OXFORD, Miss. — Herron Rowland really didn’t want to sell the corner location his Rainbow Cleaners occupied. For months he politely declined the inquiries of a real estate developer representing a major drug store chain. The chain kept looking for a suitable site in Oxford but always came back to Rainbow’s corner. Eventually, Rowland agreed to sell the property and relocate his business.
He promptly set into motion a plan to build a better plant. Having seen his business operate out of what once had been a steakhouse, Rowland was excited to take advantage of the opportunity to build new.
He invested in excess of $1 million to design and develop a 5,000-square-foot “building that’s purpose was to function as a dry cleaning operation.” That high-visibility plant, located just seven blocks from Rainbow’s previous location, earned the Grand Prize for Best Plant Design in the 52nd Annual American Drycleaner Plant Design Awards.
“You have times where a customer says, ‘You all burned my clothes,’ or claimed we did something to them,” Rowland says. “They couldn’t see what we were doing. It’s one thing to say, ‘No, we’re not.’ Here, I’m able to say, ‘No, come take a look. That’s not the process of it.”
Consultant Sheldon Bray, who designed the plant, likened it to putting on a show. “We didn’t want to hide the plant and the actions behind the wall. We wanted to bring that out to be exposed. So we chose the Unipress double buck shirt unit as the most exciting piece of equipment, if you would, and we put that front stage in the window.”
And if that doesn’t grab some attention, the light show outside certainly will. The Rainbow Cleaners exterior is equipped with computerized LEDs that project lights of different colors up the face of the building and under the white canopy. They often represent the shades of a rainbow.
But on Ole Miss game day, you can expect to see red and blue. Rainbow also has light shows representing school colors of the Oxford and Lafayette County high schools, plus there’s red and green for the Christmas season.
Rowland wanted to incorporate a rainbow of colors into the building, but he wasn’t quite sure how to go about it. Colored window panes were considered at one point, but proved to be cost-prohibitive.
Then, during a family trip to New Orleans, he noticed a hotel that featured color-changing lights on different floors. He Googled the hotel and discovered the term “computerized LED lights.” He soon found a vendor and struck a deal.
“I actually gave up a backup generator to put the lights on the building, and it was a good decision.”
Rowland guesses he’s taken at least 10 customers on tours of the facility in the year it’s been open.
“This is, first and foremost, a production facility,” he says. “When you walk in, it’s a limited amount of space … it’s not more than 300 square feet at the front counter for our customers. Instead of us standing behind the counter, we walk around and stand side by side with the customer and use a touch-screen system right there at the counter when they lay the clothes out.”
Just like the visibility of the production area, Rainbow wants its customers to be able to see what’s being entered in the computer and how their clothes are being marked for handling, Rowland says.
Next are some White Conveyors racks positioned next to the dry cleaning assisted-assembly and laundry assisted-assembly areas, then there are the drive-thru doors.
“We’ll explain to them, particularly if it’s a first-time customer, that they’re welcome to park and come in, but if they’re busy and want to pick up, they just enter on the side of the building and we’ll walk out to their car.”
All of the finishing and tensioning equipment, the majority of which hails from Unipress and Forenta, is centrally located in the plant. Two screw conveyors push finished garments along slick rails to inspection stations.
Along the south wall is laundry and wet cleaning equipment from UniMac and Wascomat. Rowland says wet cleaning now accounts for 10-15% of Rainbow’s volume. A Continental Girbau flatwork ironer enables the business to finish tablecloths and linen for the university. Also on that wall is a 60-pound Union dry cleaning machine. Boiler room equipment comes from Fulton, Rema Dri-Vac, Quincy and NATCO.
While Rowland is proud of his plant, his pride really shines through when talking about his 23 employees (15 are full-time). Manager Billy Phillips learned production while working many years at a local electric motor plant. Brenda Kilpatrick, daughter of the original owner, has worked for Rainbow for 27 years. Willie Mae King is in her 25th year in production, and Brenda Starks is known far and wide as the “drive-thru lady.” Finally, there’s Mable Jones, who alternates between pressing, inspecting and sewing so every finished garment looks its best.
“We are a completely different business than we were down the street,” Rowland says. “I attribute a good portion of that to Sheldon. He gave us a model with which to manage this business, one being the lot system and the plant being designed to support that lot system.”
What has the new plant meant to Rainbow Cleaners? It saw a 30% increase in overall business and piece counts using fewer labor hours in the first year, according to Rowland.
“We’re set up to grow, and that’s job security for my employees. … Rainbow Cleaners has been in operation for 42 years, and I think we could be in operation for another 42, with where we are.”