The Pull of World’s Largest Laundromat

If you know Berwyn, then you know World’s Largest Laundromat. This article, featured in the first issue of the 2017 Berwyn magazine, discusses World’s Largest Laundromat’s impact on the Berwyn community. The Distance, which features stories of private businesses that have been operating for at least 25 years and the people who got them there, also sat down with World’s Largest Laundromat for a podcast in 2015. Sit back, relax and let WLL pull you in!

The Pull of World’s Largest Laundromat

The World’s Largest Laundromat has over 300 machines, a bird aviary, sixteen flat-screen TVs and thirty-six solar panels. It sets precedents in technology, service, innovation and philanthropy. But more importantly, it has a gravitational pull.
This iconic Berwyn business, which is true to its name, is the flagship store of one of the most vital small-business industries in the nation. After all, you don’t get very far without clean clothes.

Its gravitational pull starts with drawing customers from every town that neighbors Berwyn and from miles away in Chicago and ends with the opening of successful businesses around it, each of which feeds off this influx of people. From diners to dollar stores, the east end of Cermak Road is its own economic solar system with the laundromat at its center.

While most laundromats employ one or two full-time employees, World’s Largest has over twenty. With thousands of customers a week, it’s no small feat to keep the 13,500-square-foot facility clean, especially since it never closes…ever.

The rundown facility was purchased by Tom Benson in 1999. Years of renovations went up in smoke in 2004 when the facility burned to the ground. But it was so vital to the community that without any advertising or advance notice, lines of people with laundry formed outside the day it reopened.

Utility bills are the underlying monster of the industry. For example, over twenty-four million gallons of water are used each year, and much of that is heated for wash cycles. That led the laundromat to invest heavily in green energy. Thirty-six solar panels heat the water, lighting has been upgraded to efficient LEDs, and state-of-the-art “express” washers spin out so much water that drying, aka natural gas, time has been cut in half. Even the laundromat’s new private-label detergent, Gigi, is sold by the ounce in recycled bottles provided by customers.

At the core of the ownership’s decision-making process is being part of the community it serves. Read-to-Ride is a summer reading program where kids get a raffle ticket for each book read during the summer. In August, 20 lucky tickets are pulled and those kids ride off on brand-new bikes. Since its inception, over 100,000 books have been read and more than 300 bikes awarded. The laundromat recently added a writing contest, too.

Santa Claus makes three visits each December, giving away hundreds of free pictures and presents to neighborhood kids. But the laundromat’s philanthropy doesn’t stop with children. It has organized and hosted information sessions on federal immigration policy and the Affordable Care Act.

Last winter, the laundromat reached a milestone: 12 years since the fire. To celebrate, they needed an idea: something big, loud and fun for all ages. And that idea was to bring back Berwyn’s Independence Day fireworks. It wasn’t a one-time party, though. The Benson family has committed to providing the fireworks for as long as the laundromat is still washing, drying and folding.

From jobs to conservation and community-based philanthropy and engagement, the World’s Largest Laundromat embodies the driven and fun-loving character of its neighborhood.

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