With a Brother’s Help, a Former Musician Opens a Dry Cleaners in Williamsburg

By Fabio Ulerio

One recent morning, merengue and bachata emanated from a small storefront on Humboldt Street in the Williamsburg section of Brooklyn that stands between a live poultry market and an apartment building. Inside the shop, Miguel Nolasco was dancing to the music on the radio and joking with his customers.

Nolasco is the owner of Humboldt Dry Cleaners, which opened in October.

Nolasco learned the dry-cleaning trade, and got the initial financing for his business, from his brother Danny, with whom he once played in a band. Danny owns a dry-cleaning business a half-mile away, and the brothers, who grew up in the Southside section of Williamsburg, rely on their understanding of the neighborhood and its changing demographics to run their businesses.

Miguel Nolasco says the future of his business will depend on three factors: affordable prices, offering multiple services and, most important, customer service leavened with a little showmanship.

Dry cleaning, an industry that was recently called “recession proof” by Crain’s New York, has boomed in recent years. In the past three years, the number of dry cleaners in New York City has grown 5.3 percent to 1,362 in 2010, from 1,293 in 2007, according to the New York State Department of Labor. Twenty-one percent of the dry cleaners are in Brooklyn.

In Williamsburg, which is a gradually gentrifying neighborhood, Humboldt Dry Cleaners offers a more eclectic range of services than most traditional dry cleaners. In addition to dry cleaning and alterations, Nolasco repairs shoes, has an ATM and sells perfumes, watches and candles.
Customers say they are getting a good value.

“Miguel has really attractive prices,” says Samantha Greenburg, 27, who recently moved to the neighborhood from Manhattan. The wash-and-fold service costs 55 cents a pound. Dry cleaning starts at $3.25, for pants and shirts, and ranges above $50 for leather coats. Humboldt offers same-day service, with free pick-up and free delivery.

Nolasco is also good at wooing customers, a lesson he learned from his brother, who insists that customer service is key to a successful dry-cleaning business. Fanny Ortiz, 60, who describes herself as an old customer, since she started coming to Humboldt’s on its opening day, says of Nolasco, “He is very humorous and always makes me smile.”

Like his brother, Nolasco became an entrepreneur after trying to make it as a musician. In 1998, Miguel and Danny Nolasco formed a quartet called “La Factoria del Sabor” (The Flavor Factory). Their music was a mix, they say, of urban hip-hop and R&B infused with tropical sounds, such as merengue and cumbia. They achieved some success, winning gigs in the tristate area, which led to performances in Latin America: they traveled to Peru, Ecuador, Colombia and their native Dominican Republic.

In the early to mid-2000s, the Latin music scene in New York City changed; the gigs dried up, and the group disbanded. In 2003, the brothers decided to reinvent themselves, forming a new band, “Los Joaquines,” named for their grandfather. In 2004, they released a Latin-rock album, “Otra Planeta” (Other Planet), which achieved some success in the Dominican Republic. But their second album flopped, and the brothers decided to retire from the music business. “We decided to leave it because it was changing; we’re old school,” says Miguel.

Even while they were trying to build their music business, Danny Nolasco, who had worked for a dry cleaner in high school, had started his own dry-cleaning business in Williamsburg, using money he had saved from music gigs and loans from his family and former boss. When Danny moved his business to a new, larger location on Bushwick Avenue, Miguel was between jobs and Danny took him on as an apprentice.

After a year-and-a-half working for his brother, Miguel decided to open his own shop. “His business was doing well,” says Miguel. “So I decided to open one up as well. The dry-cleaning business is doing better than the music.”

Last fall, after gathering his savings and some seed money from Danny, Miguel Nolasco opened Humboldt Dry Cleaners, about half a mile from Danny’s Nola Cleaning & Tailor Shop. The two stores do not compete because, says Danny, ”although our businesses are close by we have different customers. “ While many of Miguel’s customers are young white newcomers to the neighborhood, Danny’s customers are more multi-ethnic, many of them long-time residents.

Miguel Nolasco’s expenses are relatively low—he pays just $1,000 a month in rent, and, he says, he tries to keep his prices low, too. Humboldt Dry Cleaners has weekly revenues are $1,000-to-$1,500, he says, while his brother’s store does twice that business. Ines Ferreira, 32, Miguel’s sister-in-law and assistant, says that in the spring business picked up, after the relatively slow months of January and February.

The Nolasco brothers plan to continue collaborating to grow their businesses. They plan to use technology, including an automated instant-message or e-mail system to notify customers when their laundry is ready. They also plan to use social websites like yelp.com and peer-to-peer reviews to build a following.