This article first appeared in the CHALT newsletter in December, 2014
Plaza Dry Cleaners opened more than half a century ago, in the small neighborhood shopping center now dominated by Whole Foods. Brenda Honeycutt’s mother, one of the new employees, proved a very smart hire; she rose to become a partner and owner.
Brenda, who started by working for her mother, also showed the knack. She took over a thriving business, where customers are greeted by name and dogs get movie star treatment along with a biscuit. Her grown daughter, Sherry, now works there with her.
Brenda and her daughter Sherry enjoy knowing their customers.
So do 15 skilled employees, some of whom have been with Brenda Honeycutt for 20 years. It’s a marvel to watch them, working in unison in the cleaning plant only a wall away from the front counter, folding, boxing, spot cleaning, carefully arranging shirts or trousers in the various pressing machines. Here’s a rainbow coalition of the young and old, men and women who grew up in North Carolina, Mexico, Central America, and as far away as Bangladesh.
Brenda’s management style combines every quality you could wish for. She’s warmhearted, honest, funny, efficient, and completely hands-on. She even treats the cleaning equipment like an old friend. “I call him R2D2, there he is, just steamin’ away,” she says fondly of the vaporizer that sits out back. Brenda expects good work (“Mama always said quality, not quantity”) and she gets it, because, as she says, “I’m not going to ask anyone to do something I won’t do.”
She rewards loyalty; one employee now drives a car on permanent loan from Brenda, after her own car got totaled. She fires people who slack off and sass back (“this gal raised immortal hell, there’s no other way to say it”).
The business does well but not obscenely well, because Brenda has made expensive investments in new equipment and Clean Green technology, costs she does not want to pass along to loyal customers. She’s known some of these folks since she was a girl. One old-timer, who likes a firm crease in his trousers, told her that this whole shopping center used to be a dairy farm.
Brenda Honeycutt is 65 years old. Her husband, Dan, who used to fix all the machinery, and who built her a squirrel-sized office between the cleaning floor and the front counter, died suddenly two years ago. Now she lives with a five-year-old great-grandson who needed a home so she took legal custody. She’s up with her boy before dawn, and rushes home to Chatham County to be with him every afternoon. Lots of baby pictures in her office, and a ceramic cross, imprinted with the words to the Serenity Prayer.
Shortly after Brenda’s husband died, the barbecue restaurant across from Plaza Dry Cleaners was forced to close. Brenda enclosed a note to the landlord with her rent check, saying she was glad her place was safe. She was hoping to sell the business in a few years and retire to a small place in the mountains.
Instead, her new landlord told her to vacate by the end of next year (i.e. 2015.) Her old landlord, Steve Ginn, a commercial real estate investor from Ohio, had owned the mall for many years, and because he kept the rents reasonable, many small businesses opened and grew roots in the community, joining in Plaza Dry Cleaners’ success.
But two years ago, seeing the winds of change blowing into Chapel Hill, Steve Ginn took an offer he couldn’t refuse. He sold out to Regency Centers, a huge, Florida-based commercial real estate company, for $16.7 million. Regency owns high-end malls in 17 cities, targeting consumers with upwards of $100,000 a year to spend, according to its web site. Regency even produced a short video for one of its favorite tenants, the women’s designer-clothing store Lilly Pulitzer.
Regency told Brenda they want to put an “upscale restaurant” in her space. They told Brenda they might consider letting her keep a “drop store” somewhere on their property, but they definitely didn’t want actual people cleaning actual clothes on the premises, despite obvious advantages in terms of cost, efficiency, employee morale, and quality control. Brenda says it would cost $150,000 just to move the equipment, and then where would she find an affordable space?
Cheerful and optimistic by nature, she can’t help feeling crushed by the weight of it all. And she knows that her skilled employees aren’t likely to get hired by the upscale restaurant expected to take their place.
So, after 60 years of doing business successfully and well, Plaza Dry Cleaners will earn the only kind of historic designation Chapel Hill seems to be handing out these days: First Mom-and-Pop business destroyed by redevelopment in the so-called Ephesus-Fordham focus area.
Earlier this year Steve Ginn told the Chapel Hill News he tried to protect his former tenants, but that “change is inevitable.” Regency’s leasing agent, Paul Muñana, was quoted as saying that small businesses “are the heart and soul of our shopping center.” He must have liked the sound of that phrase, and one has to wonder what would happen if Village Plaza’s customers held him to his word.
One thing’s sure: Unless customers push back, Regency will “re-tenant” (the company’s nicely antiseptic phrase) all but Whole Foods’ space, in very short order.
And sadly Brenda Honeycutt’s dry-cleaning business will be just an old timer’s memory, like that dairy farm.
Ann J. Loftin, a former newspaper and magazine editor, now edits scholarly articles and monographs. She lives in Chapel Hill.