Business

Clean Laundry co-founder reflects on laundromat company's boom

Business that started in Waterloo now has 11 stores in 4 states

The exterior is seen Nov. 21 at Clean Laundry in Cedar Rapids. The “non-traditional” laundromat business has four stores in the Cedar Rapids area. (Rebecca F. Miller/The Gazette)
The exterior is seen Nov. 21 at Clean Laundry in Cedar Rapids. The “non-traditional” laundromat business has four stores in the Cedar Rapids area. (Rebecca F. Miller/The Gazette)
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When it comes to “sexy” businesses, Ethan Akin is the first to admit that laundromats fall short of that descriptor.

Even so, Clean Laundry’s co-founder, of Waterloo, saw the potential to carve out a niche for a “higher standard” of self-service laundry stores, with larger up-front investments in sleek facilities to pique customers’ interest.

A “non-traditional” laundromat business, Clean Laundry stores boast multiload large-capacity washing machines and dryers, large-screen HDTVs, wireless internet and comfortable seating, available 24 hours a day.

“A laundromat is not a sexy business like a restaurant or a doughnut place that you can easily market, where a customer can drive by, see you, turn in and decide to use your business,” Akin said. “You can’t do that with laundry. You need to have made a conscious decision that ‘I need to do my laundry, I need to have my laundry with me, I need to bring it to this place.’ ”

The laundromat world was far from unfamiliar to Akin, who graduated from the University of Northern Iowa with a marketing degree in 2009.

His father and Clean Laundry co-founder, Phil Akin, had in 1983 launched Duds ‘n Suds, a half-bar, half-laundromat concept that Ethan Akin said expanded to 135 stores in 35 states and overseas, though his father lost his controlling interest during a venture capitalist takeover years later.

Three decades later, however, Phil Akin kept a journal of ideas, including how a different laundromat business might look, said his son, who in 2013 was working at his father’s marketing business CoreComp Advisors.

“He just approached me one day and said, ‘I think this is a good location where we could do a laundromat,” Ethan Akin said, noting one catch — Phil Akin would back the venture financially but “wanted nothing to do with” day to day operations.

For Ethan, stepping into the business around which he had grown up was a “gamble” at first. He said he eventually became more comfortable, in part after recognizing what he saw as a lack of quality laundromats around Waterloo.

“I’d been living in apartments for 10 years. ... I’d seen every single laundromat in town, 12 to 15 of them,” Akin said. “I just had an internal list of, this place is dirty, this place is dark, this place is loud, the things that you don’t like about where you’re at. You make a chart and write down all these issues that a laundromat might have over the span of 5, 10, 15, 20 years, and ask, is there any way that you could spend more money and invest in better stuff up front?”

Clean Laundry opened its first store in 2014 in Waterloo, and a second one in the city about a year and a half later. Though Akin said his business’ growth was a slow burn at first, it later gained steam in expanding.

The Akins had agreements with licensees to open Clean Laundry stores in Kissimmee, Fla., and St. Anthony, Minn., by August 2017, when Urbana-based Clickstop acquired their business.

Akin said he initially had “no interest whatsoever” in selling Clean Laundry but eventually came around, after Clickstop founder Tim Guenther mentioned the company would become employee-owned.

Since then, Clean Laundry has grown to encompass 11 stores in four states, including four Cedar Rapids area stores, and a most recent opening Nov. 4 in Liberty, Mo. — or an average of one new store per month, Ethan Akin said.

Akin, who operates Clean Laundry’s Waterloo locations, said the company hopes to expand this average to two stores per month in 2020 and three per month in 2021.

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Of Clean Laundry’s growth to date, he said, “We’re definitely excited that this many people have found this much interest in a laundromat. ... It’s the ability to go at the right speed without outgrowing ourselves too fast.”

Comments: (319) 398-8366; thomas.friestad@thegazette.com

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