Before the sun is even up, Mehdi Shokouhi, 34, is wide awake, checking the trunk and backseat of his Hyundai Sonata for the black laundry bags he will be bringing to customers, either handing off an early-morning delivery of clean and pressed clothes or picking up a load of dirty laundry.
By 6:30 a.m., Shokouhi had already left his Berkeley home, driven into San Francisco’s South of Market neighborhood and returned to the East Bay, part of his job working as a Washio “ninja”—an independent contractor for an on-demand laundry service. On this particular morning, he’d picked up the bags and clothes at around 6 a.m. at the company’s distribution center in San Francisco, or what he calls the “drop shop.” Now, with his phone hooked up to his employer’s app, he loads his order queue with six pick-up and drop-off assignments for the next two and half hours—all at homes throughout Oakland. After loading batches of clean clothes and empty bags into his car, which is decorated with company logo stickers on the front doors, he gets ready to drive.
“OK, here we go,” Shokouhi says, dry cleaning hanging from his backseat as he heads to an apartment off of Frontage Road in West Oakland.
Behind the on-demand laundry and dry cleaning service is the smartphone application Washio, run by a startup based in Santa Monica, California. The new company has been serving Washio clients in San Francisco since March, 2013, and expanded into parts of Oakland, Alameda, Emeryville, Piedmont, Albany and Berkeley at the end of November. The coverage area extends as far east as the Fruitvale in Oakland and north into Albany.
Washio CEO Jordan Metzner came up with his idea for an on-demand laundry service via smartphone app after he returned from living in South America for several years. He had been stationed in Argentina for his last business venture, and while there he had used a laundry service that picked up and cleaned his clothes and returned them, ready to wear. “I loved the availability of the service,” he said, and noticed that similar laundry service wasn’t as readily available in the U.S. “I was forced to do my own laundry,” he said, with a hint of humor. Faced with the tedious task, he said, he “saw that on-demand services was really the future.”
Here’s how Washio works: After downloading the free application that looks like a blue “W” in the shape of a button-up shirt collar, registered customers place an order and select a time to hand off dirty clothes to a driver who will arrive at their door to take the load to the San Francisco distribution center. From there, the clothes are sent to already-existing laundry and dry cleaning companies that contract their services to Washio. Within 24 hours, the clothes are back at the distribution center. Then a driver picks up the clean order and returns it at a pre-selected time to the customer’s house.
Another crucial step: In exchange for turning over dirty clothes, the driver hands over a cookie. On this morning, Shokouhi was passing out chocolate chip ones. One woman on his route excitedly took the treat, fondly recalling the double-chocolate chip cookie from her last pick-up.
Washio relies heavily on the “sharing economy” workforce, depending on independent drivers like Shokouhi to pick up laundry orders and bring clothes to the distribution center. Drivers are paid by the job–the more deliveries and pick-ups in a three-hour shift, the more money they make. Metzner compared the company’s “ninjas” to Uber or Lyft drivers who use their own cars for the job. Shokouhi is responsible for having a smartphone and a fueled-up, working car to make his deliveries, and Washio takes a cut of each order. Washio drivers also pick up clothing donations, year-round, that are delivered to places such as San Francisco’s St. Anthony’s that deliver used clothing to the homeless and unemployed.
The company dubbed its drivers “ninjas,” Metzner said, because a ninja seemed to personify the qualities Washio was looking for in a driver: “fast, sleek, quick, silent.” Laundry pick-up is “not the sexiest thing to do,” Metzner said, so adding the moniker added some flair. Many of the drivers are doing other work or projects, Metzner said. Shokouhi, who emigrated from Iran five years ago, works another part-time job and is saving up to take radiology courses at Merritt College in Oakland next year. Washio is a way to make extra money.
Drivers can sign up to work for weekday morning or evening shifts, weekend morning shifts, or any combination. “I prefer mornings because I’m a morning person,” Shokouhi said. While driving around completing their list of orders, drivers have a support member based in a company office available through phone or text. Support comes into play if unexpected traffic keeps a driver from an on-time drop-off or if a customer doesn’t show up at the door or some other issue beyond the driver’s control arises. The support staff might email or alert the customer about a late arrival.
