“Our business is down by over 50 percent since the pandemic started,” said Jisoo Moon, 59, who owns the business with his wife, Inyoung Moon, 59. “Many of the items you see hanging here are things our customers never picked up,” he shook his head. “They either forgot them or just left them here.”
In normal times, the automatic conveyor rack, which takes up most of the store’s floor space, is packed with freshly cleaned and pressed dress shirts, suits, silk blouses, and formal wear.
“On a busy day, we’d have 80 customers drop off or pick up their dry cleaning,” Moon said.
They are down to a trickle now.
“Today, we’ve had less than 10 customers,” he told me on a February afternoon as their business day was winding down. “Usually in January we’d be cleaning outfits people wore to holiday parties over the winter. We didn’t have any of that business this year.”
The Moons have owned London Pride Cleaners for 25 years, but the shop, located in Washington Square Shopping Center, has been part of the Petaluma community for even longer. The Moons bought it from another Korean family. In turn, they purchased it from a British family who established the business in the early 1980s.
In 2002, the Moons invested over $300,000 in new equipment to comply with more stringent environmental standards. In a 2002 news article, framed and prominently displayed in front of their counter, the Argus-Courier praised the Moons’ initiative to go green.
“London Pride Cleaners … is on the cutting edge of technology with a new machine that offers a better dry cleaning job that is also easier on the environment,” the reporter wrote.
“I’m the first cleaner to have one in Sonoma County,” Jisoo Moon was quoted in the paper.
“People used to travel from out of town, as far as Bodega, to use our dry-cleaning services,” Inyoung Moon added. “They came to us because we had a good reputation.”
Now, the pandemic has hit many small businesses like this dry cleaner. The demise of restaurants, retailers, and personal care businesses, especially hair salons, has been well-publicized. According to a Yelp report last September, 60% of small businesses have closed permanently, roughly 800 closures a day across the country. Although the pandemic has had an uneven economic impact, family-owned businesses — many of them with little or no safety net — have taken a big hit.
“And it’s not only us,” Inyoung Moon added. “This is happening across the whole industry.”
Closures of dry-cleaning businesses have been largely under the radar. Bloomberg reports that one out of six dry cleaning businesses have shut down since the pandemic started.
“We’ve applied for the second round of Paycheck Protection Program loans and the California Relief Grant Program. So far we haven’t gotten them,” Jisoon Moon said.
“The industry has been in a decline for a while,” he admitted. “I used to joke that Steve Jobs was to blame because he brought the ‘T-shirt and jeans’ dress code to workplaces,” he said. “But now, with COVID, office workers are working from home. People are not wearing business clothes.”
In the past few months, corporate giants, such as SalesForce, Microsoft, and Facebook, have announced plans to allow employees to continue to work from home. Even if the economy recovers, Jisoo Moon worries that this shift in work culture will present a more permanent blow to the already battered industry that depends on people to dress up to work, something no-one could have predicted even a year ago.
This year is the 25th anniversary since the Moons bought London Pride Cleaners. They are both turning 60 but are not in any mood to celebrate.
“We’re worried about how we’re going to be able to pay for our rent, living expenses, and medical insurance as we grow older,” Jisoo Moon said, a fear that many small business owners can likely relate to.
Even as people begin to feel hopeful about the pandemic finally coming to an end with the COVID-19 vaccine more widely available, he doesn’t see relief in sight.
Before the pandemic, Moon believed he could keep the business going until he and his wife were ready to retire.
Now he’s unsure.
“We need your comforters and curtains,” said Jisoo, “your winter coats, to help us get through this.”