Bike messengers have long provided a quick way to transport documents around a congested city. But they are not the only entrepreneurs in Philadelphia doing business on two wheels. The city has pedicabs, an ice cream delivery bike and an entire gardening service based on pedal power. As of this fall, another company joined the ranks: Wash Cycle Laundry, a service that delivers by bike.
An unusual interview
On a recent afternoon, Philadelphian Alix Howard pedaled through mid-day traffic in Chinatown. She was trying to prove she could navigate the city with a metal trailer topped with three large trash cans hitched to her bike.
“It just feels kind of sticky almost,” Howard said, while screeching to a stop at a red light. The trailer can hold up to 150 pounds of laundry, but they were lighter for her inaugural ride. “ “It’s as though I have a bunch of animals or something behind me tugging at the bike, trying to make me stop.”
Wash Cycle founder Gabriel Mandujano rode along for the tryout, cautioning Howard to watch out for trolley tracks and stick to roads with bike lanes. Mandujano set out to start a sustainable business, and the model is simple: a rider picks up laundry from individuals and small business around the city and bike it to a coin-operated Laundromat on South Street, where another employee camps out to do the wash.
The facility has new water-and energy-efficient washers and dryers, and Mandujano said his business plan ups the green factor (and initial capital investment) by using machines that often sit empty from 9-5 rather than buying new ones.
“It actually works out great,” Mandujano said. “We use it during the down times, it’s still available to other people during the peak times during the weekends and when people come home from work.”
Mandujano is still struggling to break even with his fledgling business, but he said he couldn’t have launched it without the “green” label that comes from cutting down on fossil fuel use and greenhouse gas emissions and by using earth-friendly chemicals. Clients have cut him slack as he tries to figure out how to clean nasty industrial stains with mild detergents. He is running promotional prices now, but eventually, he wants to compete on price and quality with traditional laundry services without cutting into his profit.
“Laundry is an industry where being green means you can be cheaper, so long-term, people don’t need to care at all about green,” Mandujano said. “Ultimately my utility costs and my energy costs are going to be a lot lower than the people who aren’t using the technologies that I am.”
Mandujano plans to save on gas for delivery trucks, and the parking tickets that are part of the price of doing business downtown.
Physically taxing work
Perhaps the best-known bike business in the city is the non-profit Pedal Co-op, which has been hauling stuff by bike since 2008. The group mostly does recycling pick-ups for businesses and hauls residential compost to local community gardens, but they also deliver baked goods for a local bakery and can be hired out to haul just about anything that fits on a bike trailer. The non-profit was started by college students and can attract people looking for seasonal work, so executive director Amy Wilson said in the past the turnover of riders has been relatively high.
“It’s hard work, you’re driven off the road half the time, honked at, and it’s heavy and you’re out in the weather,” Wilson said. Still, Wilson said her job is rewarding. “I think as we get our administrative systems smoother and as we train people better, people are sticking around longer and contributing more.”
As drivers in the city get a little more used to sharing the road, Wilson said she thinks the job will get a little easier.
Back outside on her tryout, would-be Wash Cycle hauler Alix Howard experienced one of the hazards of the job first-hand on a narrow one-way street. A car honked repeatedly at her to squeeze over in the lane, and then sped past.
She didn’t seem to mind much.
“I think this is going to be a way to learn which way all the streets in the city go,” Howard laughed. “I hope I’m not sore tomorrow.”
She got the job.