Reopened Woodstock Laundry Reflects National Trend Toward ‘Boutique Laundromats’

  • Michael Rutto, co-owner of The Laundry Room, helps Larry Werner, of Woodstock, Vt., carry his laundry in to be washed at the business on Route 4 in Woodstock on July 21, 2017. Werner has lived in town for nine years and had to drive to Lebanon, N.H., to wash clothes before Michael and Lucy Rutto reopened the laundromat this year. "It's such an improvement," he said. "They're really nice people and do an excelent job." (Valley News - Geoff Hansen) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

  • Michael and Lucy Rutto, of Woodstock, Vt., visit while waiting for customers at The Laundry Room on Route 4 in Woodstock. When the couple bought the building, their plan was to open a Mexican restaurant after moving to town from Houston. When they found the laundry machines were still in the building from the previous owner, they decided to open a laundromat and their business has quadrupled since opening in March. (Valley News - Geoff Hansen) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

  • Lucy Rutto, co-owner of The Laundry Room, moves a customer's laundry from a washing machine to a dryer at the business on Route 4 in Woodstock, Vt., on July 21, 2017. Rutto and her husband inherited the laundry machines when they bought the building, but added couches, pinball machines, free coffee, HDTV and wireless internet for customers. Their business has quadrupled since opening in March. (Valley News - Geoff Hansen) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

Valley News Business Writer
Sunday, July 23, 2017

Woodstock — The room’s lights are dimmed and cast a warm glow. Two sofas — one a leather recliner — are set at right angles around a coffee table. Persian-style rugs cover the floor. An armoire displays alpaca wool sweaters, scarves and socks for sale. A 60-inch flat-screen TV against the wall is tuned to a public TV station. Stuffed chairs, side tables, a rocking chair and reading lamps are arranged near the window. Vintage pinball machines line the far wall. And free coffee is always available from the Keurig on a counter.

Another shared workspace for Upper Valley hipsters?

Not quite. This is a place for dirty laundry.

Welcome to The Laundry Room, the recently reopened laundromat in Woodstock, where the new owners have designed the eight-washer, nine-dryer facility located next to a row of high-end antiques shops to reflect the ambiance of the genteel, historic town.

“We wanted it to fit the Woodstock persona,” said Michael Rutto, 49, who with his wife, Lucy Rutto, 40, last year bought the mini-building on Pleasant Street across from the park and ride and reopened the laundromat that had been closed for more than a year.

“Instead of just bright lights, we decided to make it more like home,” Michael Rutto said.

Self-service laundries, long regarded as desultory places awash in florescent lighting with seating that looks as though it had been salvaged from 1970s bus stations, have in recent years undergone a re-invention, adding cafes, food offerings, bars, bookstores, lounge areas and even performance venues.

Typically located in urban areas, the new so-called “laundrobars” or “boutique laundromats” feature inventive names that hint at their dual purposes, such as Sunshine Laundromat in Brooklyn, N.Y. (laundry and video pinball machine arcade), BrainWash in San Francisco (laundry and stand-up comedy), and Harvey Washbangers in College Station, Texas, (motto: “Eat. Drink. Do Laundry”).

But the concept has now spread to the Upper Valley, where The Laundry Spa on Mascoma Street in Lebanon offers tanning beds — “premium” or “deluxe” — as well as stand-up tanning booths that customers can use while they are waiting for their laundry to finish.

“We own Northern Lights Tanning Salon in Claremont and we noticed people were coming into the salon when going to the laundromat, so we thought why not combine the two?” said Nancy Thomas, co-manager of The Laundry Spa, whose owners also own Newport Laundromat, Car Wash & Tanning in Newport, N.H. “Pretty much a one-stop service,” Thomas said, noting that a tanning session at The Laundry Spa costs only $2 if a customer has at least $15 of laundry to do. “I’m still trying to get them to put in a bar, too,” she joked, acknowledging that permitting obstacles probably make such a move unrealistic.

A ‘Perfect’ Opportunity

Operating a laundromat was not a business on which the Ruttos had initially set their sights, Michael Rutto said last week at The Laundry Room while one customer was transferring loads between the washer and dryer, a second was sitting at the front window with a laptop and a third was reading a book in an upholstered chair. Rather, the opportunity presented itself.

The Texas couple, seeking a lifestyle change and drawn by the beauty of Vermont, moved to the Woodstock area in 2016. Initially they had hoped to open a Mexican restaurant in town. Michael Rutto said the move to Vermont followed the sale of 13 medical clinics in Texas in which he had been a partner with his former wife, a medical doctor.

