A new business concept: Have a crepe at the cleaners

A new business concept: Have a crepe at the cleaners

Paul, left, and Louie Cares near Café Louis, where the café crew is making crepes. The Cares brothers own Sheldon Cleaners and this is their new café/creperie/laundry facility at 3000 Breton Road SE. Photo by Pete Daly

(As seen on WZZM TV 13) At first it was just going to be a little coffee shop in one of their dry-cleaning/laundry locations. Then the Cares brothers decided to have a little fun.

The Sheldon Cleaners at 3000 Breton Road SE near 29th Street will officially open its Café Louis Laundry Café at the start of February. The location features a The Laundry Room at Sheldon, which is actually a Laundromat where patrons can do their own laundry. The café offers regular café fare plus Simpatico coffee and European-style crepes — so it’s really a creperie inside a drycleaners/Laundromat.

Crepes are thin pancakes that originated in France, stuffed with meat and cheese, fruits or vegetables and now familiar to the cosmopolitan hip as a delicious quick meal.

Louie Cares (pronounced “carries”) and his brother Paul originally thought they might put in a little franchise coffee shop in a space in their facility at 3000 Breton Road. But the more the brothers talked about it, they realized “we just wanted to have fun,” said Louie.

The crepes were Sue Chaitin’s idea. She was hired by the Cares brothers to help with their unusual business idea because she is a food service management and marketing consultant at Chaitin Consulting, a business she and her husband operate.

“I didn’t even know what a crepe is,” admits Paul Cares, with a laugh.

Crepes, unlike the on-plate version seen in the U.S., are growing in popularity around the world as “street food,” according to Chaitin. In Paris, crepes are “meant to be a grab-and-go — something to eat while shopping — or just doing your laundry.”

The tables in Café Louis — pronounced the French way: “Louie” — are between the crepes counter and an open hearth fireplace, but additional tables are placed among the washers and dryers. Large-screen ceiling-mounted closed-caption TVs provide news and entertainment. There is piped-in music and a safe, monitored play area for little kids while parents do the laundry a few yards away. A loft space with a picture window overlooks the Laundromat; small groups can use it for fun or business meetings. Café Louis has a drive-through, too.

The Cares brothers are the current owners of Sheldon Cleaners, founded by their father, George, in Grand Rapids in 1949. At 89, he still shows up every day just to keep an eye on things.

“His office used to be right in this corner,” said Paul, gesturing to a nearby front corner of the building where there are picture windows overlooking café tables and the self-serve washers and dryers. The 3000 Breton facility has 30,000 square feet and houses scores of workers in the shirt laundry and dry-cleaning operations for all 28 Sheldon locations. The drop-off/pick-up locations are mainly in Greater Grand Rapids, but there are also some in Holland and Kalamazoo.

Sheldon Cleaners employs about 250 people and is the largest dry cleaners/shirt laundry in Michigan “by far,” according to Paul Cares.

The years have not been kind to the industry, however.

“The whole dry-cleaning industry nationwide is shrinking,” said Louie, due to the sartorial sea change to a casual dress code in the workplace. Now people wear more wash-and-wear clothing rather than business suits that require dry cleaning. Paul guesses there are only about half as many drycleaners now in Grand Rapids, compared to the 1980s.

What the Cares brothers are doing with Café Louis is an experiment to get more customers into their business, but Paul notes that “Dad is a survivor” and he, too, was an innovator. George Cares started innovating years ago when he decided to open satellite stores in old gas stations and such to make drop-off/pick-up of dry cleaning more convenient to customers.

The Café Louis experiment was triggered by a major investment launched by the brothers, who invested more than a million dollars largely in environmentally friendly dry-cleaning machines and washers and dryers obtained through Eagle Star Equipment in Troy.

The new machines include huge self-service washers that can accommodate up to 90 pounds of clothes. The high-tech Union dry-cleaning machines made in Italy use a German cleaning solvent called K4, which is far less hazardous to health and the environment than “perc,” the long-time solvent of the industry. OSHA has long had a goal of reducing the exposure of workers to perchloroethylene. The K4 used in the Union machines is expensive, but each machine strains and distills its fluid after use and recovers nearly all of it in new condition for re-use.

The new equipment is much more efficient than the old and helped free up about 8,000 square feet of space. Paul said that was when he and his brother began wondering how to use the space in a way that would complement their business.

Voila Café Louis! It will feature free Wi-Fi, and the Cares brothers plan to market the café to college students as a good place to study while doing the laundry. Café Louis even has space for small live music performances, and Louie Cares said at some point they hope to have a free open-mic night.

“We’re going to do a lot of creative promotion,” said Paul, noting it may include a “Freeloader Night” when Laundromat patrons get one small load washed for free.

There may be more cafés at other Sheldon locations “if it works out,” said Paul.

Mark Tomasik of Innovative Design was the architect on the Café Louis project.

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