For more than two decades Michael and Sherri Hayes have been cleaning the Flathead Valley’s laundry.
As the owners of Imperial Dry Cleaners and Laundromat, they’ve provided service for customers looking to wash T-shirts at the laundromat but they’ve also accommodated special requests like when they cleaned an $8,000 suit separately from other garments. To them, it’s all about serving their customers.
“We treat people nice — it’s really what it’s all about,” Michael says. “And we have the best customers. We think of everyone as a VIP.”
When the couple purchased the Kalispell business 22 years ago, neither had any idea how to run it. At one point, they also owned three convenience stores, but now own just Michael’s on U.S. 93 and Meridian Road.
“We bought the dry cleaners because we had been customers for many years and thought we should buy it,” he said simply.
Using their background in the hospitality industry, they both applied hard work in learning and running their businesses. They say customers at the laundry mat are often there weekly and some come to the convenience store more than once per day so they’ve learned the importance of treating customers well.
The couple met when both were working at the former Outlaw Inn. Sherri grew up in Kalispell and Michael is originally from Butte where he also managed a hotel.
“We knew about the hospitality industry and that transferred well,” he said. “That’s the reason we have made it.”
Primarily running the dry cleaning business, Sherri has been hands-on from the beginning. When the employee who handled the dry cleaning portion of the business quit she learned on the spot how to run the dry cleaning machine. They’ve worked, with the help of their staff and family members, in every piece of the business, even repairing washers and dryers themselves when needed.
“I didn’t know anything about it,” she said of the beginning. “It was tough from the first day – I was pretty much reliant on the other staff and wondered what we did we get ourselves into.”
TODAY THE business often sees 1,000 pieces move through it a day for cleaning and hundreds of pounds of laundry for washing and folding — all done by hand. The business also includes locations in Evergreen and Bigfork.
They both credit the staff, which now totals 25, including several of whom have been with them for more than 10 years, for their hard work. They say training employees and watching them grow to move on to other jobs has been a rewarding experience.
It was also those employees who were their focus when they made the switch to an environmentally friendly dry cleaning process using organic and biodegradable solvents, along with working to conserve water, electricity and natural gas. Not to mention their six children and six grandchildren, as Micheal notes, “Our kids all drink the same water.”
Throughout the years though there have been some long days and tears shed in the process, Sherri says beyond running the business there is satisfaction that comes in the day-to-day task of cleaning garments.
“It’s a challenge,” she said of trying to get a stain out. “There’s a lot of different chemicals that you can use, but you can’t mix them. So you have to figure out what’s going to work and that feels good when you get it out.”
“We’ve mastered our craft,” Michael notes with satisfaction.
Sometimes they are assisting people after a tragedy — cleaning multiple items that have been damaged in a fire or flood.
“That can be heart-breaking,” Michael said. “You’re working hard to clean a stuffed animal because a mom wants to get it back to their little one.”
THOUGH IT hasn’t always been easy, it’s been the socialization of the business that Sherri has enjoyed including making connections with customers. They say it’s not uncommon for regular customers to bring in treats for the staff.
“We’ve had some of the same customers since day one,” she said. “One woman who is 102 and lives on Foy’s Lake comes in regularly to wash her laundry because she’s concerned about using the washer in her home because it might affect the lake.”
Providing laundry service for blankets and sleeping bags that don’t fit in home machines is a common part of their service. They say about a third of their customers have a washer and dryer, but are waiting on repairs for their home machine.
Some of the more interesting items that come through the door for cleaning have been Civil War uniforms, a Smokey Bear costume and several Santa Claus suits.
They steam press a lot of wedding dresses and work to clean the mud out of the gowns after the ceremony – it’s one of the most challenging garments to clean, they say, noting that the dresses aren’t necessarily made in a way that’s designed to be passed down, but holds sentimental value to the bride.
“We got one dress from a wedding in Glacier Park that was covered in mud all over the lace and pearls,” Micheal recalled. “We did the best we could to clean it.”
As the Flathead Valley has become a place for destination weddings that portion of their business has increased.
“We get hit really hard in the summers with all the weddings,” Sherri said.
The couple recently sold the dry cleaning and laundromat business, and while they’re still helping with the transition to the new owners they’ve already begun reflecting on what the business has meant.
“Kalispel has been good to us,” Michael says.
Features Editor Heidi Desch may be reached at 758-4421 or [email protected]