Philadelphia’s bicycle-powered Wash Cycle Laundry service has been growing rapidly the past few years, expanding service locally as well as in Washington, DC and Austin, TX, and their combination of business savvy, social mission, and hip cache makes them exactly the sort of home-grown success story political candidates want to be associated with.
So it’s no surprise why Jim Kenney, who’s been making appeals to younger voters, would want to make a campaign stop at their South Street West facility on Wednesday afternoon.
I showed up expecting to see a large facility full of their trademark orange and blue cargo bikes (which can carry up to 300 pounds of laundry using an electric assist) but their facility at 16th and South Street just looks like a regular laundromat with a few of the cargo bikes parked outside. The company works with five existing laundromat locations, with the most recent additions in East Falls and North Philadelphia. They have 48 total employees.
Contracting with existing laundromats is actually one of the strengths of their business model according to Gabe Mandujano, the company’s founder, and one of the ways the company is able to keep its prices competitive with larger, more established laundry companies.
“The bikes actually give us a cost advantage,” he says, “It’s cheaper to make deliveries in urban areas on bikes than it is on trucks. That’s for a lot of different reasons, but one of the biggest reasons is because we use bikes we can have this decentralized network of laundry facilities. Bikes fit into closets and basements. We don’t need parking lots and loading docks, car insurance, gas.”
The bike delivery also means they’re never too far away from their clients. Most of Wash Cycle’s business comes from large institutional contracts, and their closest competitors wash the clothes in large facilities in Atlantic City and Maryland. By keeping it local and contracting with local laundromats, the company is able to save money on transportation costs
They have a federal contract with the federal government in Washington, DC, and locally their biggest contract is with the Veteran’s Administration hospital. The city of Philadelphia isn’t a client, but Mandujano mentioned a few ways he thought the city could be helpful to Wash Cycle Laundry. He cited Philadelphia Works (where he is a board member) as a staffing resource for matching up returning citizens with job openings, and funding for the Energy Works commercial loan program.
And, of course, the state of the city’s bike safety infrastructure is a subject of interest to Wash Cycle.The company has been without a (reportable) injury for 15 months and counting, and has only had two serious vehicle accidents. Both of those occurred at 38th and Spruce Streets in University City.
When Jim Kenney arrived on the scene, one of the areas of the business he was most eager to talk about were the company’s wages and benefits, ($10.10 an hour minimum, extending health benefits to full-time employees) and whether they’ve looked at unionization.
“Your pay scale and benefits are about what they’re earning,” Kenney said, “I was successful in bringing a union commercial laundry facility to southwest Philly. We found a location in southwest Philly, and they employ over 200 people and do laundry for most of the hotels in the city.”
Mandujano said Wash Cycle has not yet given thought to unionizing, in part because the company is still young. On a day when Tom Ferrick wondered if Kenney would be able to say ‘no’ to his union backers, Kenney’s understanding that a union might not be right for WCL yet was a small mark against that idea.
After that, Kenney mostly used the occasion to listen to Mandujano and a few of his employees describe their experiences working for the company, interjecting every so often to suggest options from the menu of city, state, and federal early stage business assistance programs that might help WCL expand. Then we all went outside to scope out the big orange cargo bikes.