Original Published on Sep 04, 2022 at 12:02
By Sandi Krasowski, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter
THUNDER BAY, ONT. — After more than 80 years of dry cleaning service for Thunder Bay, Supreme Cleaners has made the decision to focus on commercial and industrial dry cleaning and rentals of linens.
Due to staff shortages and hiring challenges, the business will stop personal dry cleaning services.
Like hundreds of businesses country-wide, Supreme Cleaners co-owners Don Buset and his business partner Pino Amendola were forced to change their business, eliminating a portion of their operations.
“We’ve been looking for employees,” Buset said.
“My partner and my manager have been doing their searches and can’t find anyone (to work). We’re swamped with work to do but not enough employees to do it. So, we have to close up one portion of the business that’s taking up our human resources. That portion of the business is the direct proportion that takes the most time and has the least return. In fact, it hasn’t had a return in profits for over 20 years. We continue it because we can offset those losses with our commercial side . . . and the bottom line is, we just can’t handle it anymore.”
Buset says they alerted their customers around Aug. 15 that Supreme Cleaners will wind up their personal dry cleaning service.
“We’re going to try to get that done over the next two to four weeks, but after that, we don’t have the staff.” he said. “After that, we’re going to try to get as much done as we possibly can in the shortest period of time to get things back to the customers and we’re going to be open right through to Sept. 23 for people who need to pick up their orders.”
He added that every year they have to write off “thousands upon thousands” of dollars in receivables, which is work that they’ve done on garments that people have never picked up.
“Administrative costs to try to contact these people by my phone, using their phone numbers, and of course those are disconnected, and then by mail, sending out letters saying you still have parcels here . . . mail gets sent back because people have left town. This adds to the losses and it’s about time that we see the writing on the wall.”
Charla Robinson, president of the Thunder Bay Chamber of Commerce, says it’s a sign of the times.
“It’s another indicator of the challenging economic climate right now, the challenge that folks are having with staffing, and how this is impacting business operations day to day,” she said. “I mean, this is exactly what we were afraid would happen if people can’t find workers. They have to make choices about where to put their resources and that is one of the factors that is leading to this change in business operations.”
At one time there were more than 12 dry cleaners operating in the city. Dresswell Drycleaners shuttered its operation during the 1990s and Perth Drycleaners closed nearly 10 years ago.
Buset says the main focus will be primarily on the cleaning and rental of bedding and dining linens, which has become lucrative for the company.
“In fact, that’s expanding so much that we don’t have the space at our current plant,” he said. “We were going to move our dry cleaning equipment over to another plant but even if I moved it to another plant without any workers to work, it’s just gonna sit there idle. If 10,000 pieces come in and I’ve got nobody to run the machines then those 10,000 pieces just sit in the warehouse.”
Looking ahead, Buset says they are watching the developing mining and energy sectors. He sees his company being up to capacity to service everything from the mines through to Thunder Bay conventions, dining and other industry-related events and needs.
“Not only do we see ourselves as being part of that, we see ourselves being direct suppliers to the needs of the mining industry,” he said. “People out in an area like Geraldton now working in mining need a specific type of overalls or coveralls that meet safety standards. They have accommodations for the workers in bunkhouses so they need linen services. So we believe we will be a part of that.”
He said they are looking at how they will be able to do this with the facilities that they have while modelling the economic environment they’re in with respect to location and how far they have to go to deliver services.
“We take all that into consideration and we believe we’re going to be part of that and that’s what we’re targeting,” he said.
Meanwhile, Buset says they are unaware of any type of government funding available that can help them restructure and modify the organization to focus more on the commercial aspect.
Even if there was, he says, “I do not like to take funding from the public. It’s your money and my money that the government is doling out and I don’t like to do that. I’d rather work on my own.”
Buset says they are constantly trying to find alternatives to their restructuring decision and suggested that the personal dry cleaning portion of the business could be picked up by someone else.
“If there is anybody out there who says, ‘You know what, this would be a good business for my family or my wife or my husband or let’s get together,’ maybe somebody should learn this type of business. It’s not (the most) lucrative business . . . but in the scheme of everything, it’s a service that people need.”