Dry cleaners see business shrivel during pandemic as work-from-home, casual attire rises

Sarah Donaldson
For the Dispatch
Hari and Uma Patel are owners of Neighborhood Dry Cleaners.

For the first three months of the pandemic, Hari Patel sat inside his silent storefront every day. Sometimes, he sat with just a single light on.

With business at “near zero,” he was waiting for somebody to walk through the glass doors; for them to set off the ‘chirp, chirp,’ of the alarm above the silver frame, with fabric in tow that needed care and attention.   

Hari and Uma Patel own Neighborhood Cleaners in Upper Arlington. They immigrated from England in 1995 and opened their dry cleaning, laundry and tailoring business two years later, in the same location it stands today.

But more than two decades later, in the early months of 2020, Hari Patel did what he could to make the time go by.

Patel washed dentists’ and doctors’ scrubs, who were initially hesitant to take their uniforms into their homes; they feared passing the virus along to the people they lived with.

“I never closed my doors for one day at all,” he says.

But the snaking metal racks once full with dangling plastic-wrapped charcoal suits and floral dresses were nearly empty then, and they still have plenty of room now. A "normal" flow of business hasn’t really returned.

“It should be full on Friday,” Patel says. “I should be working, actually, on Friday.”

Instead, Hari and Uma Patel run the machines twice a week, as opposed to five days a week pre-pandemic.

Casual attire, work-from-home trends accelerated during COVID pandemic

It’s not just Neighborhood Cleaners that felt the sting of the last year and a half. Dawn Avery, who works in digital marketing and IT for the National Cleaners Association, says that while other industries have seen business return in recent months, many of its members haven’t.

Patel says revenue was fairly average before March of last year, but that they also had seen a decline in business for several years.

With the rise of fast fashion brands and the growing trend of younger professionals dressing more casually, the pandemic accelerated something already in motion, Avery says.

Amid such trends, dry cleaners have been left out to dry.

Hari Patel takes in a customer's dress at Neighborhood Dry Cleaners.

The national association believes one in six dry cleaners will close, while the Dry Cleaning and Laundry Institute estimates that the industry will shrink by nearly 30  percent.

Some of this is due to an aging population of dry cleaners retiring earlier as a result of the pandemic. But for cleaners who rent, commercial evictions might mean a death sentence.

Paying rent has been a challenge for Patel. He says the shop’s landlord has been extremely understanding, but he and his wife have to pull from their pockets to pay.

“We never missed paying her rent until the pandemic hit,” Patel says. “She has patience.”

In July, the shop’s door chime was chirping slightly more often. It was a welcome relief for the Patels. One Friday afternoon, the door chime announced Brent Coakley’s entrance.

“Hari and Uma!” Coakley calls out. “Good seeing you guys.”

Coakley, who lives in Dublin, works across the street as a senior vice president for wealth management at the Upper Arlington branch of UBS. He was referred by a colleague to Harry and Uma over a decade ago, and the rest was history.

“If you meet them, in two minutes you know,” Coakley says. “Every time I come in here, they’re working.”

Coakley is back in his office, but not full-time. Patel, who knows most of their customers by their first and last names, says he only started seeing Coakley regularly again in the last few weeks.

Patel worries about his own store, but he also worries about a domino effect — businesses that produce polythene bags for clothing, and businesses that produce hangers are hurting, too, he says.

Avery is optimistic that dry cleaners will rebound. And in Upper Arlington, Patel says they haven't hit a breaking point.

“I think, this is America,” Patel says. “So we will come back.”

Sarah Donaldson is a senior journalism student at Ohio University.

@sarahedon