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Coronavirus Pandemic Upends The Dry Cleaning Industry

NOEL KING, HOST:

The pandemic devastated a business that was a bedrock of Korean American prosperity in the U.S. The dry-cleaning industry is dominated by Korean American families in many big cities, but this path that brought so many people into the middle class might soon be closed off. Odette Yousef of member station WBEZ has the story.

ODETTE YOUSEF, BYLINE: Tae Jung's dry-cleaning shop is 40 miles west of Chicago. When the pandemic began, he found - for the first time in his 22 years of operating it - that he couldn't cover rent.

TAE JUNG: (Through interpreter) Rent is due regardless of whether or not business is good or bad. If rent is $5,000 every month, you have to pay that every month. That's been stressful. From March to June, we were not able to pay rent.

YOUSEF: Jung's landlord spurned his efforts to lower the rent, so he had to borrow money just to get by. So far, he's taken out more than $130,000 dollars in loans.

JUNG: (Through interpreter) Right now I have no idea how I will repay the loans. I don't want to use up the money I have saved for retirement. As for the SBA loan, I'll repay monthly as best as I can and hope the economy improves.

YOUSEF: For Jung, this business has suddenly gotten a lot more expensive and uncertain. When he opened it, he was following a path that had launched many other Korean immigrant families into the middle class - allowed them to buy homes, send kids to college. It's similar to how some Gujarati Indians got a foothold in motels and some Middle Eastern groups cluster in the grocery sector. Mary Scalco of the Drycleaning and Laundry Institute says, for any immigrant, dry-cleaning was a relatively easy and reliable business to buy into.

MARY SCALCO: You need to plop down your money, and you need a machine, and you work really hard, and you can become a dry cleaner.

YOUSEF: Scalco's group represents about 6,000 U.S. dry-cleaning retailers. She acknowledges that the industry's future has been uncertain for years. Even before the pandemic, demand for dry-cleaning was shrinking. Workplaces have shifted to more casual attire, and consumers are opting for easy-to-wash fabrics. Still, few predicted such precipitous decline.

SCALCO: We estimate that by the time this is all over - and I would say within the next 12, 14 months - it's going to shrink by about 30%.

YOUSEF: For an industry that's still mainly mom-and-pop shops, Scalco says that means that the neighborhood cleaner you frequent might not be there for much longer. All this has been incredibly painful for Heidi Park to watch. Park is with an Illinois-based nonprofit called the National Drycleaners Institute, which supports mainly Korean operators as they navigate business challenges.

HEIDI PARK: Some people have refinanced their home. Some people have, you know, actually sold their home and moved in with family members to save on mortgage. It's sad. Some people are forced into early retirement.

YOUSEF: Park says, while some dry cleaners got federal loans, there's deep concern that the industry just won't come back. After the pandemic, large numbers of Americans may continue to work from home, and Park says that makes many dry cleaners reluctant to take on additional debt. For Tae Jung, the dry cleaner who borrowed $130,000 to keep his doors open, that new debt blew up his retirement plans.

JUNG: (Through interpreter) Who works until they're 90? My plan was to retire in five years, and that plan is ruined by COVID.

YOUSEF: And money he once counted on from the eventual sale of his business - well, who would buy a dry cleaner now? But Heidi Park still holds hope for some of these businesses.

PARK: Everyone keeps saying, you know, it's a dying industry. But as being part of the industry, we don't feel that way. We feel that dry cleaners are needed.

YOUSEF: They may still be needed, but will that be enough to make them profitable?

For NPR News, I'm Odette Yousef.

(SOUNDBITE OF FEVERKIN FEAT. VACANT'S "MARCH") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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