BRISTOL, Tenn. — Spring normally turns the extra-long clothes rack at Craig’s Cleaners into a busy rainbow of dry cleaning orders.
The candy-colored formal dresses and black tuxedos start arriving after prom nights. Junior Reserve Officers’ Training Corps (JROTC) members bring their uniforms in before high school graduation ceremonies. Weddings pick up, which means yard after yard of white satin, chiffon and lace in need of cleaning and preservation.
And there are the Bristol Motor Speedway races.
“We get a lot of business from them. A lot,” said Eric Fields, who owns the dry cleaning business.
“We do [the clothes for] multiple drivers — from their personal clothes to their fire suits to their victory suits,” Fields said in the back of the store Tuesday, where he sat surrounded by sewing equipment. “We’ve done [work for] Dale Earnhardt Jr., we’ve done Jeff Gordon, we’ve done Ricky Stenhouse.”
Craig’s also cleans the fire suits of the pit stop workers, the aprons for vendors selling snacks in the stands and the business suits for the TV announcers reporting live from the races.
“It’s kind of neat to watch [them] on TV and see how good your product looks,” Fields said.
Fields, 47, said Craig’s was banking on that seasonal influx after a slow winter; the mild temperatures had meant fewer winter coats to clean than usual.
Instead, he and his staff watched their revenue sources vanish at an astonishing pace once the COVID-19 pandemic reached the region. The dances, graduation ceremonies and races were canceled or postponed.
All of the ordinary reasons people want to look their best went into limbo, too: Car salesmen, with no cars to sell, stopped sending in their dress shirts. People who could work remotely no longer needed their suits cleaned. Churchgoers who normally brought in their Sunday best for dry cleaning — including several members of Fields’ own church — were stuck at home Sunday mornings.
Even a barber shop that normally sent its towels to Craig’s had none to send, because it was temporarily closed.
“We probably dropped 70% overnight,” Fields said. “We’ve been operating on about 30% for several weeks now.”
Craig’s has stayed open. But Fields said the pandemic has pushed his business — the last dry cleaner left on the Tennessee side of Bristol — dangerously close to the edge.
“They labeled us essential,” he said of the Tennessee government. “Then they took all our customers.”
Even before the pandemic, Fields said, Craig’s Cleaners had to hustle to stay out of the red.
The business, located on Volunteer Parkway, is named for Craig Campbell, the store’s original owner. Fields, who was raised in Bristol, worked under Campbell as a manager for the store in the 1990s. He bought the business in 2008, when Campbell’s wife offered it to him after Campbell died.
Fields estimated that back in the 1980s, there were probably nine or so dry cleaners just on the Tennessee side of Bristol. He’s watched one after the other close. A building right across the street that used to house Concord Custom Cleaners, a former competitor, now houses a tattoo parlor. Today, his only real competitors are a handful of places on the Virginia side of town, he said.
“Over the past 10 years, dry cleaning has really gone down as people have started dressing more casually,” Fields explained. “So it’s a tough business.”
But Craig’s has still found enough customers to keep going — in part because of their customer service, Fields said.
“We try to be a friend to our customers,” he said. “We educate [them] as much as we can. Like if they spill something on their clothes, we always tell them, ‘No matter how much you’re wanting to take a wet cloth [to it], if it’s a dry clean kind of thing, just leave it, bring it to us, we’ll take care of it.’”
Patsy Leonard, who works at the register and has been an employee at Craig’s for about 40 years, said customers tend to reciprocate the friendliness.
“They come in and holler and ask me how I am,” Leonard said. “They’re sweet. They bring us snacks.”
The other week, Fields said, one of their regulars waited in line for 45 minutes at Auntie Ruth’s Donuts & Pretzels to get a dozen doughnuts. He brought them to Craig’s.
“Just so we could have a doughnut,” Leonard said. “[We] have a lot of customers like that.”
Fields said the people who bring in the uniforms for racing drivers also trust Craig’s.
“They tell me [that] a lot of times they go into a [dry cleaner at a] bigger city, and they might not get all of [the uniforms] back. One of them could end up on eBay,” Fields said. “So they really have to be careful with who they use.”
The store also does regular laundering, as well as tailoring and repairs. (Fields’ wife, Tina, is a self-taught seamstress who stepped in after the former seamstress retired.)
And Fields said that Craig’s has had some success with a free, no-contact pickup and delivery service they started for dry cleaning and regular laundry before the pandemic.
But the pandemic has steamrolled those normal sources of income. Once the cancellations started happening in March, Fields said, most people were staying at home and “nobody was wearing anything that needed to be cleaned.”
Craig’s normally has a few part-time staff along with its six full-timers, but Fields said he’s had to let the part-time employees go. He initially had to reduce hours and pay for the full-time staff, too, but said they’re back to regular hours and pay thanks to Paycheck Protection Program funding.
“You really had to be quick with your bank to get [those funds],” he said. “And that has been a lifesaver. If it wasn’t for that, we’d definitely have had to cut way back on hours.”
To save money on electricity and gas bills from all its industrial cleaning equipment, the company is just open to customers Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays rather than its usual Monday through Friday schedule. Fields and his staff weren’t wearing masks.
Fields said that staff, while not always wearing masks, have been careful to maintain six feet of distance from customers and wash their hands often.
For now, those measures are keeping the last dry cleaner in Bristol, Tennessee open.
And while business is way down, they’re still getting regulars. Fields said that one recent customer said she’d gone to her closet and grabbed a bunch of clothes she hadn’t worn in a while.
“She said, ‘I brought it to you because I know you all need the business. I want you all to be here when we get through this,’” he recalled. “We’ve got several customers like that, just trying to help out.”