National Clothesline
Selling free time
National Clothesline
If the original founder of Fairmount Cleaners could see his business today, he would probably be terrified. At
least that’s what his grandson Steve and great-grandson Adam believe. The duo currently own and operate the
90-year-old business in the greater Cleveland area.
“We still have one foot firmly planted in high-end customer service and we’ve firmly got the other foot planted
in computerized washers and computerized drycleaning machines. The technology is just crazy. They are
incredibly complex machines and they’re better,” Steve explained. “It would scare him to death.”
Still, there wasn’t much
else that seemed to scare
Joe Hoare (rhymes with
“glory”), who immigrated
into the U.S. in the early
1920s, after he served in
the English Cavalry in World
War I. He teamed up with a
cousin in Cleveland who had
one of the few centralized
clothes cleaning operations
in the city.
“His cousin actually did
the wholesale cleaning and
Joe did the finishing and
had a tailor on the
premises,” Steve said. “I think probably the fondest story for me is Joe offered a valet service and I never really
understood what it was. Then I came across some original advertising from the early 1920s. He would charge
$1.50 a month for a full valet service. He would determine what needed pressing, what needed cleaning and if
anything needed tailoring or repairing.”
In fact, the early incarnation of Fairmount Cleaners, which started officially in 1927, remained somewhat of a
mystery to Steve until he watched a certain show on television one day.
“It all started to click for me when I started watching Downton Abbey,” he recalled. “This was the culture that
Joe brought with him from England.”
Not long after Joe’s son, Sid, returned from serving in the Air Force during World War II, he joined the company
which then underwent a significant change.
“It was in those days, in the early 1950s, that my father purchased our first drycleaning machine, which was an
old Detrex transfer unit,” Steve noted. “Tanks and everything, it took up about 120 sq. ft. It was all cast iron,
extremely heavy. It was just a huge footprint.”
Still, it was a footprint that made a lasting impression as the company grew under Sid’s guidance to the point
that he would work 65 to 70 hours a week, 6 1/2 days a week trying to keep up. Such a grueling schedule was a
big reason why he encouraged Steve to go in another direction with his life.
“I never wanted anything to do with it and I’m pretty sure dad did his best to keep me away,” he laughed.
Instead, Steve (who legally changed his name as a young man to “Grace”) focussed on going to school — well,
a school of sorts.
“I was in the school of hard knocks. Every job I did kind of prepared me to run a business,” he recalled. “I
punched a clock in restaurants for a while which taught me hard work and public service and customer service.
From there, I went to General Electric. I spent some time in their financial division. That kind of taught me to sit
at a desk and shuffle some papers around. From there, I went into the pet industry. I was a pet salesman where I
learned to work with the public and learned some sales. All those things are necessary to run and operate your
own business.”
Steve may well have been content to sell pets for a living permanently, but life threw a curveball.
“It was the greatest job I ever had. It was transaction-based gratification. People would have disposable
income and go to the pet shop to buy love. It was a positive experience,” he said. “But dad had a mild stroke at
one point and he was out of work for a week, week and a half. I was able to step in and keep the company
moving. It was during that week that I realized it would be a good means to an end and I made the decision to
leave the pet industry and join the company full time.”
That was in 1983. It wasn’t long before Steve influenced the business in his own positive way, focussing on
ways to improve its technology.
“I’ve always had a particular passion for systems and technology. I computerized us in the late 1980s. I
upgraded and replaced my father’s drycleaning machine, which oddly enough went from 120 sq. ft. to about 20
sq. ft. It was the first dry-to-dry system that Fairmount Cleaners ever had.”
The fourth generation of the family had no intentions of pursuing a career at Fairmount Cleaners, either.
However, after Adam Grace graduated from Kent University with a bachelor’s degree in Business Administration,
he faced a tough, unforgiving job market in 2009.
“It was a bad time to graduate from college,” he exclaimed. “My plan was to join the company for a couple of
years and get some experience that would look good on a resume. But, I never left.”
Now that’s he been there for about 9 years, Adam has no intention of leaving. Instead, he likes to help add his
own improvements to the company.
“I do a lot of customer service. I am the route manager,” he said. “I digitalized the routes from index cards that
we put in people’s bags. Now, we have printers and scanners and iPads on the trucks.”
Another big change has been the addition of the K4 cleaning solvent that took place about seven years ago. It
has proved to be a wise decision for the Graces.
“We were one of the first in the area with K4,” Steve recalled.”It’s better for everyone. It was a dream of ours
for a long time but when you’re invested in perc and moving with it, there’s an evolution to it.”
Despite all the technological upgrades, they still battle to remain relevant to customers, especially in a culture
that once wore suits to professional baseball games and now sometimes wears shorts to work.
Today, the fastest growing division is the wash-n-fold service that has grown 50 percent over the last year. It
doesn’t fit one specific demographic; it seems to be everybody.
“It’s remarkable,” Steve said. “The bottom line component is people don’t really want to be bothered or if they
can afford to have somebody take care of it, they will. As far as the industry goes, our motto is ‘We sell free
With more customers not wanting to deal with dirty laundry, Fairmount handles a lot of clothes daily, so much
so that it can easily become tedious.
“You know, McDonald’s has sold billions and billions of hamburgers… and I’ve done hundreds of thousands of
garments. It gets kind of boring, so when something special comes through the door you realize that somebody
cares about the item they’re handing over to you. That’s the type of thing where it can give you a little extra
gratification,” Steve said.
Over the years, there have been many gratifying and interesting accounts, ranging from the Rock-n-Roll Hall of
Fame and Museum to the Playhouse Square to the Western Reserve Historical Society.
In just the past year alone, Fairmount has handled costumes for such productions as The King and I, Wicked
and Something Rotten.
“Some of these costumes are just ridiculous,” Steve said, laughing. “They’re 10 to 15 pounds each!”
Such garments are too heavy and burdensome to clean in a machine, so Fairmount Cleaners resorts to a lot of
hand cleaning. Even the historical garments, which are much less sturdy, require a delicate touch as some date
back to the early and mid-1800s.
Whatever the job, Fairmount Cleaners willingly goes the extra mile. Oftentimes, Steve receives the same kind
of satisfaction for cleaning a precious garment properly as he once did for selling a customer a furry companion.
“Whether it’s a historical item or a christening gown or it’s something for a museum or a theater, there’s always
the opportunity to touch people just in their day-to-day lives and brighten somebody’s day,” Steve explained.
While much of the work can be complicated, sometimes the smartest method of cleaning turns out to be the
simplest one, at least when dealing with more modern items.
“I burn up a lot of reading glasses around here,” Steve noted. “Even though I’ve been doing this for 37 years,
I’m reading more care labels now than I ever did in my career. I just follow manufacturer’s instructions most of
the time.”
With such a diverse clientele, the key to success often hinges on whether or not you can actually give the
customer exactly what he or she wants.
In other words, there is no one-size-fits-all approach that works for everybody. Instead, Fairmount Cleaners
strives hard to be all things for all of its customers.
“During the early part of my career, I prided myself in being the highest-priced cleaner around. I felt that I was
offering the best product. Now, I still offer an excellent product,” Steve said. “I think part of it is to keep your
eyes open and recognize who you are talking to, understand what their needs are and use technology and your
equipment and staff to provide a competitive product.”
After all, Steve is betting that the cleaning companies still standing in the future will be ones who aggressively
pursue more kinds of work.
“If a revenue stream presents itself and a response is profitable, I believe smaller operators must respond,” he
said. “There was a time I was much more specialized and discretionary as to what I processed. Not so anymore.”