The dry-cleaning process hasn’t changed much since Lee Farah founded Highland Cleaners (then Hi-Land Cleaners) in 1944 at 2455 Bardstown Road, near the corner of Bardstown and Taylorsville roads. Current president Anne Nash, 46, whose father, Bob Jones, became a partner in the business in 1952, says they still use some of the original equipment. If you drop off a pair of pants at Highland Cleaners, chances are they get pressed using machines from the 1940s. Nash says the old machines work better than new ones.
The company has 11 other pick-up and drop-off sites around town, but all the cleaning and alterations are still done at the original location. Nash, who started helping out on breaks from school when she was 10, remembers what the cleaning plant looked like in the early days. “I remember it as kind of a scary place to be at night. Lots of noise, lots of creaking,” she says. “It’s a lot brighter now; it’s a lot cleaner and there’s a lot more equipment.”
In 2003 Nash left a job as controller at Southern Wine & Spirits, a Miami-based liquor distributor, to run the daily operations at Highland Cleaners, now owned by her brother, Michael Jones. She took nine months learning how to do all the jobs that Highland Cleaners’ 115 employees do every day. “You have to be able to understand the conditions (employees) are working in and what they’re going through,” she says, “or they’re not going to respect you when you’re telling them how to do things.”
Nash says the secret to keeping Highland Cleaners in business is efficiency. “Casual Fridays have turned into casual every day,” she says. In other words, people don’t dress up as much, so the demand for dry cleaning has gone down. She says that in 2008 about 6,000 pieces of clothing went through the plant daily. Now it’s about 5,000.
Today, the cleaning plant looks like an assembly line. Each worker does a specific task, like pressing collars or creasing pants. A machine puts protective plastic bags around the clothes, which saves time. There’s also a mechanical sorting system, which uses barcodes to make sure clothes go to the right pick-up location.
Reusing the petroleum-based cleaning solvent is another efficiency measure. After the solvents clean a load of clothes in the giant laundry machines, they escape as vapors. The vapors then get trapped and run through refrigeration coils, turning them back into liquid. Nash says all this helps the people in the plant clean thousands of pieces of clothing each day. “We have to be the leanest, meanest fighting machine we can be,” she says.
Some customers have sent their clothes to Highland Cleaners for more than 50 years. Nash says they also keep customers coming back by giving personal attention. Employees once reconstructed the entire bottom part of a wedding dress in four days, just in time for the ceremony, after another cleaner shrunk and discolored it. Nash also recounts a time that employees went to an elderly customer’s house, took her drapes down, cleaned and pressed them, and re-hung them for her. “I’m proud of the extra steps we take to make people happy,” says Nash. “A lot of them don’t even realize what we do. They just notice the nice quality that they get and that is all that matters.”
Photo Credit Mickie Winters