The Family Bubble Bursts onto the Scene: Former California Laundry Owners Open Family-Focused Operation in East Tennessee
When the head basketball coach of the Runnin’ Rebels of West High School in Knoxville needed his team’s uniforms spotless for the next big game, he didn’t have far to go – just across the street to The Family Bubble laundromat.
“He doesn’t let them do their own uniforms because they’ll either forget or they’ll put the white uniforms in with something they shouldn’t,” laughed The Family Bubble owner Dee Dee Landreth. “So, this gentleman was in here, and he did all of their uniforms.
“I paid for the drying of the kids’ uniforms,” she added. “I figured that I’d treat the kids this time around. Plus, the word gets out. It builds goodwill and shows that we really want to be a part of this community.”
The outgoing Landreth, who owns the self-service laundry with her husband Jim, said that the coin laundry business suits her personality perfectly – and her recent conversation with the local high school coach whom she had never met before is a perfect example of that.
“I have a gift for gab, and I know a little bit about a lot of things, such as sports,” she explained. “It’s my personality. I can just walk up to people and start talking. My granddaughter always asks, ‘Do you know them, grandma?’ And I say, ‘No, but you don’t have to know somebody to talk to them.’ I’ve always been able to talk to people. I don’t think you can be a shy person in this business.”
Landreth and her husband have been in the coin laundry business for about five years. Before moving to Tennessee and opening The Family Bubble, the couple owned three small laundromats in Palm Desert, Calif. In addition, for 13 years, they also managed the laundry rooms for an apartment complex owner in southern California.
“We took care of all of the washers and dryers in the laundry rooms,” she explained. “It wasall affordable housing. The apartment complexes were anywhere from 70 apartments to 163. A lot of complexes had up to five laundry rooms.
“When they were building them, I worked with the superintendent to make sure all of the vents went in properly and all of the plumbing was set the right way for the laundry equipment that had to go in these places. I was in charge of ordering the equipment and making sure everything was installed correctly. We would pull the money, do the repairs and make sure the equipment was clean.”
In 2007, the Landreths decided that it was time to say goodbye to California, but not necessarily so long to the laundry industry.
Jim Landreth’s family is originally from Tennessee, just outside of Chattanooga. And the couple would head back east to visit whenever they could.
“Every time we came here for a vacation, we’d say, ‘We’ve got to move here,’” Dee Dee recalled. “Finally, the housing market was at the point where we knew it was time to get out. We had had it with the desert and the heat. We looked at the Knoxville area and saw that it was growing. We really love East Tennessee. We were just very fortunate to get out when we did and come here.”
The Landreths also were fortunate to hook up with Dwayne Rogers of DLR Enterprises, a laundry distributorship based in Morristown, Tenn.
“At first, we were going to build our store on our own, but not having connections here like we had in California, it was a slightly different situation,” Landreth said. “How do you find all of the right subcontractors to do the job for you so that you’re not spending more money than you want to?”
For the Landreths, the answer was DLR Enterprises, which secured a storefront in a brand new, 10-suite strip mall in Knoxville and subsequently handled the entire build-out process.
“Basically, all we came up with was the equipment,” Dee Dee said. “And we also decorated the interior ourselves.”
The Family Bubble is a 2,500-square-foot facility nestled between a self-storage business and a Dollar World franchise. And plans are in the works to add a Subway restaurant, a pizzeria, a nail salon and a Chinese buffet to the plaza.
“We were the second business to open here, and I’m really glad we got in,” said Landreth, who has a five-year lease on the building, with a couple of two-year renewal options after that. “We got the upper hand of getting in here while everybody else was coming, which will bring us more business.”
In fact, the laundromat receives business from a number of different channels. Perhaps the most lucrative source of laundry customers are the more than 3,000 apartment units within The Family Bubble’s marketplace – with a large complex located directly behind the store and another just five minutes down the street.
Also, in addition to having the local high school across the street, the laundromat is located close to the University of Tennessee, as well as a National Guard armory.
“We get a variety of people in here,” Landreth said. “There are a lot of Hispanics moving to this area. We also get a blue-collar crowd, as well as a lot of UT students and teachers from the high school – like the basketball coach. Several teachers from the school across the street have come over and done their laundry.”
For those who don’t live or work across the street from The Family Bubble, Landreth reaches out to them through a number of advertising vehicles, including targeted direct mail campaigns and the use of coupons.
