One of San Antonio’s oldest laundry businesses is getting a name change, coinciding with a number of shifts its facilities have made amid the upheavals of the coronavirus pandemic.

Slater White Cleaners, which first began pressing dress shirts and pants in San Antonio over 95 years ago, according to its website, will be known as Jack Brown Cleaners, after the Austin-based dry cleaning company that has owned the chain since the early 1980s. Signs on the nine locations in San Antonio have already been changed.

Precipitating the name change was an embrace of mobile technology like apps and curbside pickup, a shift in clientele, and the seismic shock the industry suffered under the pandemic.

“The Brown family thought it was time to bring our name and stability to the San Antonio market,” said Paul Brown, CEO of Jack Brown Cleaners and grandson of its founder, who started his first laundry business around 1907.

The company bought Slater-White Cleaners in 1982.

Slater White Cleaners has been a pillar of San Antonio’s business community for decades. Orval Slater, president of the cleaning company in the 1960s and ’70s, was in 1964 elected president of the Fiesta San Antonio Commission — a body for which he was a founding member. Slater had held top leadership positions in civic groups such as the Rotary Club, as well as trade associations including the National Institute of Dry Cleaning, the Texas Association of Dry Cleaning, and the San Antonio Laundry and Dry Cleaning Association.

The company’s large-scale ads were a staple in the city’s newspapers.

“Danger! Help Stop Flu,” read one advertisement in the San Antonio Express in 1957, near the height of what was then an global influenza pandemic. “Send your clothing, bedding, sheets, blankets, towels and linen to us. … Slater-White will positively help protect your friends and family.”

The same advice was pushed just last year by the Dry Cleaning and Laundry Institute, the nation’s largest dry cleaning organization, when it promoted findings that the intense heat used in the dry cleaning process stamps out pathogens of all kinds, including the novel coronavirus.

Brown said his business saw a “big spike” in the washing of household items like duvets and bedsheets. Another lifeline came from the continued need of essential employees in other industries: doctors, police officers, city employees.

“That kept our industry going” during the steep downturn caused by the pandemic, Brown said.

Jack Brown cleaners, formerly Slater-White Cleaners, is thinking outside of the box to survive the current decimation of the dry cleaning industry.
Signage at a Jack Brown Cleaners location touts curbside service. Rapid adaptation to the coronavirus pandemic was essential for the company. Credit: Bria Woods / San Antonio Report

The rise of Zoom meetings and work-from-home policies meant that the professional class and office workers — the main client base for dry cleaners — had little need to clean formal wear.

“It really decimated the industry,” said Sandra Haralson, a consultant for dry cleaners who has been in the industry for 40 years. “In four days, these services lost 95% of their business.”

Additional pandemic-related stressors for the industry are the same affecting many businesses: a shallow pool of labor and skyrocketing costs for supplies. Haralson said costs associated with shipments for everything from coat hangers to soaps in some cases have quadrupled in price.

Roughly 1 in 6 dry cleaners has shut down during the course of the pandemic, according to the Dry Cleaning and Laundry Institute. More hard times likely are ahead. The institute estimates that the industry will shrink by nearly 30 percent in the next year or so.

For Brown’s company, rapid adaptation was essential. Clients now can pick up and drop off laundry while staying in their cars — or even in their homes. To further minimize contact, clients can order and schedule services through a new app, and a 24-hour locker removes the need for face-to-face contact. All are provided free of charge.

Mobile service vans also are being pushed. Brown said the company plans to roll out two in San Antonio in the coming weeks and more in the future.

In this dry cleaner extinction event, the stakes are high for survivors.

Haralson said dry cleaning businesses that emerge strong from the pandemic will be “the ones who think outside the box.”

Waylon Cunningham

Waylon Cunningham writes about business and technology. Contact him at waylon@sareport.org.