces knees
and hips is a rheumatologist,” Jeff recalled. “So, I was at the SDA show in San Antonio a couple of years ago and I’m
checking into the hotel and the valet guy sees my lab coat and says, ‘My mom just had her knees replaced. Thank
God for people like you. I can’t believe there’s no more pain. She’s walking around now. I have nothing but respect
for you.’ I didn’t have time to correct the guy.”
Oddly enough, it was respect that inspired Jeff to put on the lab coat in the
first place. Doris Easley had donned
one for years and he asked for her permission to carry on the tradition.
There was no shortage of tradition when Jeff grew up on a family farm near the
tiny town of Vernon Center, MN,
although there wasn’t much need for drycleaning. Some days, he didn’t even need a first name.
“My mom actually had five kids in six years. For the longest time I was known as ‘three of six.’ It was amazing
though. We actually raised St. Bernards. We raised exotic cattle and we raised
corn and soybeans. We baled about
6,000 bales of hay and straw every year,” he noted. “I grew up baling hay using the Armstrong method… that’s
where moving all of those bales makes your arms really strong.”
Occasionally, interesting visitors rolled into the area. Some of the
co-investors of the family’s Maine-Anjou and
Simmental livestock were from the Minnesota Vikings.
In 1972, Jeff was able to witness the World Ploughing Competition (which is
exactly what it sounds like) when it
was hosted locally. However, when he was 19 and studying agriculture at the
University of Minnesota, he began to
suspect that the future of farming would not be a stable one.
“One day when I was up to my middle section in snow, I called a friend in
California and he said, ‘Man, we just got
done playing basketball. It’s 75 degrees out here.’ I bought a one-way ticket to California. That was 1981,” Jeff
To make ends meet at that time, he performed landscape and maintenance work ten
hours a day, seven days a
“We mowed grass for almost all of the Oakland A’s,” Jeff recalled. “We worked for the different players when they
lived up in Blackhawk.”
Not wanting to landscape the rest of his life, he attended night school and by
1984 had graduated from the police
academy. He became an officer in Marin County for the next nine years.
“There was enough crime to go around. It was never boring,” Jeff pointed out. “The hardest part about being a
police officer was nobody ever called you to say, ‘Everything is great. I just made you a batch of cookies. Why don’t
you come over and have some?’ The only time people call police officers is when they have a problem or
that they can’t deal with themselves.”
The hardest part was also the best part. He enjoyed facing new challenges every
day, but the job didn’t guarantee
a strong economic future, or any future for that matter.
In the early 1990s, he became a Covers, Etc. franchise owner. At night, he
earned extra money presenting
comedy traffic schools. He taught over 300 installments over the course of five
years, but his audience did not
always appreciate his sense of humor.
“Imagine a worse audience… here are people who have to do eight hours of purgatory because they got a
from a cop. And here I am an ex-cop trying to be funny,” Jeff laughed.
He continued to be a Covers, Etc. franchise owner for a few years; then he
worked for the franchise as a corporate
trainer until 1999, the same year he was hired by A.L. Wilson.
The company, which specializes in spotting chemicals, was started in 1928 and
has now seen four generations of
the same family work there including current president Fred Schwarzmann.
Since taking that job, Jeff believes there is no excuse for the high number of “Sorry” tags issued by drycleaners.
“I think last year in the United States and Canada there were 20 million ‘Sorry’ tags put on garments,” he said. “If
you think about it, there isn’t any other industry that can get away with that.”
Jeff visits about 600 drycleaners a year in an effort to reduce that number.
“That just tells you I eat more peanuts on Southwest Airlines than a circus
elephant,” he joked. “I’ll tell you
something very truthfully. What I find is this: the drycleaners out there who
belong to the associations and read the
trade publications and will actually go out to a seminar and try to get better… those people are doing well.”
Oddly enough, his work for A.L. Wilson is not that different in nature from his
job as a police officer. People still
call him when they have problems they can’t solve and each day brings a new challenge.
“The good thing about what I do now is I haven’t been shot at because I couldn’t get a stain out of somebody’s
blouse, so I’m really happy with that,” Jeff deadpanned.
He believes people would be more successful at spotting if they were simply
willing to gamble more.
“Don’t be afraid to take some chances in stain removal,” he stressed. “Even if you ruin the garment and have to
pay a claim, don’t throw that garment away. Keep that garment that is already ruined and you put
makeup and mascara and shoe polish on it and you work on it and get better. Or,
the next time a sales rep or the
manufacturer’s rep comes in trying to sell you a product, get that shirt and say: ‘Show me how to take this out.’ All
of a sudden, that garment that you’ve paid the claim on has given its very life to save other garments.”
His advice isn’t just for novices. Longtime industry veterans might have a lot of knowledge,
but as Jeff points out,
garment manufacturers keep using new materials and drycleaners keep using new
“It’s actually easier to train somebody who knows what they don’t know as opposed to somebody who thinks they
know everything,” he said.
Jeff realizes he has plenty to still learn, too. His stained lab coat embodies
his personality well: he’s humble
enough to admit mistakes yet he’s a consummate professional. But, the outfit does come with potential hazards.
“What’s really scary is that we sell chemicals to hospitals,” he explained. “So, if I’m going through the hospital and
I’m wearing that stained lab coat and I see patents coming my way, they look at me
like: ‘I hope he’s not my
doctor. He’s got stuff all over him.’”
Through 23 years of working in the drycleaning industry, Jeff has never lost his
sense of wonder.
He once feared public speaking, especially facing angry traffic offenders, but
he now enjoys imparting knowledge
to big crowds and he always leaves an indelible impression on attendees by
giving them a crayon.
“The crayon is to remember to have fun every single day,” he said.
He never forgets to do just that while on the job. If you talk to him, you’ll discover he’s a raving advocate for
drycleaning. Perhaps the reason for that is because he’s gotten a lot more than a paycheck back from the industry.
Friend Mike Nesbitt, owner of MW Cleaners, once talked Jeff into attending an
SDA board meeting at a hotel in
Houston. As it turns out, a doctor named Terri Pustilnik was also there for an
ovarian cancer fundraising event. They
hit it off immediately.
“For the first time in my life I got married last October when I was 52,” he said. “I met my wife through the
These days, Jeff is content. He doesn’t miss the thrill of chasing criminals through backyards and across busy
freeways, or going undercover and pretending to be an incoherent drunk in order
to arrest cocaine users.
He did take his job as a police officer seriously, and despite wearing a lab
coat of many colors and a bright,
cartoonish wizard hat, he now tries to help cleaners with the same work ethic.
His only wish is that more people in the industry would heed his advice and not
give up on stains so easily.
“Before you reach for a ‘sorry’ tag, why don’t you reach for about 25 cents of my product?” he said. “Chances are
pretty good that my product will get the stain out, you’ll get to keep the customer because they came to you for
stain removal and you won’t have to use anymore ‘Sorry’ tags.”