In the drycleaning industry, customers are greatly concerned about the image
they convey to others, which is
why they seek to wear fashionable, professionally cleaned clothing in the first
place. However, before they can
trust their best garments to a stranger, they focus on somebody else’s image — the one conveyed by the
That is why image means everything at Pilgrim Dry Cleaners, based out of the Twin Cities in Minnesota. Though
the company has been around for almost 75 years, that doesn’t stop owner Bonnie Engler from trying to find new
ways to impress returning and potential customers alike.
“Our image is very important at Pilgrim,” she explained. “I think what sets us apart, if you were to walk into
one of our locations, is that the experience is going to be quite different from
if you walked into the drycleaners
down the street. I always put myself in the place of the customer… what I would want to see, what I would want
available, who I would want to deal with.”
Engler, who holds a B.A. in
Psychology from the University
of Minnesota, is well aware
how crucial a first impression
“It’s very important when
you drive up to see a beautiful
modern facility,” she noted.
“Our stores are updated and
clean with big screen TVs that
display all of our services on
them. You’ll see a professional,
well-dressed and uniformed
staff. You’ll see my added
touches. We’ve got candy on
the counters. We’ve got free
collar cards. A couple times a year, we put out free lint rollers. People don’t necessarily like to go to the
drycleaners, so we want the experience to be great.”
As Engler sees it, it’s basic psychology. A dirty plant that has wallpaper peeling off the walls and
jeans and t-shirts gives off a bad impression: if you don’t care about the appearance of your business, why would
you care about the appearance of clothes?
“We keep updating and changing and refreshing and renewing,” she added. “I look at what equipment is out
there and what could be more efficient. We’re always trying to maintain an image and look at what we can do
The business can trace its roots back to 1940 when the name was Johnny on the
Spot. Engler’s father, Don
Rosen, eventually bought the company from his business partners in the 1950s and
became quite determined to
make it grow.
“He aggressively was opening new locations to better serve customers. At that
time, convenience and location
was the key,” Engler explained. “At the same time, he started providing same-day service when many cleaners
were still doing two- or three-day service. In fact, many are still doing that.”
Over time, the company has continued to find ways to emphasize convenience to
customers. In the 1990s, the
first drive-thru was offered. Then, six years ago, Engler’s son Derek supervised the addition of pickup and
“It’s the fastest growing part of our business,” Engler noted. “He now has eight drivers out. He will have grown
our routes to close to $1.5 million in six years.”
Meanwhile, the company has also expanded to include five plants, 19 drops stores
and about 200 employees.
“People will always need drycleaning if you stay on top of it and grow with the
times,” she said.
While Engler has worked in the drycleaning industry for the past 30 years, prior
to that she spent a decade as
an RN in the field of psychiatric nursing.
“I worked on an adult psychiatric unit for many years and later on I worked with
adolescents,” she recalled.
“You burn up quickly in that field, which I did. In that area of nursing it’s very emotionally draining because in a
hospital setting somebody has surgery, they check out and they’re gone. But, you have a lot of repeat patients in
the psychiatric area.”
The job could certainly be stressful, but Engler believes it served as a helpful
primer for being able to
communicate effectively as an entrepreneur.
“I learned to deal with people and that prepared me for business,” she said. “We have 200 employees from
every nationality, every background. There are language barriers. So, you are
always trying to get employees to
work together to communicate. It’s the same thing with customers: how do you best teach people to
communicate with customers to build that relationship?”
The communication gap wasn’t the only problem Engler has had to battle in the professional arena; there was
also a gender gap when she left psychiatric nursing and joined her father at
“There weren’t a lot of female business owners. There weren’t a lot of women in the drycleaning industry, that’s
for sure,” she said.
As a result, she made a concerted effort to dress and act as professionally as
possible to make sure others took
her seriously. In time she proved to her father that she was capable of taking
care of Pilgrim when he retired.
She also found time to raise three sons while managing the company. The key to
success was to avoid
“I think the biggest thing is you can’t just be stagnant,” she said. “I just think when opportunities present
themselves, you’ve got to analyze them but you’ve also got to take some risks in this business to keep growing
and to stay ahead.”
Some opportunities are not just about growing the business, however. Back in
1986, a chance to support the
community came knocking on Pilgrim’s door and Engler’s father was more than happy to answer it.
“There was a woman who came to our front counter wanting to know if we had a coat
for her that somebody
hadn’t claimed because she couldn’t afford to buy a coat,” she recalled. “My dad realized that there was such a
huge need here in the Twin Cities.”
In an area where the average low temperature is annually below zero between the
months of December and
March, Pilgrim has collected, cleaned and donated more than 360,000 coats in the
past 28 years.
A handful of years ago, Engler thought of another way to help local kids. She
started a Scouting for Uniforms
program that collects Boy Scouts clothing that kids have outgrown and then
cleans them and donates them to
“It takes place in the month of July,” she said. “We usually collect somewhere around 300 uniforms a year.”
So far, the company has gathered more than 2,500 uniforms altogether.
Another unique program offered by Pilgrim is its Costumes for Kids which runs
annually in October. This time,
instead of coats or uniforms for kids, the cleaning company collects Halloween
costumes... about 2,500 since its
“It’s been very successful. The community here is so responsive,” Engler noted. “To see a child without a coat
or a kid who is really upset because their parents cannot afford a costume, you
just want to give kids a chance
any way you can in life. As a drycleaner, if we can help in those areas with
kids and make some kind of impact on
their future, that’s what it’s all about.”
Last year, Engler was given a Quality of Life Award from the Minneapolis Chamber
of Commerce for Pilgrim’s
efforts to help children in the community; it happened decades after her father
won the same award when he
launched the Coats for Kids program.
In 2010, Engler was also recognized as one of the Top Women in Minnesota
Business Finance by Finance and
Commerce. The days of having to prove herself as a capable business owner are
long past, but that doesn’t mean
every day isn’t a battle, especially in winter.
Naturally, it’s the company’s busy season and having the Coats for Kids and Costumes for Kids drives on top
the heavy workload can be daunting, but convenience only comes easy for the
“It’s very challenging when we get ten inches of snow and we still have to provide
same-day service. We’ve got
home delivery,” Engler explained. “We’ve got 20 trucks out their trying to maneuver through the snow. It’s very
rare that we close or cancel out same-day service because the customers expect
you to be there.”
Being there when the customers expect you, however, is only half the battle. To
really stand out in the minds
of clients, Pilgrim tries to find ways to make them happier when they least
expect it, as well.
“Today with social media you just have to find fun, interesting ways to engage
people,” she said. “We are
always trying to make our Facebook page interesting, so we post a contest every
week either giving away tickets
or giving away drycleaning on a regular basis.”
Customers are often treated to home games of the local sports teams such as the
Minnesota Vikings, Twins and
Timberwolves all for simply responding to posts.
Then, last December, the family came up with another clever way to make a
lasting impression. Customers
were asked to post the things they really wanted but didn’t get for Christmas.
“We did a random pick and picked three people. My son and his fiancé actually went out shopping and
videotaped the whole thing,” she said.
The gifts were little items — a pair of hockey skates, a shower radio and a tie — but the impact was huge when
they surprised customers at home.
“I think we’ll do that again because people were just so excited and overwhelmed,” she added. “It’s just fun to
give people things they don’t expect.”