Two Cleaners That Revolutionized Our Industry

When I was managing Al Phillips the Cleaner in the 90s, my company purchased a table for a private party hosted by Hotel Mogul Steve Wynn in celebration of the grand opening of his luxurious Bellagio Hotel. During the course of the evening Steve Wynn and his wife Elaine came over to our table to thank us for coming. He looked around and told my staff and I that he thought Al Phillips was one of the most innovative businesses that he had ever seen. In fact, when he had friends come to visit he would drive them to one of our stores. He marveled over the fact that our locations were drive thru’s, open 24 hours a day and staffed by good looking uniformed attendants. To have Steve Wynn give us that compliment was quite an honor for me, being the son and nephew of the two innovators who started Al Phillips the Cleaner, Mel and Philip Shapiro. My dad had passed away some time back and recently Mel has been battling complications from Parkinson’s disease.

The drive thru was Mel’s brainchild. He believed that the convenience of a drive thru, coupled with same day service, tailoring, late hours and being open 7 days a week would give them a competitive edge over the competition. He hired graphic artist Hy Farber to develop a beautiful logo which helped brand the Al Phillips name. The store design was beautiful, typically with a canopy that extended over the two or three lanes of the drive thru. When you pulled into the location all the production equipment lined the windows and you were able to see the work being produced and moving down the conveyers. The equipment was the same as the color scheme of the logo, red, yellow, magenta, and green. All of the locations were highly visible; they were either free standing or end caps. They always paid the highest rents but with the high volume the business generated their rent as a percentage of sales was always well below the industry average. Through the years the Al Phillips brand in Las Vegas flourished. When the Johnson Group purchased the businesses in 1984 they retained Mel and Phil to run the operation. They did little to change the management and style of operation, but aggressively opened multiple sites. When I took over the reins in the early 90’s Al Phillips had 14 locations. At the time there were over 100 cleaners in Las Vegas and Al Phillips had a whopping 40% market share.

Through the years Mel frequently lectured about the success that he had with the Al Phillips concept. While giving a presentation to a group of cleaners who were visiting Las Vegas his talk was met with a lot of negativity and skepticism. “This concept can only work in Las Vegas.” During the presentation a gentleman said to the group…Why don’t you guys sit down and shut up, you might learn something. Ironically, the person who said that was none other than Milt Chortkoff, who at the time owned Hollyway Cleaners.

Hollyway Cleaners dominated the L.A market long before Milt opened Milt & Edie’s Dry Cleaners. Located in West Hollywood, Hollyway Cleaners was doing sales in excess of $40,000 per week. When Milt and his brother Burt opened the location in 1964 they faced numerous challenges, the store was surrounded by seven successful dry cleaners. The rent was a whopping $1500 per month. A lot of money for the 1960’s. Milt’s lovely wife Edie complained…“Our mortgage is only $167.00 per month, how can we afford $1500.00 per month?”

The brothers had so much confidence that they would do well that they committed to opening the location and within a few years Hollyway was the highest grossing operation in the United States.

Like Al Phillips, Hollyway provided a level of service that was unique at the time. The store was open until midnight, did same day service, 2-hour specials, had a friendly and efficient staff and had six tailors to boot. Their marketing consisted of “Mendel the tailor” who was featured in the company’s marketing. Hollyway was in the ‘happening place’ in the demanding West Hollywood market. The atmosphere was fun, exciting, and all the local celebs brought their clothes there.

Milt frequently mentions that when he was growing up in Brooklyn, he used to hang out at the local candy store. He would flirt with the girls, goof on his friends and have a good time. He says, “the cleaning business is my candy store, I want it to be a fun and enjoyable place where I can hang out.” That is the atmosphere and culture that Milt helped develop that has contributed to so much of the success that he had in his career and in particular with Hollyway’s and then Milt and Edie’s.

Milt often says that there isn’t anything that Hollyway had that is different from what other cleaners have. “We all use similar equipment, solvents and work hard to produce the best quality possible. What made Hollyway unique was the friendly and welcoming environment the customers experienced when they came in. Secondly, we offered a wide variety of services at days and hours that were convenient for the customer. If a customer got off work at 8 p.m. and needed cleaning or an alteration done quickly, we were there to serve them.” (At no extra charge).

After Hollyway, Milt has once again been highly successful with Milt & Edie’s. He remains active in running the operation and is more optimistic about the future than ever. Mel has been involved with other business ventures, but recently has been battling complications from Parkinson’s disease. He still remains close to many of the employees who worked for him. I wish him a speedy recovery. He always has been an amazing Uncle and mentor to me. For me personally, it’s been quite an amazing experience to work for the two guys whose dry cleaners revolutionized our industry.

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