Fewer Korean Dry Cleaners in NYC?

Sang Kyun Kim, owner of "Kim's Cleaners," with a customer (Photo by Soyoung Kim for Voices of NY)

Sang Kyun Kim, owner of “Kim’s Cleaners,” with a customer (Photo by Soyoung Kim for Voices of NY)

Sang Kyun Kim, a Korean immigrant who came to the U.S. 30 years ago, is selling his dry cleaning business “Kim’s Cleaners” on the Upper West Side.

He had opened his first dry cleaner on Long Island, then moved to his current location 10 years ago.

After 30 years, he is planning on retiring and moving to the West Coast.

“I’ve been working for 15 hours a day, 365 days a year for the last 30 years. No time to play with my kids or go on vacation, the only thing I did is work and save money. I bought a house and sent my kids to college after a long time of hard work. It’s time to enjoy the rest of my life,” Kim, 58, said.

“I will leave as soon as the sale is closed,” he added.

Kim is not the only Korean owner of a dry cleaner considering closing their business after a few decades.

The number one reason is that many first-generation Korean immigrants are reaching their retiring age. Their kids, who got higher education degrees here, decided to take white-collar jobs instead of assuming their parents’ businesses.

Rising rents and labor costs are also crucial factors driving many dry cleaners to close or sell their business.

The dry cleaning business is one of the small businesses dominated by Korean immigrants in NYC, along with nail salons and beauty suppliers. Lots of Koreans moving to America in the late 1970s and 1980s started taking over dry cleaner businesses from Jewish owners, they say. They offer this history for how they ended up in the business:

When Korean immigration was booming in the 1970s, many newcomers with language barriers and no seed money to open businesses were employed at clothing manufacturers in NYC. They quickly learned sewing skills and started their own clothing manufacturing businesses.

The problem was that many workers were undocumented and caught by immigration officers in those days.

Consequently, many Koreans decided to leave the clothing business and shifted to dry cleaning, taking their sewing skills along with them. That’s why many dry cleaners provide tailoring services in the same locations.

Woo Chun Kwok, the president of the Korean Apparel Manufacturers Association (KAMA), said:  “There were almost 200 small- to mid-sized clothing manufacturers in midtown until the 1980s. Some factory-sized businesses had a hundred workers. However, the city started cracking down on illegal immigrants, rents rose drastically, and many left this field.”

Korean immigrants started dry cleaning businesses not only in the five boroughs but also in Long Island, Connecticut and New Jersey.

According to the Korean American Dry Cleaners Association in NY, in the 1980s and 1990s there were approximately 3,000 dry cleaners in the city and 80 percent of them were owned by Koreans.

It continued to be a good business until the financial crisis of 2008.

Sang Suk Park, the president of the Korean American Dry Cleaners Association in NY, said: “We used to make a net income of $200,000-300,000 a year. There was an inside joke: ‘We can pay off the business loan after one year, buy a car after two years, buy a house after three years.’ Now, after paying rent and salary, there’s only $100,000-$150,000 left.”

So, after many prosperous years, some businesses closed and the number of Korean-owned dry cleaners started to decline.

“The rent and minimum wage goes up every year but the service charge has been almost flat for 10 years. That means profits are getting smaller and smaller. We assume almost 500 Korean-owned stores closed over the last two to three years because of owners retiring or not being able to make any earnings,” Park added.

While Koreans are leaving the business, though, more Chinese are entering it. According to real estate brokers, Chinese owners of small laundromats are looking to take over dry cleaners.

Daniel Park, a commercial real estate broker covering the tri-state area, said: “As profit margins from dry cleaning are bigger [than in the laundromat business], Chinese are trying to get a chance to open dry cleaners… Ten years ago, [it was] mostly Korean immigrants [who bought them] but now more Chinese are showing interest.”

Kim, who hopes shortly to head for the West Coast, thinks that within a decade, less than half of the dry cleaning business will be owned by Koreans. “People are getting old, times are changing. One day dry cleaners will be a thing of the past for Korean immigrants,” he said.

Soyoung Kim is a reporter for The Korea Times in NY. This article was written as part of the Business Reporting Fellowship of the Center for Community and Ethnic Media and funded by a grant from News Corp. 

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