BERWYN – Twenty years ago, Tom Benson was on the hunt for a new investment. He was ready to leave behind his career as a business broker and create something of his own.
As the owner of what is now known as the World's Largest Laundromat, Benson opted to share what his Berwyn storefront was like back in 1999. Before the installation of 300 machines, which have been powered by 36 solar panels since 2001; 16 flat-screen TVs; and an entire wall dedicated to arcade games, the building was split up into three stores, complete with a broken awning and boarded-up windows.
With just one look, Benson saw potential beneath the mess, a diamond in the rough.
"My goal was to make it the Taj Mahal of laundromats," said the 74-year-old Benson, who stood by the entrance of his laundromat on the morning of Aug. 21. Mayor Robert Lovero and several aldermen just held a brief ceremony for Benson and his family, honoring them for their continuous work and contribution to the Berwyn community.
Underneath the heat of the late summer sun, elected officials presented the family with a token of appreciation, renaming a part of Highland Avenue as Benson Drive. In between hugs and handshakes from close friends and colleagues, Benson spilled the secret to his success to one of his beloved guests.
Though he sought to change the way people used laundromats by creating a second home for his customers and offering free WiFi, food and entertainment like magicians and face-painters for children, he did not let the stress of running his place affect his personality.
"When I bought this business, one of my goals was to be the same person inside the store that I was outside the store," he said. "I didn't want to be a Scrooge, which is what a lot of business owners look like. I saw no reason to be one."
Across the royal blue banner of the World's Largest Laundromat, one of Benson's promises boasts, "We never close." Open 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, Benson remembered the sacrifices he made, especially during the first few months at his business. He was always on his feet, running to fix one problem after the other.
Beyond the fun amenities, Benson noted that the World's Largest Laundromat is grounded in four principles: to be the cleanest laundromat; to offer a pleasant, stress-free experience; to maintain the best equipment; and to have friendly, respectful employees. More than that, Benson's business is rooted in community partnerships and has transpired into an epicenter for resources and charity events.
"I tried to sell customers on the idea of believing in me – that I'm going to fix it," he said, adding that building trust and solid relationships with his patrons, his team of employees and the city of Berwyn are crucial to the World's Largest Laundromat's longevity.
'Make it ideal'
As Benson and his guests celebrated outside of the World's Largest Laundromat, couples and families were found scattered all around the 13,500-square-foot space. In one corner, Angelica Villegas, 32, of Berwyn, took over an entire counter top with her family's clothes. With her husband by her side, the two helped each other unload the machines and fold, while their young son sat quietly watching a video on a cellphone.
Meanwhile, on the other side of the room, 40-year-old Sergio Flores, of Cicero, was waiting for his items to dry. For Villegas and Flores, these regular trips to the laundromat are a part of their routines. Laughing, Villegas added she can always find her parents there every Tuesday.
"It's not unusual to see the extended family [here]," said Benson, who does not take those simple life moments for granted.
Right above the vending area, which is speckled with comfy booths and tables, a string of bright neon lights form a halo on the ceiling. Flyers of prospective jobs, ESL classes and other opportunities are posted on a wall or pinned to a cork board. While some customers wander in between the spacious aisles, others have parked themselves in front of the aviary, mesmerized by the doves that flutter around.
Having that extra feature, Benson said, "changed the momentum" of his laundromat. The idea came from visiting his in-laws at a nursing home, and he saw firsthand how the sight of birds provided a cozy presence.
With a smile, Benson recalled what his contractors thought of him during the early phase of his business.
"They were having trouble with the idea that I wanted to spend more money – that I didn't care," he said. "I knew what I was building, and I knew it was going to be a success. I wasn't going to cheap out. I was going to make it ideal."
After the ceremony and the small crowd dispersed, Benson climbed behind the counter to hand out extra slices of cake for his employees and customers. Grateful, he gave his last insight on the decades that have passed and the years to come, placing his legacy in the hands of his sons, Eric and Mark.
"Trusting my gut was good," he said.