In the late 1960's, when Lou Schickel decided to open a dry cleaners, he wanted to learn the business inside and out. The Cornell University graduate with a civil engineering degree continued his education with classes given by the Dry Cleaning and Laundry Institute, the oldest certification institute in the field. "When I first got into the business, I had a serious interest in really learning the business and the technology," he said. " Today I am a certified garment care professional." He also served on the board of directors of the Southern Dry Cleaners Association for many years.
"We opened the first Schickel‘s Cleaners in the Southwest City Mall in 1969. We moved across the parking lot in '73 and built our own building on Dreher Lane. The next store we opened was Highway 10 in '78. We remodeled it in 1996 and tripled the size. In '89, we opened Bowman Curve. And then in 2003 we opened Maumelle, our finest looking store, and we won several national awards for being the Number One dry cleaning plant built that year," Lou said.
After almost a half century in business, Schickel's Cleaners is one of the highest volume cleaners in the state, but, remarkably, it offers individual care for every single garment. It uses crystal clear solvent in every load and its "the-customer-is-always-right" policy has ensured over the years that it has repeatedly been voted Number One by a variety of local publications.
"One thing that is very popular is our "in by noon, out by 5" upon request, and faster service if needed," said owner Lou Schickel. "Very few cleaners in town can do that. Our four stores are all complete plants and we do all of the work on site. If the manager is there and you say, I need something right away, they are going to bend over backwards to accommodate that request."
At Schickel 's Cleaners the customer never has to worry that contaminated solvent has touched their clothing. Ron Zimmerman, general manager of the cleaners since 1996, said that every garment is cleaned with 100 percent clean solvent. "Dirty solvent never touches your clothes. It's all crystal clear solvent in every load. We started doing that about 7 years ago. It's pure solvent like it came from the factory." That might not mean much to folks who are unfamiliar with the way some cleaners run the same solvent through several different loads and even "filter" it after that to use it again. "The thing about clean solvent, it costs money to do that. People will skip that, they'll cut corners, " Mr. Zimmerman said.
Schickel's also uses a process called "wet cleaning." "It's a process, unlike you'd wash at home," Mr. Zimmerman said. "It's very gentle and uses great detergents. The clothes smell fresh when they come out. We were probably the first cleaners in Arkansas to do it, but we've upgraded the equipment several times since then. It is a process that a lot of people on the coasts use, like New York City, San Francisco, the big cities, because they try to do everything with water, and you don ' t have to worry about the environmental aspects of a solvent." Ron said it's used on items ranging from delicate knits to large comforters. "It is so much nicer if you run polo shirts through the wet cleaning system."
One thing that really sets apart Schickel's from other cleaners is its generous hours of operation. "Our hours are 7 to 7 Monday through Saturday and noon to 5 on Sunday. We are the only plant that does that."
Over the years, a number of improvements have been made for the convenience of our customers. Starting in 1996, conveyors were replaced by pipe racks, Lou said. "The stationary racks are a great advantage, keeping a customer's clothing in one location, so that it can be quickly found. Conveyors have to spin around, finding a shirt in one spot and spinning again to find a pair of pants in another. "In addition to the speedier service with pipe racks, multiple customers can be waited on at one time."
Another innovation has been to add full-time alterations at each of the stores. Ron credits a good deal of the success of the business to long - time employees.
"My Bowman store manager, Dorothy, has been with us for 32 years. Nancy in Maumelle has been with us for 23 years .Tom Dober at Highway 10 has been with us 12 years and literally grew up in the dry cleaning business .He's the best stain remover in town." Ron describes the cleaners as "full-service, full-price. We are not the most expensive in town, but we are not the cheapest. We are not a discounter."
"What we are, is the 'tell us if you are not happy, and we'll make it right' cleaners." You can go into the discount cleaners and see a sign with 20 things on it as soon as you walk in the door about what they don't do, what they can't do and about what you can't ask them to do. They are not liable for anything."
Lou agreed: "When somebody calls up and says 'You damaged my suit, Lou.' What do I ask them? I don't ask them 'How do you know we did it?' I say 'How much do we owe you? We'll send you the check.'
"If you want to know how to lose a customer and all of their friends, you tell them it was their fault and not yours." Ron said most of their claims payouts are simply done in the spirit of "goodwill."
"We want happy customers. We'll damage something every once in a while. If we do, we'll call ahead to tell them in advance that we made a mistake." Lou said that Schickel's Cleaners is the "one of the highest volume cleaners in the state of Arkansas." However, Ron wanted to emphasize that in spite of the high volume, each item of clothing is given individual treatment. "We handle every single garment, finish every one individually. Pressing it and doing quality inspections. Discounters do it by volume. They'll send it through a steam tunnel to get all the creases out.
"You get what you pay for. "