The Laundry Café is, objectively, an amazing laundromat. For skeptics scoffing that “amazing” and “laundromat” don’t belong in the same sentence, consider this: In even the most densely packed neighborhoods, the Laundry Café’s four Philadelphia locations have free parking and curbside assistance. They also have giant flat-screen TVs, massage chairs, free WiFi, arcade games, and shelves packed with children’s books to beat back boredom until every last sock and shirt gets washed, dried, and folded. Even the decor is highfalutin’, the counters topped in granite and the walls colored “Tiffany blue” — as in the luxury jeweler.
So maybe it’s no surprise the Laundry Café made a best-of list.
But whose best-of list? That’s the curveball: Fodor’s. The travel titan recently declared the Laundry Café as one of the world’s most memorable laundromats — right up there with launderettes in Australia, South Africa, Hong Kong, Norway, and more — because it has so many amenities, “you may be likely to stay — or overstay.”
World travelers are not at all the Laundry Café’s target customers. The only thing world-travelly about the Laundry Café’s newest location in Fairhill’s Plaza Allegheny, for example, is the Puerto Rican flag flapping from a nearby home’s porch. Even more, the low-income neighborhoods where founders Brian Holland and Tyrone Akins have opened their cafés are the kind outsiders tend to avoid. Stores in these gritty communities often have locked bathrooms, window signs forbidding firearms or other weapons, and, occasionally, even bulletproof glass between staff and customers.
But the Fodor’s honor is no less welcome to Holland, Akins, and their new partner Ray Chamberlin, who regard it as validation of their vision that washing clothes can be far more than a dreaded chore. The partners believe laundromats can be transformational.
“We are mission-driven,” Holland said. “This really is about making meaningful, enduring change in the communities that we serve. This is not about laundry. This has always been about America’s dirty laundry, not about people’s dirty laundry.”
‘We knew we could do better’
Some explaining is in order here.
Holland, Akins, and Chamberlin grew up in segregated, poor neighborhoods — Chester; Newark, N.J.; and East St. Louis, Ill., respectively.
“We had a laundromat on the corner. They were never comfortable, never air-conditioned, never staffed. They had only had a handful of washers, and my mom would have to bring wet laundry home to dry on a clothesline,” Akins remembered. “It was not a good experience for something my mom spent money on every week. That was the seed that got planted — I knew we could do better for our own people.”
The three men went on to careers in Big Pharma, where they met. When Akins and Holland decided to go into business together in 2012, laundry seemed an obvious choice. First, it’s “reasonably recession-proof,” Holland explained, because people always need clean clothes. But more, they saw it as an opportunity to disrupt the disparities and disrespect that strangle low-income communities of color.
“Each of us grew up in segregated neighborhoods, where we saw our mothers, sisters, aunts, and grandmothers treated like they didn’t deserve nice things,” said Chamberlin, who joined the business in 2017. “The supermarket never had good meat, there was no fresh fruit. When you went to the corner store and paid, the cashier would drop your change on the counter instead of your hand. We got out, and we made something of ourselves. Now we’re in a position to do something to make a difference so that people in communities similar to ours don’t have to have the same experience we did.”
There now are four Laundry Cafés — in Olney, Fairhill, North Philadelphia, and Nicetown. A fifth is expected to open by year’s end. Each one has improved, Holland said. “We’ve ‘learned’ into better stores — learn fast, fail fast,” he said, remembering the sophisticated bamboo accents in their first café — that soon warped in the laundromat’s moist air.
Besides their deluxe decor and amenities, the cafés host “change programs,” intended to empower customers, on topics like financial literacy, credit repair, stroke prevention, and breast cancer awareness. The partners also hope to help close the literacy and education gaps common in low-income neighborhoods by building little libraries in each café with books kids can keep. The have an answer for the digital divide, too: free WiFi and Internet-enabled browsing stations. And with 85% of their customers being female, security is built into the café’s design, with its cashless machines, 24/7 staff, surveillance cameras, and bright lighting.
“We don’t suggest that we’re moving an entire community, but we do think we’re touching individual lives,” said Holland, who currently serves on the board of directors of the Coin Laundry Association and was a past president of its Delaware Valley chapter.
Raising the bar
So back to that Fodor’s nod.
It’s not the Laundry Café’s first time on a best-of list. The cleaning company Dropps included the café on its 2017 list of “Epic Laundromats Almost Too Cool to Be True.”
And cool is a concept customers can agree with.
“It’s a nice Laundromat — they have TVs and books for the kids. It’s bigger, cleaner, and newer than other places,” said Gerald Chandler, 30, of North Philadelphia, who recently washed his clothes at the Fairhill location with his 1-year-old daughter, Ari.
The café’s competitors also know that Akins, Holland, and Chamberlin are onto something. Café staff sometimes see would-be copycats strolling through and sneaking photos.
That’s A-OK with Holland.
“We agreed early on that we know we are not able to open 100 laundromats,” Holland said. “But if we make sure our standards are so high that we’re going to force our competitors to raise the bar and treat people more respectfully, that’s good because these communities deserve it.”