Washio prices are listed as $1.60 per pound of clothing for “wash and fold,” a basic cleaning and folding service. A pressed shirt goes for $2.75, while dry cleaning prices start at $6 an item. “We aren’t the cheapest across the market,” Metzner said. But, he said, Washio is “the most convenient.”
In San Francisco, a similar app-based service called Rinse is also vying for laundry customers. The small startup, which also started in 2013, has yet to expand to the East Bay. Its pricing and services nearly match Washio’s, with somewhat higher dry cleaning prices and only evening pick-up and delivery times available. In the East Bay, few on-demand laundry services have yet to pop up outside of traditional Laundromats, many of which offer wash and fold and pressing services. Many dry cleaners will make deliveries for additional costs.
Brian Brunckhorst, the Golden State Coin Laundry Association president and owner of several East Bay Advantage Laundry locations, said the coin laundry industry is keeping tabs on laundry services that are now offered over the phone, “but wash and fold service has been around for a long time” as an ancillary service at Laundromats, he said. His association is a local network of coin laundry owners and operators throughout Northern California.
Normally a small percentage of Laundromat clients use a wash-and-fold service or drop off their clothes to be cleaned, but “that number is growing,” Brunckhorst said, notably on the West Coast. He considers laundry service a more East Coast and Southern habit. But, he noted, as unemployment rates drop in the Bay Area, the appeal of using a website or app to order laundry services has gone up. He said people who tend to have more disposable income “choose spending their time doing other things other than laundry.”
“Laundry has always ranked as one of the top five most hated chores,” he said. “It’s generally not something you look forward to.”
Brunckhorst has noticed that low-to-middle-income residents, many renters in apartments who can’t afford to buy a washing machine, use Laundromats more often than cleaning services or buying their own appliances. They continue to haul clothes to a facility because “it’s the cheapest way to do laundry,” he said. Brunckhorst suggested instead of web-based apps, the bigger threat to brick-and-mortal laundry facilities is actually the cost of water, which is driven by rising utility rates, shortages, and aging infrastructure throughout the water system in California. Water is a key resource for laundry services, he said, and when that cost goes up, perhaps because of drought-imposed rates or improvement projects to pipes and waterways, the customer feels it.
As for Metzner, he said Washio is still a new player in the laundry industry and isn’t trying to overthrow established laundry services. “Maybe dry cleaners are somewhat threatened by us by some way other,” he said, “but we definitely haven’t attacked their businesses.”
Outside of the San Francisco Bay Area, Washio is available in Chicago, Los Angeles, Boston and Washington, D.C. Even with the foray across the Bay Bridge, local Washio facilities remain San Francisco-based, but there are future plans to open a distribution center in the East Bay–the location is something Metzner and his team are researching. Another service area Metzner is eyeing for expansion in the coming year includes the South Bay and Silicon Valley area. Metzner wants the company to grow, along with its reputation; he hopes the Washio name and logo will become more recognizable. “We haven’t even come close to what we want to get to,” he said.
Back in Oakland, the sun is up, peaking through scattered clouds. It’s almost 9 a.m. The streets and freeways have increasingly filled with cars heading to school and work. Shokouhi’s onto his last order—one of his clients has requested a last-minute pick-up—so Shokouhi is in front of his house near the Temescal, offering him a cookie from a pile of plastic-wrapped treats he keeps in his car. When he gets back to the car, he looks satisfied with his accomplishments. “OK, I think we are done with this morning’s orders, and we are heading back to the drop shop,” Shokouhi says.
Once he has loaded the clothes into his trunk, he refreshes his queue on his phone for a final check; he hasn’t missed any orders. He’s back on the road, driving toward San Francisco to drop off the contents in his full trunk. Shokouhi muses about taking a nap or finishing some chores once he’s back home in Berkeley later that morning. “My shift ends around 9:30 a.m., and I’m going to have the rest of today to do whatever I’m supposed to do,” Shokouhi says. Then he’ll be at it again by 6 p.m. for a second shift. Laundry never ends.