Their real estate agent, Gail Childs of Covered Bridge Real Estate in Taftsville, who helped the Ruttos buy their home in South Woodstock, knew just the place that would be suitable for a Mexican restaurant: a bungalow located at 47 Pleasant St., on the east side of Woodstock.

The front of the Pleasant Street building, then owned by Peter Hall, was occupied by the previous iteration of The Laundry Room, although that business had been closed for about a year.

A previous deal to sell the building to a buyer who wanted to open an organic butcher shop in the space fell through, according to Childs.

But after the Ruttos closed on the purchase, they discovered that the previous owner had left the Speed Queen commercial laundry equipment in place, Michael Rutto said. Childs pointed out to the couple that Woodstock residents who didn’t have their own washing machine and dryer had to drive all the way to West Lebanon or South Royalton for the nearest laundromat.

“Are you kidding? That’s absolutely perfect for us,” Michael Rutto recalls saying when presented with the idea of reopening the laundromat. “The machines were in perfect working order. It was just a no-brainer to reopen it. But I said if we’re going to do it, we’re going to make it comfortable, like a home.”

Lucy Rutto went shopping for furnishings and Michael Rutto went online to find the vintage pinball machines. They brought in a display of alpaca wool sweaters, socks and scarves supplied by their friend Lauren Anderson, of Weaving Dreams Farm in Windsor. They stocked the shelves with DVDs and toy cars for customers with kids in tow. They added a giant, flat-screen TV. And a Keurig machine. Plus that staple of any public gathering spot: free Wi-Fi.

“People really enjoy it,” Michael Rutto said of the atmosphere they’ve created in the space. “They don’t feel like they are really at a laundromat.”

Gary Ward, a home inspector from Bridgewater, agrees. While pulling his clothes out of a dryer on Tuesday, Ward said he visits The Laundry Room about twice a month, and he likes the convenience.

“They’ve got a 24-hour laundromat in West Lebanon but it’s expensive to drive there. The next closest one for me is in Rutland,” he said.

Ward called the Ruttos’ renovation “very comfortable, they did a good job with it” — and he appreciates the free coffee, although he notes he always makes the requested donation when he has a cup.

A Social Event

Even customers who can do their laundry at home are showing up at The Laundry Room.

Amanda Dowd-DeRoy, of Norwich, also a friend of Anderson’s who met the Ruttos during the couple’s initial visit to Vermont in the winter of 2016, said she occasionally brings a load to The Laundry Room simply for the friendly social atmosphere her friends have created in Woodstock.

“I can do my laundry at home, but this is more like an event,” said Dowd-DeRoy, who managed her sister’s restaurant, Everything But Anchovies, before it closed in May and now works at her brother’s restaurant, Mickey’s Roadside Cafe, in Enfield. “A laundromat where you want to go? Sit on a recliner and watch a movie? I think (the Ruttos) have tapped into an untapped market.”

Lucy Rutto’s plans call for adding a takeout taco kitchen in the back room of the laundromat that isn’t really large enough for tables but could sit customers around a counter. “People could also get something to eat while they are doing their laundry. … I love people and I love cooking,” she said.

To be sure, the laundry business is not a path to riches. Laundromats have been described a “nickel-and-dime business” — literally — and Kleen closed one of its two Claremont laundromats in April. (It still has locations in West Lebanon and Lebanon.)

At The Laundry Room, it costs $3 for a wash cycle in one of the 20-pound capacity washers, $4.50 for a wash cycle in the 40-pound washer and $5.50 for a wash cycle in the 50-pound capacity washer.

A 6-minute cycle in the dryer costs 25 cents. It generally requires about 30 minutes to 42 minutes, or $1.25 to $1.50, to dry an average size load, Michael Rutto said. “We didn’t change the prices,” he said. “We charge whatever they charged,” referring to the laundromat’s previous owners.

(For comparison, Kleen’s laundromat in West Lebanon charges the same for the dry cycle but less than what The Laundry Room charges for the wash cycle: It costs $2.25 for the wash cycle in a 18-pound capacity washer and $3 for the wash cycle of a 27-pound capacity washer. Kleen also has 35-pound, 50-pound and 75-pound capacity washers).

In addition, The Laundry Room provides a “wash and fold” service at $1.25 per pound. The laundromat is open Monday through Saturday, 8 a.m. to 8 p.m., and Sunday from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m.

Although Michael Rutto said the laundry business so far is “exceeding expectations,” he also acknowledged it’s not exactly spinning money.

“It’s not anything I would invest in, but between this and the (Mexican food) takeout we should do OK. … I don’t like to think about that,” he said, adding “I’m sort of retired now anyway.”

John Lippman can be reached at jlippman@vnews.com.