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SF Designer Turns Struggling Family Dry Cleaners Into Artsy Gathering Spot During Pandemic

SAN FRANCISCO (KPIX) -- A struggling small business in San Francisco's Richmond District is trying to survive by welcoming others into its space and the entire neighborhood may be richer because of it.

If there is one business that has been most profoundly affected by the pandemic, it may be the dry cleaning shop. When offices closed down, business at Aki's Cleaners dried up. Monique Zhang's elderly parents asked her if they should close their shop.

"I told my parents that, once you close you're going to lose a lot of trust," said Monique. "People will think that you're not interested in opening or there's something you're in fear of. We definitely don't want to project that."

So, Zheng quit her job as a fashion designer and event producer to help save the laundry by making it more than just a laundry. She moved her mom's cleaning and alterations business to the back and in front she displayed silk fabrics hand-painted by her partner Joshua Bernstein. Local artists were invited to display their works, giving Sarah her first brick and mortar location from which to sell her macramé art and ornamental plants.

"If you had asked me a year ago, even 6 months ago, if this was a possibility, I would have said, 'what are you talking about? Like, that's not even an option in my mind'!" said Zheng.

Then, to make the place even more eclectic, Bernstein moved his technology consulting business into the laundry, as well.

"Traditionally, a dry cleaner has been a place that people come and they just want to get in and get out," he said. "They didn't necessarily think of it as a place for social gathering. But during COVID there weren't that many places they could go out. So, we specifically have started to make it an experience."

The effort has not gone unnoticed by the people in the neighborhood.

"It makes people feel like they belong. It's not just a place where you 'transact'," said customer Debbie Leifer.

Monique said the laundry has taken no PPP funding from the government. She says she wants that money will go toward saving someone else's business. And when the pandemic is over, in a strange way, Monique feels she will have benefitted from it.

"One hundred percent!" she said. "Because, even for myself, I've been able to face the fear."

And by doing that, she's not just fighting to save a neighborhood laundry, but the neighborhood itself.


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