Editor’s Note: The Northside Business Partnership (NBP) is an association comprised of Northside businesses, property owners, and organizations. It serves as an advocate group for the Northside, strengthening the vitality of the business community by connecting, engaging, and promoting its members. NBP is administrated by NEHDA.
Don is a co-owner of The Laundry Room, a full service laundromat with wash and fold services. The Laundry Room has been an NBP member since 2014, not long after they opened their second location on N. Salina Street. Read on to learn more about the importance of YouTube to a laundromat owner, as well as other behind-the-scenes challenges.
Q: Are you from Syracuse originally?
Don: No, I am not. I grew up in Arcade, New York, which is outside of Buffalo about an hour. Small, rural town, north of Olean, near Letchworth State Park.
Q: What brought you to Syracuse?
Don: So I met my wife in college at Alfred. She’s originally from Liverpool. After college, she got a teaching job in Auburn. I was an accountant, so I stayed in Western New York for six months, and then after tax season I decided to come to the big city of Syracuse, ’cause I was living in Arcade still working, and I thought, well, I would love to come here. It’s big. And I’m happy I did.
Q: How did you first get into the field of renovating & renting property?
Don: So I had a sales job. I was working at a company called Wynit in East Syracuse and I was right time, right place. It was a sales company and we worked in digital imaging and all these electronics and I wanted to be in sales. I decided I was done with this accounting thing ’cause I found out from being an accountant working at different companies, the people making the money were the sales guys.
Q: Did you go to school for accounting?
Don: Yes. So I decided to get into sales. I happened to apply to this job and I worked there for ten years. I think when I started, there was twelve to fourteen sales people, and by the time I left in 2004 there was nearly a hundred sales people. So we had grown exponentially. I had gotten in early enough to get ahead of that and ride it. It was a great experience for me. While I was there, I started buying some real estate. I bought a two family, and then another two family, and those were more turn-key. Those weren’t fixer uppers because I had a day job, but in 2004 I got into a point where I had acquired enough properties that I could do it full time. Plus my wife was teaching, and we had relatively low overhead. We never changed our lifestyle to—I was making great money, but we never went and bought a new house or drove fancy cars or any of that stuff. So, she stayed home with the kids for a few years and then went back to teaching, and then I left and started buying a couple of HUD foreclosures, fixing those up. And then, uh, I ended up having a bunch of units and then I had somebody approach me about partnering, just as a silent partner from a financial standpoint.
Q: What does that mean exactly?
Don: So for example, I’ve got an 18-unit over on Court Street. We bought that in 2009, in the midst of the financial crisis. The lady that owned it lived in California and she was totally upside down on that. She paid too much for it, it was half-vacant, various levels of disrepair. So I bought that with cash. I didn’t have three hundred and fifty thousand dollars, so I brought a partner in to help me with that, and it works out great for everybody. I still own the building. So that’s why I brought in a partner for that project. Subsequently, we’ve stayed together and we’ve done other projects, so it works out good for everybody. Everybody has their strengths, my partner has his own day job, so he does his thing, but we go over the books regularly. But that’s how I got into it. I started with a one family, I bought a single family over here on the Northside for like, ten grand from HUD one time and fixed it up. I still have it, I haven’t really sold anything yet. I’d like to sell but just not yet. Waiting for the kids to get through college.
I always was a fixer. I always liked to find broken things… I think I learned that from my father. He was a fixer. We didn’t throw things out and we pretty much did things ourselves. Through college, I worked construction. Framing houses for builders, that kind of thing. You just sort of get to know how to do different things. And YouTube. Thankfully we have YouTube now.
Q: You came across the laundromat business more or less by chance, it sounds. What kind of skills did you have to learn on the job?
Don: So we had an 18 unit and across the street was a mixed use building that has a laundromat, a store, and a couple of apartments on it. It’s on the corner of Court and Spring. It was in rough shape and it was for sale. I thought, well, it’s not really doing our property any good. It’s pulling it down, is probably what’s happening. So if we could control the property, maybe we could maintain the value in our property across the street. So it was really like a protection thing, and that’s sort of how I positioned it. We tried to talk with the owner about buying it and, I don’t know, it just didn’t go anywhere. And then a year later he approached us again and wanted out and we were able to come to terms. The store was under lease so I had nothing to do with that, and I still don’t, other than collecting the rent and doing minor maintenance when I need to for them. They’re fantastic tenants, I’m very fond of Unis, he’s my tenant. But the laundry was, maybe half of the stuff worked.
So I just sort of tried to figure it out. I didn’t call a company, a company that would come and make maintenance repairs on your washing machines because it’s wicked expensive. You get a hundred dollar trip charge, $50 an hour, so it just wasn’t going to work. I thought I could figure it out. I already had washing machines in some of our apartments. You know, in the basements of some of the bigger ones, you put a couple of coin-op machines. So I just started figuring it out. It just started with one machine. And you know what happens is, they’re all the same. If you look, there’s 24 dryers in here and they’re all the same thing. So if you figure one out, the rest you can figure out. Just went one at a time, literally went on YouTube and watched videos on how to fix stuff. That’s what I did, and over the years, I think we’ve just hit five years with that building because I just had to do my certificate of compliance, which is a five year thing with the city. It’s a great laundromat.
