It may be close to 100 years old, but don’t let that fool you. Decked out with the latest in technology — inside
and out — John’s Cleaners and Laundry in Boulder County, CO, has aged incredibly well.
“I’m a big advocate for updating your machinery. I go into cleaners and they have
the old foot stompers and
the single leg pants pressers. I’ve tried to be fearless,” noted John Ellwood, the third generation of his family to
run the business and who co-owns it today along with his wife, Wendy. “I’ve always updated all of my drycleaning
equipment. I think that makes a world of difference.”
John’s Cleaners has three
satellite locations and a main
production facility of about
4,000 square feet in size
residing on a plot of land in
Lafayette that is close to an
acre and a half. They employ
about two dozen people.
That number would
certainly be higher if the
Ellwoods didn’t spend so
much time researching the
newest equipment available
on the market like top-of-
systems, heat seal and
automatic sorting equipment, K4 solvent technology (John believes his plant was
the third in the country to use
it), LED lighting and the addition of solar energy panels. Such innovations have
managed to help them save on
labor costs and make production much more efficient.
“Every time we’ve gone to the Clean Show, we’ve usually bought three to four pieces,” Wendy confessed. She
recalled about a dozen years ago at Clean in Vegas when she first saw
MetalProgetti technology. “It looked liked a
roller coaster and I thought, ‘I want that!’”
Cutting back on unnecessary labor costs will likely help any drycleaning
business, but imagine for a moment
that you live in a place where unemployment is among the lowest in the country
and your customer base
demands the best in environmentally friendly technology. That is Boulder County
in a nutshell.
A local newspaper, The Boulder Daily Camera, reported in February of 2016 that
the area’s unemployment rate
was down to 2.6 percent. It remains incredibly low, which means good employees
are increasingly scarce.
“I’m in a university town and it’s hard to retain help. I have a good staff right now, but boy it’s tough. Really
tough,” John noted. “I’m luckier than most. I have a good staff that gives me the leeway to not
to be here from 7 to 7 everyday.”
Having the best staff in the world might not matter as much, though, if John’s Cleaners didn’t try to maintain
impeccably high standards to keep its carbon footprint low.
After all, within the past decade Boulder, CO, (host to two of John’s Cleaners satellite locations) has ranked
high on top ten lists for greenest, happiest and smartest cities to live in from
according to several publications,
including Forbes and Sierra and The Huffington Post.
“It’s very advantageous for us in Boulder to keep that environmental aspect,” John noted.
In the beginning, however, things were a bit different. John’s grandfather, Vincent Ellwood, Sr., had roots in
the industry in Boulder that traced back to 1921. He bought a building and
started the family business which was
called Dugout Cleaners back then.
“My dad talked about the business. They had a coal-fired boiler. There would be
residual heat and they’d have
to scrape it out and fire it up,” John explained. “They used Stoddard. He’d throw Stoddard on the coal to get that
going, but the Stoddard would gel overnight if it was cold enough during the
winter. So, they’d have to keep the
After serving in World War II, the second generation joined full-time: John’s father, Vincent, Jr., and his uncle,
William, who tried to keep the plant as pertinent as possible with the public.
“In the 1960s and 1970s they did a lot of hotel work. They did the sheets for the
hotels,” John said. “We had a
big sheet press and we also did a lot of storage for the students. That’s when the Dugout was right up on
University Hill and students would bring in all of their sweaters and stuff
which was totally unique to that day and
The company stayed in the same location for seven decades. The family liked to
say they were “working on the
same spot for 70 years.”
Big changes were in store for the Dugout in the early 1980s, however. The family
had five stores at that time
and decided to split them up by volume when the second generation eyed
retirement; three went to John and
Wendy and became John’s Cleaners and the other two went to John’s cousins and became Boulder Cleaners,
which still thrives today.
“There wasn’t a big family schism or anything like that,” John said.
