Dry Cleaner Challenge

We take the cleaners ... to the cleaners!

When I first moved to Cleveland, I was preoccupied with my new job, my apartment, learning the streets. But slowly, I realized I had a bigger problem: finding a new doctor, a new dentist, a new hair stylist and most importantly, a new dry cleaner. Yes, most importantly.

My former dry cleaner and I had a great relationship — she was like my mom, always tsk-tsking about my newest stains, complaining that they probably wouldn’t come out, but always getting them out in the end. She had a drive-through window at which I was a constant visitor. And she made me feel (I know this sounds silly) like my clothes were special. In short, she started my obsession with dry cleaning, a luxury that I haven’t indulged since I moved here almost a year ago. I mean, I can’t trust just anyone.

And with all the inquiries we’ve had from readers, I’m confident I’m not alone in my search for a great dry cleaner. (In fact, my editor raised the idea for this story after he interviewed a local businessman who complained that there just weren’t any places left that could do a good starch job.)

So with a burgeoning pile of dry-clean-only shirts and skirts in my closet, I stepped up to the Dry Cleaner Challenge. But how does one go about finding the perfect cleaner? I started by buying into the hype: America’s Best Cleaners puts its stock in just one cleaner per city. For Greater Cleveland, it chose London Cleaners in Richmond Heights. I planned to pit London against a range of cleaners throughout the area (I’m a Westsider, so they’d have to hang my clothes on golden hangers for me to trek out there on a regular basis).

I picked West Side institution Clifton Cleaners; local chain Fussy Cleaners in Strongsville (however, that location went out of business just as we were headed to press and is encouraging clients to visit the Broadview Heights store); Village Cleaners in Brecksville (because it’s my editor’s cleaner and his shirts always look pretty good) and Swift Cleaners on the near East Side (on the recommendation of a very posh local hotel who sends its dry cleaning there).

My plan was simple: Create identical stains on five identical men’s dress shirts, drop them off with an article of my own clothing to quell any suspicions and document the results.

Red wine was the stain of choice, cunningly slopped onto the chest as if a drunken party guest had gestured a little too broadly. A slash of blue ink went onto one sleeve, and a small dab of Italian dressing was hidden near the hem. The shirts went into a bag and sat overnight, and then it was time for the real challenge to begin.

The ground rules were simple: I made a point of showing them the stain and pen mark — but not the oil spot — and expressing my sincere hope that they would do whatever they could to get it out. And I asked each for medium starch.

On the Friday morning “drop-off day,” Clifton Cleaners was busy. As I waited in line, the attendant counted one guy’s dress shirts, brought another guy’s clean shirts in from the back, explained to another customer the actual price to dry-clean a certain item of clothing, apologized to other customers for the wait and rung up a credit card purchase. She was a little perplexed by my stains, maybe even a little suspicious, and recommended dry-cleaning the shirt. Starch was unavailable with dry-cleaning, but Clifton Cleaners would use a “wine remover” on my shirt.

“It’s actually a beverage remover,” Shirley said when I called later, a product called Bongo that’s only available to dry cleaners. “We put it on, let it sit, then dry-cleaned it.” The cleaning process activates the Bongo, which is why washing it wouldn’t have worked as well, she explained.

At Swift Cleaning and Laundry, unlike many cleaners, everything is done in-house — dry-cleaning, laundry, starch, pressing — enabling it to offer same-day service (in by noon, out by 3 p.m.). It’s a little more expensive so I opted for the regular service — slower, but 5 percent cheaper.

The Fussy Cleaners in Strongsville sends clothing to its plant in Akron, explained Rosie from the Chagrin Falls Fussy Cleaners. “That’s where they process all the clothes; the pressers and everything are there.” But, she assured me, it is only for Fussy Cleaners — not an amalgam of clothing from a bunch of cleaners.

The award-winning London Cleaners also sent my shirt out, causing a huge snafu during the pickup process. In the end, the shirt wasn’t available until the following Friday afternoon. “We usually do everything in the store,” said Dorothy. “We broke down last week and so we sent it to our other plant.” She also noted that it was London’s personal plant. Interestingly, it had a very different method of cleaning my shirt: It was soaked in cleaning chemicals and washed, then it was soaked and washed again; no dry-cleaning involved! And it worked — London Cleaners was most successful at getting the stain out of the shirt.

The woman at Village Cleaners explained that it could either do the shirt in-house or send it out. Because of the severity of the stain, she recommended going the more expensive route and keep it in-house, where it would be given more attention. I agreed.

Some cleaners did better than others, and London Cleaners was the only magician able to return the shirt to its original state. But the journey also made me realize a thing or two: Dry Cleaners are just regular people, trying to clean up after other people’s messes and doing it with little fanfare. I was a little hard on them, I’ll admit; throughout the Dry Cleaner Challenge, my editor kept making odd faces and repeating, “those stains were really big!” So be kind to your dry cleaner, and keep the red wine — anything red, really — away from your clothes!

