By Cliff Radel, The Cincinnati Equirer
CHEVIOT − Traffic slowed as gawking drivers giggled at the giant coat hanger. Fit for a size−380 sport coat, the 10−foot−long contraption of PVC tubing topped a pickup truck outside Kroner Dry Cleaners.
The venerable establishment celebrates its 70th anniversary Jan. 31. That explains why the big hanger’s cover − called a “cape” in dry cleaner lingo − carries the Kroner logo and the slogan, “Hanging Around For 70 years.”
“I’m glad the hanger makes people laugh. We’re happy to be here,” said Ray Kroner. He runs the place that has employed four generations of Kroners. Industry directories list his business as Greater Cincinnati’s oldest, single−shop dry cleaner run by its founding family.
That hanger acts as a symbol and a sign of the times. It represents the best−known tool of the dry cleaner’s trade and it signifies how the Kroners are holding on to their family business − born in 1939 during the Great Depression − as it weathers a not−so−great recession.
“We go through 200,000 hangers a year,” Kroner said. Those hangers support the 400 shirts the cleaner turns out daily along with 400 pairs of slacks. Seventy years ago, on the day Lou Kroner Sr. and his wife, Alma, opened the business, they needed only one hanger.
“Dad just took in one pair of pants that first day,” recalled Lou Jr. “My mother and dad struggled terriblyduring the Great Depression. He was a vest maker and his business went downhill. They lost their home. We went to live in an apartment. So, they thought they’d give dry cleaning a try.”
He spoke over the clatter of a conveyor belt moving finished shirts. At 83, he still comes in to work six days a week. Some days, he does the books. Other days, he removes nasty stains.
“I’d go nuts if I stayed home,” Lou Jr. said. “So I come in and annoy them with my reminiscing.”
In 1939, every neighborhood boasted a cluster of locally owned shops. The cleaner occupies a red brick building that once held four stores, including a deli, a grocery and a dress shop. The Kroner Building stands in a line of one− and two−story buildings from the ’30s and ’40s. When there’s a break in the traffic on the busy street out front, when the sun casts long shadows on the windows and doors, those buildings resemble an Edward Hopper streetscape.
As in a Hopper painting, the buildings give off a closeness, a sense of community. When Kroner’s was getting started, most customers lived nearby. Walk−in trade was plentiful. Today, it accounts for just half of a day’s work. Neighboring businesses included a café, a restaurant, a butcher shop, a hardware store, a drugstore and an appliance repair shop. All were family owned. Today, all are gone. Except Kroner’s.
“One thing that saved us was we delivered from the get−go,” Ray Kroner said. Once covering only Cheviot and Westwood, the cleaner’s delivery route now follows the Interstate−275 loop.
“At first, we used an old Plymouth with a pole hanging over the back seat,” Lou Jr. recalled. “Didn’t even have our name on it.”
Soon, the Kroner name stood for quality work. The name and the work have stood the test of time. The dry cleaner has beaten stiff odds. Only five percent of family businesses − says the U.S. Small Business Administration − survive into their third generation.
“Kroner Dry Cleaners is a special outfit,” said Shirley Hempfling, a White Oak resident and a Kroner customer since 1954.
“It’s family−owned. And the people working there really care. Everywhere else, that disappeared years ago.”