Current Position: Nick Tirabassi, 76, owns 818 Cleaners in West Hills, California.
The Company: An environmental award winner known by its loyal clientele for its expertise and ability to clean almost anything, 818 Cleaners is 100% wet cleaning. Their production is not limited to traditional wear; they can effectively handle suede, leather, Uggs, rugs, stuffed animals and beaded and sequin garments.
When Tirabassi opened, he thought he could do only 75% of the work. “We sent it out to another cleaner, and after a couple of weeks, the work was so bad, I decided that I would try to figure out how to do 100% of the work,” said Tirabassi. “I experimented with different detergents and run times, and I can do 100% of the work.”
Childhood Memories: At 12, Tirabassi took a strong interest in architecture and houses. “I just knew I couldn’t do the math, so my idea was to open a business,” Tirabassi recalled. “I thought it would be a gas station because I was very interested in cars, and I still am.” One of his fondest recollections was working in a gas station at age 17 and saving enough money to buy his first car, a new 1965 Pontiac 2+2.
Go West Young Man: Born in Cleveland, Ohio, Tirabassi’s family moved to Tennessee before migrating to California. He was sixteen years old when they made the trek west to the Golden State. After graduating high school, Tirabassi served in the United States Army until his discharge in 1968.
Into the Business: After serving Uncle Sam, Tirabassi’s uncle owned a dry cleaning plant and wanted him to run it. “I decided I couldn’t run it without knowing how to actually do the work,” Tirabassi said. “So I went to Trade Tech to get my owner/operator license; if I do something, I want to try and be the best at it.”
Taking Ownership: In 1977, Tirabassi opened Porter Ranch Cleaners in Northridge, California. Porter Ranch Cleaners outgrew its 1,200 square foot space within a few years. “As they were building a new center behind my store, we eventually expanded to over 3,000 square feet and it became a very successful store.”
Transition Time: “I decided to sell Porter Ranch Cleaners after 30 years because I wanted to train people in this industry,” Tirabassi reminisced. “But that was in 2009 and everything collapsed because of the economy.”
After moving to Nevada for a few years of self-imposed exile, Tirabassi triumphantly returned to Southern California five years after selling Porter Ranch Cleaners. At the time, he was 66 years old and itching to return to the industry he knew and loved. The result was 818 Cleaners. “I picked this location in West Hills because I live nearby,” said Tirabassi. “I knew it would be successful and I was right, more so than I thought.”
Kelleher Connection: Tirabassi attests that his career as an owner/operator in the garment care industry has been smooth because of his relationship with the Kelleher Family for the last 40 years. “John Kelleher and now Kelly Kelleher are my mentors,” beamed Tirabassi. “I learned much from John, especially plant layout. With help from Kelly, I figured out how to expand my conveyor and layout as well.”
“They have always bent over backward to help me,” said a grateful Tirabassi. “If I needed a piece of equipment, they would just put it in, and we would work out the money later.”
One trying moment was the horrific and infamous Northridge earthquake on Monday, January 17, 1994, at 4:30 in the morning. Fortunately, Tirabassi’s house survived the 6.7 magnitude temblor. “My wife and I grabbed the kids and we drove to the plant,” said Tirabassi as he remembered that fateful morning. “Once we got there, it looked pretty discouraging.” He vividly recalls four conveyors and nearly half of the finished garments lying on the ground. “The call office ceiling was collapsed and the 20 hp Parker boiler had moved and tore the stack out of the roof,” Tirabassi said. “When my employees got to work, I told them to go home and take care of their families and anyone who wanted to work to come back tomorrow.”
Tirabassi called John Kelleher and told him what had happened. “His crew was out there Tuesday and reset the boiler and replaced the stack and brought 5-gallon jugs of water so we could fill it,” he said. “I had help from people who were loyal to me.”
“I love that family,” said Tirabassi of the Kellehers. “They have always treated me like family and I consider them family!”
Essential Qualities: Persistency and never giving up has served Tirabassi well. “I have surrounded myself with very loyal and successful people and I am willing to work as hard and as long as it takes to complete any task,” he said. “I am also loyal to anyone who is loyal to me.”
Advice: “Be loyal to the people that help you to get started. Pay your bills on time and work as hard as you can, even if it is seven days a week. Keep trying to learn. Just don’t dismiss something new.”
Industry Outlook: Prior to the Coronavirus outbreak, Tirabassi thought he was in a dying industry. When the global pandemic arrived, he was certain that garment care was on its last leg. “As we came out of it, I feel that the weak ones folded, and the future looks bright for the remaining operators if they do a good job and raise their prices,” Tirabassi mused. “Our main hurdle is we don’t have very many skilled employees and this is going to be a hindrance to the industry.”
Bucket List: More than three quarters of the way there, one of Tirabassi’s goals is to live to 100. While moving toward that milestone, he also wants to train others how to be experts in wet cleaning, remodel one of his homes in Las Vegas and visit a daughter in Italy.
Personal: When he’s not hustling at 818 Cleaners, Tirabassi enjoys reading autobiographies. As a baseball fan, his rooting interests favor the Los Angeles Angels. He said, “Even at 76 years old, I like learning because you can’t just keep doing things the same old way.”
With all of the success, accolades and material riches the business has afforded Tirabassi, his greatest joys come from having five grandsons, four successful children and the support of his loving wife, Marti.
Marti and Nick make their home in Bell Canyon and will celebrate 42 years of marriage this month.
John Leano works for BRYAN’S Cleaners & Laundry in Pasadena, California. He checks his email four days a week and usually responds within 48 hours. Leano@BryansCleaners.com.