Who Knew?

Dry cleaners sound off on what you can do to help them help your stains.

Don’t do anything.

“Bring it in as soon as possible and do not do anything to it,” says Andy Hostetler, operations manager for The Fussy Cleaners. While grandma is sold on the idea that club soda or hair spray will get the stain out, it’s really creating more trouble for the cleaners.

“That’s just putting another stain on top of a stain. Now we have to remove the hair spray too,” Hostetler says. Even water or excessive rubbing makes the cleaner’s job tougher.

Don’t wait.

While there’s no need to find the nearest dry cleaner the moment the party drinks and cookies run out, the cleaners say getting the clothing in within a few days is reasonable. Letting weeks go by increases the chances the stain will set for good.

Heat is not your friend.

Keep the clothes out of the heat. It’ll only help set the stain.

Have a stain game plan.

Review anything you think may have touched your garments with the cleaners before handing the clothes over. “Just because the stain dries, it’s still there. Communication is important,” says Mary Ann Kolesar, owner of three local Martinizing cleaners. Alex Shvartshteyn, owner of London Cleaners, concurs: “If people know what the stain is it helps to eliminate guesswork.”

Spots are out.

Remember that cottons and wools are generally easier to treat than silks. No matter what the fabric is, make sure it is washable or dry cleanable and doesn’t say “spot clean only.”

“You’re limited to how clean you can get a garment with a damp cloth,” Hostetler points out.

— Matt Peters


Name Clifton Cleaners The Fussy Cleaners London Cleaners Swift Cleaning Village Cleaners
Location Cleveland, West Broadview Heights Richmond Heights Cleveland, East Brecksville
Address 11034 Clifton Blvd. 403 E. Royalton Road (in lieu of the closed Strongsville location) 26163 Chardon Road 8220 Carnegie Ave. 7342 Chippewa Road
Phone Number (216) 281-4434 (440) 746-1777 (216) 731-3344 (216) 391-3335 (440) 526-4241
Mostly gone
Entire mark remains
Like new
Still bold and blue
Middle of the mark is gone, ends still faintly visible
Starch GG
Starch was unavailable, but even so our Resident Starch Expert (RSE) noted a strong collar, but wasn't overly impressed with the rest of the shirt.
Visible starch marks on the front of the shirt, but the RSE gave it a high rating for strength of starch.
The RSE gave it a high rating, pointing to the excellent job on the cuffs and the tuxedo-like bracing behind the buttons.
The RSE called the shirt "pretty good."
I was told only a light starch was available, and the RSE noticed right away. He complained about the cuffs and felt only a little starch on the front.
Waited in line for delivery and pickup, but the attendant was friendly and personable.
Neither of my visits was memorable. To be fair, the store was on its way out. Business from the Strongsville store is being transferred to the Royalton Road location.
While it won the stain contest, it turned out to be maddening to deal with. The poor shirt wasn't ready to come home until Friday after 3 p.m. But when it did, boy, was it clean. Plus, it put a $10 credit on my account for my wait and the extra trips.
The people were friendly, and the place is close to downtown so it's optimal for businessmen and women. Plus it has quick service (although I didn't get it), but be sure you just need a cleaning, not stain removal.
The attendant was helpful and honest about the stain. She did upsell me, but the price was worth it. The "Inspection Department" noted on the cuff that "further attempts to remove [the stain] may result in injury to the color or fabric."
Price $1.60 plus tax $2.09 plus tax $1.79 plus tax $1.60 plus tax $4.20 plus tax
Hours 7 a.m. - 11 p.m. Mon-Fri, 7:30 a.m. - 6 p.m. Sat (pickup only) 7 a.m. - 7:30 p.m Mon-Fri, 8 a.m. - 6 p.m. Sat 7 a.m. - 7 p.m. Mon-Fri, 8 a.m. - 5 p.m. Sat 7 a.m. - 6:15 p.m. Mon-Sat 7 a.m. - 7 p.m. Mon-Fri, 7:30 a.m. - 6 p.m. Sat
Delivery No Yes, free for 40 communities Yes, free but limited range No Yes
Turnaround 2 days 1 day 2 days Same day 3 days
Extras $4 for the "executive press" on men's shirts; minor repairs, including sewing buttons Some locations offer a seamstress on the premises; a few have drive-up windows. It also offers ExPress bag drop-off so you don't have to wait in line. Minor repairs and alterations Drop off your clothes on Wednesday and receive a 10 percent discount; "We press really good," said one employee. Alterations, wedding gown preservation, shoe repair and rug cleaning.
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