In addition, her son is currently working on the store’s new Web site, along with building an e-mail database of customers.
“We’re going to build up an e-mail list,” Landreth said. “I run a contest each month, where customers fill out an entry form and we give away a basket full of top-brand detergent and laundry products. Those entry forms tell me who my customers are and where they’re coming from, along with the fact that now I’ve captured their street and e-mail addresses to use in future marketing campaigns.”
Another project Landreth is working on is building up Family Bubbles’ commercial business.
“Commercial accounts are down the road,” she said. “We’re trying to study this side of Knoxville and get a feel for what’s out there. Plus, I have to get to the point where I know I have the vans and the people available to pick it up and deliver it without any mix-ups. You’ve really got to know the area and how far out you want to go for that business.”
Manpower is perhaps the biggest stumbling block to Landreth’s commercial business at this point, given that Family Bubble is truly a family-run operation.
“Jim and I have been manning the store ourselves since we opened,” explained Landreth, adding that her husband handles most of the equipment maintenance himself. “My son has another job, but he comes in on the weekends, and my daughter-in-law, who is at boot camp in the National Guard, is going to work here when she gets back. She’s from Guatemala, so she’s bilingual, which will be extremely helpful. Also, my grandson and two granddaughters work here on the weekends. And my husband has two sisters who have worked in laundromats before, and they’re thinking they might move here. For now, we’re just trying to keep it for us, for the family.”
To differentiate The Family Bubble from other stores in their Knoxville market, the Landreths have tried to create a warm, family-friendly atmosphere for their customers.
“Instead of installing the typical plastic seating you find in most laundromats, we put in a couch and a love seat, and we have comfortable chairs,” said Dee Dee, whose laundry is open 8 a.m. to 10 p.m. daily. “We also have two study desks, free Wi-Fi for the college students, and people have told me that our play area looks as nice as a daycare center.”
The Family Bubble also features two crane games, a pinball machine, a driving game and something called a “multi-cade,” which include 48 different arcade-type games in one unit.
“We went to an arcade auction in Tennessee and that’s how we got all of these,” Landreth said. “We also have two candy vending machines, as well as machines that dispense bouncy balls, temporary tattoos and plastic bracelets.
“One machine is right by our bill changer. The kids will say, ‘Oh, Mom, now you have quarters!’”
Landreth also plans to install a copy/fax machine in the store for customer convenience. In addition, the laundry has been approved as a Western Union outlet, so patrons can transfer money and pay their utility bills at The Family Bubble.
“This is what I would want if I went to a laundromat,” she said. “This is the atmosphere I would want. The key is to just be nice to the people, show them courtesy – and if they need help, help them out.”
Another key that Landreth would no doubt agree to is that the customer is always right.
“I will never say that a customer can’t just wash or can’t just dry their clothes here,” Landreth said. “Some places are like that; they won’t let you do one or the other – you have to do both. That doesn’t matter to me. I look at it this way – it’s still money. They are still spending money here, and then they’ll probably buy a soda or something to eat. Why turn them away?
“I got turned away from a laundromat one time because I just wanted to dry my clothes, and the owner wouldn’t let me. I asked, ‘Why not? Don’t you like making money?’”
Clearly, Dee Dee and Jim Landreth do. And they plan for make a lot of it with The Family Bubble.
The Family Bubble • Knoxville, Tenn.
20 Wascomat 25-pound frontloaders $2.00
12 Wascomat 35-pound frontloaders $3.50
4 Wascomat 45-pound frontloaders $6.00
26 Wascomat 30-pound stack dryers (PRICING??)
6 Wascomat 50-pound dryers (PRICING??)
1 Rheem water heater
1 Standard Change-Makers bill changer
11 R&B Wire Products laundry carts
1 Vend-Rite Manufacturing soap vending machine 75 cents per box
Painted gray floor with inlaid color to match the store’s scheme (CONCRETE FLOOR??)
1 soda vending machine
1 snack vending machine
Various arcade games
Candy and toy dispensers
3 27-inch televisions
An 8- by 12-foot children’s play area, including books, toys, dolls, games, coloring books and a play desk
Free Wi-Fi access
Wash-dry-fold service: $1.05 per pound; 10-pound minimum
Distributor: DLR Enterprises, Morristown, Tenn., (423) 312-1801