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During the past 14 years, Jeff Gardner built a thriving laundry business in the Twin Cities with two self-serve laundromats/dry cleaners, and a growing wash-and-fold business.

But in an industry that’s facing serious head winds — fewer people dress up, and more are buying wash-and-wear clothing — growth is a challenge.

The conventional approach is to add more locations for drop-offs and pickups, but that requires hiring staff, renting space and increasing the overhead.

Last year at an industry convention in California, Gardner came across an innovative alternative to a traditional brick-and-mortar expansion. He met someone who created a modern software system that puts locker-like drop-off sites in the lobbies of apartment buildings, condominiums and other places where people who are likely to need such services might be.

“I’ve known there was a need for this but didn’t know what the solution was,” Gardner said. “I knew it when I saw it that this was it.”

With dozens of new luxury apartment buildings being built, Gardner saw an opportunity. He bought the technology, tested it and adapted it to the Twin Cities, which is an unusual market for the laundry business. People here tend to spend less on dry cleaning and laundry, and they have a four-season wardrobe that doesn’t exist in many more temperate communities.

Gardner renamed the business the Laundry Doctor.

Each locker becomes an individual drop site, and beyond that everything is done electronically. After you drop your items in a locker, you text your four-digit locker code to the main office with a pickup notification. On your mobile device you select the service (dry cleaning, laundry, starch etc.) and relay any special instructions. For instance, customers can photograph a stain and send that image to Laundry Doctor for extra attention. Because the lockers are unstaffed, the drop-offs and pickups can be made at any time.

Laundry Doctor guarantees a 48-hour turnaround time, and customers get a message when the order is back in the locker. When each garment is received, it gets a bar code that’s scanned into the system for easier tracking. Every customer gets their own “online closet” where all of that information is stored.

To get his lockers into the buildings, Gardner told property managers his round-the-clock service doesn’t require any staff time and reduces the wear and tear on the in-building washers and dryers.

“We have a lot of people who are living electronically and are very busy,” said Nikki Longie, property manager at the Lowertown Commons and the Parkside in St. Paul, which both offer the service.

The buildings were previously served by a traditional laundry route that was well-run by a local company, but it didn’t offer the kind of 24/7 convenience that many residents now want, and it didn’t have an electronic billing system.

“It doesn’t cost us anything,” Longie said. “We like to provide services and conveniences for our residents, but the bottom line is that it can cost us too much.”

As more buildings offer the service, selling it to the property managers is getting easier, Gardner said. In just a few months, the company has installed the LaundryDoc in 14 apartment buildings and two commercial buildings.

“And now they want us, so they’re coming to us,” said Bonnie Hanson, vice president of marketing and client relations.

Next, Gardner and Hanson will focus on getting into condo buildings, which are typically served by traditional laundry companies that have pickup and drop-off only on certain days.

Getting into the buildings, which are usually run by third-party managers and are governed by boards populated by condo owners, will require more effort and diplomacy. And it’s a concept that will have limited appeal, geographically speaking.

Mary Scalco, the CEO at the Drycleaning & Laundry Institute, said that in an industry that’s become increasingly competitive, such innovations are the key to survival. But, she added, they will only work in communities with enough residential density to justify the cost.

“It won’t make sense in places where there’s mostly single-family housing,” she said.

Jim Buchta • 612-673-7376