Chico dry-cleaning business employs eco-friendly process
When customers walk into an average dry cleaning establishment, the overpowering odor of chemicals often assualts them before they have a chance to open their mouths. Walking into 3rd Generation Cleaners and Alterations, the only noticeable smell is the fresh air flowing through open front doors.
Owners Stuart and Van Depper say this is due to the fact that their local business is the sole dry-cleaning operation in Chico using a process called “wet cleaning”—one that does not use cancer-causing contaminants such as hydrocarbon or tetrachloroethylene.
Stuart describes his method by asking, “Would you rather take a bath in chemicals, or with fresh water and soap?”
Tetrachloroethylene is also known as perchloroethylene, perc or PCE, and the toxin, which is emitted into the air during dry cleaning, has been linked to neurological, liver and kidney damage when inhaled, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.
A few years ago, the agency adopted a mandate that all dry-cleaning establishments located in residential buildings must eliminate the use of perc by 2020. In California, the Air Resources Board went further, calling for the phase-out of the chemical at all dry-cleaning establishments by 2023.
This makes the Deppers way ahead of the game, exempt from both mandates because their process is green, but Stuart said those who must meet compliance are facing some serious obstacles.
For one, he said, switching from perc to other types of chemicals requires purchasing a completely new type of washing machine. The price can range anywhere from $60,000 to more than $150,000.
Switching to green methods, such as wet cleaning, is also difficult because few people have the knowledge and skills, he added. The process, he explained, is achieved though a water-based cycle that uses computer-controlled washing machines, biodegradable soaps and unique pressing machines—steam-air finishers.
“[Wet cleaning] is so much more difficult [than dry cleaning], but so much cleaner,” Stuart said. “You the consumer get a better product; you get something that’s much cleaner, much brighter and the whites are much cleaner.”
The Deppers moved to Chico to establish 3rd Generation after the Kimco Corporation offered them rental space in any of the company’s shopping centers if the couple would open a green dry-cleaning business. Kimco recently had booted all of the other dry cleaners employing chemicals, mirroring a trend of commercial property owners shying from housing toxin-using businesses.
The couple, who were living in Junction City, selected the Safeway shopping center on East Avenue and have been in business for about eight months, during which time they have formed relationships with a variety of people throughout the Chico community.
“You’re meeting every type of person, whether it’s the person bringing in his only shirt, the young man saying this is his first date, or you’re meeting wealthy business people,” Stuart said. “It’s fun; you get a personal relationship out of it.”
Despite the fancy machinery, Stuart insists his prices are just as low as those at competing businesses. For example, dry cleaning a shirt costs $1.75, pressing a blouse is $3, and hemming a pair of pants is $8.
“It’s our philosophy to give value to what we do,” he said.
Both Stuart and Van are the third generation to enter into the family business—hence the name. While Stuart specializes in the dry-cleaning aspect, Van is head of alterations and sewing.
Stuart used to work for his late father’s business in Oakland, a cleaner that specialized in suede, leather and fur. He recalled some of the unusual items his father cleaned, including a bear-skin rug, mink, motorcycle-racing jackets, former Gov. Jerry Brown’s clothes, and a leather outfit from Star Wars.
“I was lucky to learn a little bit of everything he taught me,” Stuart said.
Van, on the other hand, learned her trade out of need. While she was 10 years old and living in Vietnam, her mother showed her how to sew so that she could raise enough money to pay her way through the private school she’d been attending. Money was tight because she had 12 brothers and sisters.
During a recent visit to 3rd Generation, Stuart beamed about her sewing talents, such as being able to thread a needle without looking, cutting a straight line without measuring, and ripping out seams while keeping her eyes glued to the television screen.
“My alterations are still my cup of tea,” Van said. “I’m very happy when customers try the clothes on, and they come back to give me a compliment. After pressing and seeing the garment on the hanger all nice and clean and beautiful, that’s my favorite part.”
Same-day services, as well as Saturday cleaning, are available. So far, business has been going very well for the couple because people have been recommending the service, especially Van’s alteration handiwork, to other community members.
“Right now the economy is in trouble and you have a choice: Are you going to buy new clothes or fix the old ones and make them look good?” Stuart said. “Sustainability says fix them.”