Wash and fold: Pandemic forcing local laundromats out of business

Dry cleaners and laundromats in Ottawa are reporting a steep decline in business during the pandemic, with some deciding to throw in the towel.

Revenue is down so dramatically some laundries and dry cleaners are throwing in the towel

Tom Huynh stands in front of One Stop Laundromat on Cyrville Road: 'Small businesses are fighting for their survival.' (Francis Ferland/CBC)

Dry cleaners and laundromats in Ottawa are reporting a steep decline in business during the pandemic, with some deciding to throw in the towel.

Tuyen and Thi Dao Tran's Laundry Land at 424 Churchill Ave. N. is among those closing, and the cause of their misfortune is no mystery: Laundry Land's website now says, "CLOSED PERMANENTLY due to COVID."

The business, family-owned since 1995, had been for sale for a year, but there were no takers. Their son Long Tran, a software engineer, is selling off its contents in a bid to preserve his parents' retirement.

Nobody needs suits and nice clothes pressed.- Long Tran

Tran, 41, blames the collapse of his parents' business on the sudden loss of their commercial contracts with hotels, which represented the majority of their revenue.

"They used to pick up … every day hundreds of pounds of linens. During the pandemic, once a week, maybe. So down to one-seventh of the volume," said Tran. "That was a large, large chunk of their business, gone."

Thi Dao Tran, 60, stands behind the counter at Laundry Land on Churchill Avenue N. The Trans have decided to close their family-run business after 26 years, and they're blaming COVID-19. (Tuyen Tran)

At the same time, their dry cleaning business dropped by 95 per cent. "Nobody needs suits and nice clothes pressed," noted Tran, who said his parents got "a bit of a break" on their expensive Westboro rent, but there were other fixed costs.

"At the end of the day, it was really hard to make things work," said Tran. A family illness was the final straw.

"Their retirement plans will look a little bit different," he said. "They were counting on being able to sell the business."

Westboro's Laundry Land Dry Cleaning and Coin Wash is among the pandemic's latest small business casualties. (Francis Ferland/CBC)

At Laundry Majestic in Hintonburg, Jenny Duong said business has definitely slowed, so she's closing earlier these days. She believes with more people stuck at home, there's less demand for clean laundry.

"Very quiet streets. Too quiet now," said Duong.

At Merivale Coin Laundry on Merivale Road, clients wait in their cars while their clothes are cleaned. The owner, who did not want to give his name, noted business was down, and described Ottawa under lockdown as "a dead city."

He said when he drops off orders, many customers now answer the door in their pyjamas.

The Trans, in their early 60s, had hoped to sell Laundry Land to fund their retirement. Now they're trying to recoup what they can by selling its contents. (Francis Ferland/CBC)

"Very slow, very slow," agreed Tom Huynh of One Stop Laundromat on Cyrville Road. He estimates his laundry business is down 60 per cent, dry cleaning 95 per cent. 

Huynh has been able to access some federal help, trimmed his hours and cut back on employee shifts to save money.

"Hopefully in one or two months from now it will be over and everything will be back to normal," said Huynh, 55, who's been in the business nearly 20 years.

"Small businesses are fighting for their survival. It's very hard," he said. "But we're optimists. If we live through this pandemic, we will come back to normal. We can get through it."

Tom Huynh's One Stop Laundromat at 1097 Cyrville Rd. has been hit hard, too. (Francis Ferland/CBC)

"Your accountants, your lawyers, your bankers … are now going to the office in sweats and T-shirts … because the office is in the basement or wherever they are," said Brian MacGregor, president of Browns Cleaners, which has mainly franchised locations across Ottawa. "We're running at about 20 per cent of normal sales."

Downtown public servants will miss the chain's Slater Street location, but according to MacGregor, the store has been decimated by COVID-19.

"It was basically doing zero business. [The franchisee] would go two days and not see a person. So we closed it."

MacGregor said he's worried about the fate of his franchisees. "Before … they were making $25 to $30 an hour. With the hours they're working … now, they're making $2 an hour."

A shuttered Browns Cleaners location on Slater Street in downtown Ottawa. (Hallie Cotnam/CBC)

"We have noticed a significant drop," said Phil Robinson, executive director of Ottawa's Community Laundry Co-op, which offers an affordable alternative to for-profit laundromats at its Heartwood House location on McArthur Avenue.

Robinson believes some co-op members have either been turning to pricier laundry facilities in their own buildings, or making do even closer to home: he said members have told him before the co-op opened, they'd do their laundry in the bathtub or sink.

"I've wondered if that's happening again, to be honest," said Robinson.