John and Wendy (the couple met when John hired her to work at Dugout about 40
years ago) bought the land
that now houses their production facility during the early 2000s.
“When I opened it, I didn’t really figure it would be as popular or busy as it was. We were doing it
the price of the land and we needed a nice plant,” he recalled. “We’ve got a big MetalProgetti unit and two
drycleaning machines — we converted to K4 about four years ago. We have all new Sankosha equipment…
tensioning presses. We also did LED lighting in the whole store. Boulder is
really green and we’ve really strived to
keep ahead of the other Boulder cleaners.”
One big way to give them that edge in their market — not to mention the rest of the country — was to make
the bolder choice of converting to solar power.
The Ellwoods had already done so at their home (where Wendy handles the finances
for the business from an
office) about five years ago. Even with tax credits and state program
incentives, it was an expensive process
(though it is set to pay for itself in about 12 years). Still, the challenge did
not deter the couple from wanting to
do the same with their production facility, which posed a much bigger problem.
“We’ve been trying to do this for probably five years,” Wendy noted. “At the time, it just wasn’t feasible.
There’s always been the federal tax credit, the 30 percent tax credit, but there wasn’t the EnergySmart program.
The rebate wasn’t as high as what we got. That was a special deal they had last year. I think we
were one in six
projects in Boulder County that got substantial rebates. Ours was $20,000.”
The Ellwoods really had to want to go solar because it was quite an ordeal; it
took them over four long months
to hash out the financial details with a variety of government agents, city
officials, leasing companies and, of
“It was an excruciating process to get it done,” John said. “We ended up actually paying a $20,000
advancement out of our pocket to expedite everything so that we would have the
parts on order when everything
came through so they could get to work on it sooner.”
They made the extra effort because ultimately they wanted the project to pay for
100 percent of their electrical
In order to make that happen, they had to have 144 solar panels installed — five rows that stand about 15 feet
tall and over 30 feet long. Fifteen panels were placed on the roof of the
business, but the majority of them went
on vacant land. The project was finally finished towards the end of last year.
“The actual solar cost for the business was $138,000,” Wendy said, emphasizing that over $60,000 of that was
cut off from the top thanks to the tax credits and rebates. “Plus, we’re getting like $3,000 a year back from Xcel
“The Return on Investment we projected is seven years,” John added. “Our electric bill averages between $850
and $1,000 a month. We’re right at that now. March was exceedingly warm in Boulder. It was an
solar month so I think it’s going to cover it all.”
“When we got our first bill two months ago, I couldn’t believe it,” Wendy said. “Our system is going to produce
the most over the next probably four or five months. Those will be our strongest
months so we’re going to bank a
lot. Then, after we go into winter, we won’t produce 100 percent, but we’ll have banked all of those kilowatts.”
Now that the project is finally finished, the next thing the couple wants to do
is tout the solar power in their
advertising and marketing. Even without such efforts, the project gained a lot
of attention by putting John’s
Cleaners on the front page of The Boulder Daily Camera. Customers have been
paying attention, as well.
“I’ve noticed an uptick in people signing up for the first time. I’ve noticed a lot more of this in this last three or
four months,” Wendy said. “I think that’s because of the solar, personally. Not all of it, but I think people see it.
It’s hard to miss.”
For other drycleaners out there who might be considering making the transition
to solar power, the Ellwoods
have no shortage of good advice. First and foremost is to be patient.
“When we started in June, originally, they were saying a completion date of late
August,” John said. “In
essence it took all the way through to right at the end of the year.”
The process is long and complicated because every party involved wants to ensure
mutual success. In fact,
your odds of making it work go up with the more research you do.
“Look for rebates and programs that will help you,” Wendy stressed.
“Talk to your energy company,” John chimed in. “If you have the space, you should definitely look into it. It’s
hard to put on the roof of a drycleaners because we have so many stacks and
chillers and swamp coolers on the
roof, you don’t always have room for it.”