3 years on, dry cleaners in Worcester still struggling from pandemic changes

William Chun removes lint from a freshly laundered coat at his dry-cleaning business, JC Dry Cleaners, on Grafton Street in Worcester. Behind him is a dry-cleaning machine that was recently upgraded. (Rick Cinclair/Telegram & Gazette)

[telegram.com – 2023.02.02] When office work took an unexpected change of direction in 2020, from in-person to remote, dry-cleaning businesses in the city saw an unintended consequence that continues to affect them to this day.

William Chun, owner of JC Dry Cleaners on Grafton Street, said people in his line of business lost a lot of foot traffic. He said about 20% of his business was lost to remote work.

“We lost that corporate, everyday attire of tie and suit,” said Chun. “So many people used to go into Boston. Now they say, ‘It’s awesome. I don’t have to drive all the way to Boston. I hook up my computer and work on Zoom.’ ”

As an essential business, Chun’s dry-cleaning establishment stayed open during the pandemic, with most of the remaining business coming from law enforcement and especially health care personnel. But it wasn’t enough. Chun shortened his store’s hours, staying open half as long as he usually would.

Three years later, with the worst of the pandemic seemingly in the past, the dry-cleaning business is on the upswing, according to Chun.

But with remote and hybrid work becoming a viable option, Chun puts it plainly: “With fewer clothes worn, there’s fewer clothes to clean.”

In turn, that means less business for Chun and his parents, who founded JC Dry Cleaners in 1997.

Inflation an added burden

Chun added that inflation had forced him to increase his prices by almost 15% to keep up with the expenses of the business.

“Not for just our supplies, but across the board we’ve seen this,” he said. “There is nothing that hasn’t been affected and you just kind of have to eat it. I’m just hoping it just plateaus and just stops.”

Kyong Kim owns Tatnuck Dry Cleaners and Alterations in Worcester. (Rick Cinclair/Telegram & Gazette)

Price-tagged at about $70,000, Chun said his upgraded dry-cleaning machine, was a significant investment that he made during the pandemic, when he took advantage of reduced business to substitute the 25-year-old machine his parents installed when they first opened the doors to the business.

U.K. Kim uses the word “lucky” to describe the aftermath of the pandemic. He owns Tatnuck Dry Cleaners and Alterations, a 20-year-old business on Chandler Street.

After the pandemic’s restrictions, Kim’s business found new life, especially at the end of 2022, when business returned to 80% of what it was before the pandemic.

He echoes Chun when saying that the permanent change from in-person to remote work for some people will mean business never returns to pre-COVID levels.

Tatnuck Dry Cleaners owner U. K. Kim demonstrates how he presses pants in his shop. (Rick Cinclair/Telegram & Gazette)

“It was very, very difficult,” said Kim, “but we were one of the very lucky ones.”

While Chun spoke last Monday, a white box with golden letters waited on the front counter at JC Dry Cleaners, apparently with a wedding dress inside.

The contents of the box were an example of the new customers that Chun saw as business recovered during 2022. He continues to receive at least one every weekend for a cleaning, even with weddings out of season.

An optimist, Chun said partly tongue-in-cheek that this is yet another indicator that people are living better lives.

“People are having that easier and less stressful life,” said Chun. “The pandemic was a change that affected everyone, for the better and for the worse, including the small businesses, coffee shops, dry cleaners, nail salons, because if people aren’t dressing up to go out to work, for even a couple days, that is going to affect everybody.”

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