Photo: Sam Thonis

Are Silicon Valley Apps Killing New York's Laundromats?

The era of self-service laundromat is waning.

Aug 25 2015, 1:30pm

Photo: Sam Thonis

On a recent weekday morning, the M&W laundromat in Greenpoint, Brooklyn, is, if not packed, at least busier than the other coin-ops in the immediate neighborhood.

The owner's daughter, Miriam Benavides, is behind the counter ringing up customers' drop-off orders. Two employees—one of them the 60-year-old Jose ("Call me Chino"), born and raised in a rent-controlled apartment down the street—swing rolling carts of T-shirts and underwear across the floor in the back.

There's a coffee pot steaming in the corner and, near the door, a small line forming at a second counter tucked behind the hanging bags of dry cleaning. It's rented out to a business that provides calling cards, package services, and money orders: one of the only places around here where you can wire money abroad—mostly, says Jose, to places like Mexico and Santo Domingo.

Benavides, whose family is from Nicaragua, ticks off a quick survey of the other laundromats in the area. A handful of the coin-ops up and down the street have, like M&W, been here since the '90s. "But a lot of people, they're just getting by," she says. One place, just down the block, is only open for a couple hours a day. As money has come to the neighborhood, business has "absolutely" slowed, she says gravely. But M&W is going to stay open: "We're a Hispanic-owned business," she says, standing next to a sign that reads, in cursive, Love What You Do. "We're proud."

Unlike many in the laundry business, the Benavides get to stay proud because their family owns the building. Miriam admits if that weren't the case, they would have shuttered about five years ago, right around the time guys with suitcases full of cash started showing up on their doorstep. Even Sunshine Laundromat, the newer laundry spot down the street with pinball machines, cheeky signage, and a pending liquor license openly admits it isn't trying to turn a profit, according to an FAQ posted on its cluttered bulletin board.

Self-service laundromats, like public transit, are some of the great utilitarian equalizers of urban living: everyone needs to wash their clothes. In New York City, those clothes have tended to be washed in public, usually at whichever laundromat happens to be the most convenient. The randomized, block-by-block regionalism of such businesses has made them the locus of endless meet-cute scenes, poetic meditations on city living, and a recent coffee table book. But in many of the city's up-and-coming neighborhoods (and how many areas aren't coming up, really, in 2015?) the era of self-service laundromat is waning. As of this month, there are 2,655 licensed in the five boroughs, or one for every 3,163 people, a number some say has dipped as much as 10 percent in the last decade.

Laundromat owners pointed to the FlyCleaners bags their customers dropped off as proof their quality was superior

Like pretty much everything that's changing in New York, the primary issue plaguing laundromat owners can be summed up in a single syllable: rent. Once a stable, near-recession-proof business—clean clothes, one would imagine, being a luxury only abandoned in the most extreme cases of poverty, or an actual apocalypse—leasing retail space in Manhattan can be prohibitively expensive for a business that runs on quarters and wash-and-fold for a buck a pound.

Alice Liao, who has run laundromats for decades and is the current proprietor of Mr. Green in Hell's Kitchen, visibly frowns when she points to a restaurant across the street from her business. "On that corner," she says, "they say it's $30,000 [a year] … for a laundromat, you can't do that. You can't survive."

With those increased rents come higher incomes, not to mention the expectations and cultural tweaks that tend to accompany those sorts of demographic shifts. In Hell's Kitchen, Alice's son Terrence tells me, there are still a lot of old two- and three-story walk-up apartments, the kinds of places that are unlikely to be renovated in the increasingly popular doorman-valet-laundry room style. But in Lower Manhattan, where the housing stock skews further towards bigger buildings and luxury-condo living, there are fewer laundromats than you can count on one hand.

And then there are the most recent crop of laundry services to capitalize on the on-demand economy: companies like FlyCleaners and Cleanly, just to name two, have written their business models around the idea that New Yorkers have more money than time, and are willing to pay a premium to forego the strain of physically entering a laundromat.

Some laundry-delivery services, like Juliette, run their own laundry facilities; FlyCleaners and Cleanly partner with preselected dry-cleaners and laundromats, often offering them wholesale prices for their per-pound wash-and-fold. Customers open an app and swipe through preferences like bleach and desired water temperature and, in as little as 20 minutes, a delivery vehicle could be at their door.

Tom Harari, the founder and CEO of Cleanly, got into the laundry-delivery business around 2013, soon after he moved to Park Slope and perceived an inefficiency in the existing drop-off market. In some neighborhoods, to compete within their small service areas, individual laundries employ delivery guys, though as Harai was frustrated to find, they tend to only take cash. He doesn't think what he's doing is particularly novel, but admits that for someone with an "expensive cellphone," delivery right to your door is typically desirable. Coin-op laundries, he says, are probably struggling because real estate is expensive—"and because they're tied to a customer base in the immediate area."

If delivery apps like these became the default, it's likely the laundry business would move away from coin-op neighborhood joints like M&W and focus more heavily on relatively luxurious wash-and-fold services, perhaps in larger facilities further from New York's increasingly expensive neighborhoods.

Of course, some people settle for average laundry because of the cost. FlyCleaners charges $1.50 for wash, fold, and delivery. At a laundromat, prices for wash-and-fold in New York hover around a dollar a pound; do your own, and you can escape with a week's worth of clothes for $3.50.

In parts of New York where rents tend to be a little cheaper—Queens, for instance, or the Lower East Side—there's usually a higher density of coin-ops, as was shown in a recent I Quant NY map made using open-source data. But when money comes to a neighborhood, it tends to alter businesses significantly. As Miriam Benavides, of M&W, told me, there are fewer people hanging around now, doing their own laundry; her drop-off business is booming. "People can afford it now … But on a $300, $400 paycheck, no way."

There are echoes of Uber's fight against New York cabbies

In the laundromats I visited, business owners pointed to the FlyCleaners bags in which their customers dropped off their clothes as proof that their quality was superior—and thus, their business immune to disruption. Cleanly, which outsources its laundering to local businesses , called the Liaos a few months ago to see if they were interested in partnering with the startup. "It's not worth it," says Terrence. "Why are you gonna do it for half the price when they profit and they take away from your core business?" It's sound logic, for sure, but eerily similar to what livery car drivers would tell me about Uber circa 2013.

"My thoughts on why coin-ops are declining? New Yorkers don't have a lot of time anymore, even if we leave work at 9 we're still expected to respond to emails," says Rachelle Balanzat, the founder of Juliette, which does all of its washing in-house. "When you have that kind of demand, you don't want to spend two, three hours; you'd rather pay the extra dollar." After all, she adds, when you live in New York, "you're already paying a premium for your rent."