Owning a laundromat is difficult. It seems like it would be great, you know, “Oh just collect the money and then go home.” But there’s a lot of personalities. Your customers are…laundromat customers, which is a difficult thing. Those people generally earn a different socioeconomic level than maybe you or I, and they have a different set of challenges in life. You have a lot of loitering, public restrooms, things like that. It’s not perfect, but nothing is. And if it was easy, everybody would do it, is what I keep telling myself. But I do enjoy it. I guess I liked it enough to do another one.
Q: What skills did you already have that helped you?
Don: I was already quite mechanically inclined. So I think that is what—just a figure-it-out, have a figure-it-out kind of mentality. I never went to school to learn how to do any of these things, but I grew up in a home where we did things ourselves. . .The business and the accounting experience that I gained from college, and working in both public and private firms, ’cause I think that’s been very helpful for—there’s a large amount of accounting, paperwork, taxes, there’s a lot going on behind the scenes. There’s just a lot of bookwork. If you own anything, you have to at the end of the year file your taxes, you have to have your ducks in a row.
Q: Is there any kind of pressure in the field to move towards green washing technology?
Don: We already have, actually. So, what we have done, if you look at both of our stores, we’re slowly weaning out the top-load machines, which will generally use about 100 gallons of water per cycle, or per run. Whereas the new ones that we have, we recently installed ten front loaders here, and then four larger front loaders over here, thirty and fourty pounders, and those are express wash units that use maybe, the whole cycle might use 50 gallons of water. So it’s literally half. Which we have to, ’cause the rates, both from the county and from the city water department, they are going up exponentially. So we have to continue to be more efficient. And we try to price things properly too. So if you’re going to use my front loader, it’s going to be a lot cheaper than if you want to use the top loader, ’cause I don’t want you to use the top loader. And ultimately, the customer gets a better finished product anyways with the front loader. But people are creatures of habit. They want to use the top loader. It’s what we grew up with, it’s what we use. But the fronts spin faster. The tops, they don’t spin as fast. But these ones spin way faster, so your dry time is half. It extracts a lot of water, so that saves a lot of money too.
Q: If you could own a laundromat anywhere, where would it be and why?
Don: We tried to own one on the hill, on Westcott Street. Before I bought this one, I tried to do one over there. But I still think there’s an opportunity for one over there. I can’t remember the street it’s on, but the owners are…they have an unrealistic value on the property and I don’t think they want to sell it. So that’s fine. But I think there’s still a great opportunity for one over there. I also think there’s an opportunity for one maybe on Erie Boulevard. I don’t really have a space that I go like, “Oh I definitely want one somewhere.”
Q: Are you looking to do more laundromats, or where do you see yourself headed?
Don: I’m not sure I’d buy another laundromat. I mean, if it presented itself, I might consider it. I’m not really in the business of being a tenant though. I only want to do it if I can own a building because I want to be in control of the whole thing. So those are hard to find, and I’d probably also want something that has other sources of income. Often times you’ll see a building that’ll be a laundromat, and then there will be a couple of other tenants. If I found another apartment complex that would meet my criteria, I would definitely go after it. . .That’s an interesting market. There’s not a lot of turnover, and sometimes the turnover occurs totally off the radar so there’s not even an opportunity to get in on it.
Q: Favorite Northside or Syracuse event?
Don: Well, I like that Clean Up (‘Cuse) event, but I don’t generally participate in it. I did the first year we were here, but I’m in the “Clean up all the time” event. I literally pick up garbage the second I get out of my truck on the way to wherever I’m walking. So I don’t always participate in the once a year cleanup, ’cause I’m doing it all the time. I don’t like to go anywhere empty-handed, is the way I look at it . . . A couple of years ago, we had donuts and coffee in here and this was the starting point for the crew. We picked up, and we had a nice time.
Q: Any events or promotions?
Don: We have two promotions at both stores on Wednesdays. So this one, on North Salina Street, the twenty-pound front loaders are a dollar fifty. We take fifty cents off. You really can’t find a twenty pound washing machine for a dollar fifty anywhere. It’s very successful. We’re busy all day on Wednesdays. At our Court Street store, we have our 60-pounders that we take a dollar off. They’re generally six dollars and they’re five dollars on Wednesdays. We’re also air conditioned here at the Salina Street store, which is nice, especially come the summertime.
To learn more about The Laundry Room, visit their website.
*Note: When you enter the Laundry Room, there is an abundance of flags hanging from the ceiling. This is because when the laundromat first opened, Don invited people to tell him what country they are from so he could display their flag. However, he has gotten to the point where he doesn’t know where to put any more flags!