Kombucha. $5 cold brew. Turmeric coffee. Reclaimed furniture. While you can expect to get these Brooklyn staples in Celsious at 115 North 7th Street in Williamsburg, step inside and you’ll also be greeted by warm yellows and off-white walls with cork backings, high ceilings, a swathe of plants for a calming atmosphere, a simple clutter-free environment, and an outdoor garden space to relax in. Oh, and the store is also a laundromat.
Founders and sisters Theresa and Corinna Williams, who were born in Germany, created this space to combine a place where customers would want to hang out, grab some kombucha (served on tap), and get their laundry done at the same time. The outfit is also eco-friendly and sustainable: the café is organic and the food is sourced locally. The washers and dryers use ultra energy-efficient technology, and the employees even wear aprons designed by Inga-Lena, who’s also local to New York and makes sustainable womenswear. However, despite coming from engineering and design backgrounds, getting here hasn’t been easy.
Of the 21,000-plus laundromat businesses in the US, the majority are owned and managed by men. Yet it’s women who mainly work in laundromats, making up more than 58% of the entire workforce in 2016 – and often for as little as $9 per hour, well below the US average of around $27. As Corinna, 34, explains, ‘The laundry industry is absurdly male-dominated. We have spoken to a lot of the people who actually own businesses in the industry, and we’d ask them if they ever do their own laundry. Most haven’t. They either send it to the dry cleaners or admit that their wives do it for them.’
Theresa, 31, adds, ‘This alone tells you a lot about the state of the laundry industry. It’s seen as a business investment, not a care and service industry. People buy real estate, put a laundromat in it for a few years, and then sell the building with the business. For other people it’s a passive investment; you have one member of staff and clean up occasionally, while just collecting the earnings from a business people have to use routinely.’
‘We grew up in Europe where every home has a washing machine and often a dryer,’ she continues. ‘When I moved to New York in 2012, I would go to do laundry and the establishments themselves weren’t up to my standards. I didn’t understand how places you would visit regularly could be so neglected. And that is my bare minimum standard: the place where you go to get something clean has to be clean itself.’
Meanwhile, Theresa graduated with a degree in product design from Central Saint Martins in London and was working for a small spectacles startup in Camden. Corinna began to tell her about her idea for a better type of laundromat. By 2015, the pair had started viewing properties in Brooklyn. A chance meeting with their Italian-American landlord led them to sign the lease on their first property there. ‘He isn’t a huge developer; he wanted a business that wasn’t another restaurant or bar. So, he was intrigued by our idea,’ says Corinna.
The long period between 2012 and the beginning of their marathon building fit-out was mainly spent on market research and asking people in the industry for advice. ‘We knew we wanted a location that was the exact opposite of what you normally see with a laundromat,’ explains Corinna. ‘They are usually just a long narrow building with low ceilings and that’s it. Of course, everyone told us to “look for an existing laundromat so that you at least have all the plumbing, gas and mechanical work out of the way.”’
Although the Williams sisters don’t regret their decision to take an entirely new approach, it did mean that the build-out phase after they had signed the lease was ‘the most gruelling and difficult experience of my entire professional life,’ says Corinna.
The biggest problem was the bureaucracy the duo faced trying to improve an industry which had been stymied by lack of investment and innovation. ‘We’ve had male plumbers not do what we paid them to do because “Honey, you don’t know.” That is something that would have gone differently if we’d been male. It is hard to say how on each occasion the way we look affected our journey because we don’t know what it is like to be white men, but there were definitely meetings where we thought it would have gone better if we didn’t look the way we do. But, sadly, it isn’t very surprising.’
Fortunately, Theresa could use her engineering and technology background to fight back and insist on the advanced fit-out. Theresa, the space’s designer, says: ‘We have 16-foot ceilings and that allowed us to put in a mezzanine floor which is where we put our café. We also have storefronts in both the front and back, so we have a ton of natural light.’
She continues: ‘Although being women of colour didn’t help us in the beginning, it is certainly helping us now, especially with brand opportunities and partnerships, because we get to leverage our visibility as female founders.’
Early on in the process of building Celsious, the sisters ‘secured a loan from the equipment manufacturer, Electrolux, to cover the huge investment needed to buy expensive machines. ‘That expense is the biggest barrier to entry in the laundry industry, and we can’t share exact numbers but it went well into six figures. We’ve got 18 washers, 16 dryers – so it’s a lot of money,’ says Corinna.
The Williams sisters are currently eyeing up expansion plans. Teressa concludes: ’Hopefully we’ll bring Celsious’ knowledge and care about cleaning to the rest of the country – and maybe one day the world.’