St. Joseph Entrepreneur Innovates to Grow Her Dry-Cleaning Business in a Struggling Industry

onya McCrea of East Hills Cleaners

St. Joseph Entrepreneur Innovates to Grow Her Dry-Cleaning Business in a Struggling Industry

There are nearly half as many dry cleaning locations now than there were at the turn of the century, but Tonya McCrea found a way to reach new heights with her business East Hills Cleaners, which offers dry cleaning and laundry; she’s even expanded to two locations.

“I have a work ethic,” Tonya says. “I like to bring something different to the table because they’ll remember me. I just worked my tail off and knew that I could do it.”

What she brings to the table is that not only do her two St. Joseph, Missouri, locations (Faraon St. and Frederick Ave.) offer dry cleaning services, including for tennis shoes, cushions, rugs and other household items,but  she also provides altercations and a convenient wash-and-fold laundry service for her busier customers. 

“If your time is valuable, you will use us,” Tonya says. “We’re for people who don’t want to sit at a laundromat for two, three hours. I’d rather maybe pay a little bit more and have somebody do it for me. So, it’s identifying those people and also educating them.”

East Hills Cleaners also has drop-off locations in both Maryville and St. Joseph Hy-Vee stores and in Cameron at Cameron Nutrition.

Always looking for new ideas

As dry cleaning service establishments are declining, dropping from about 27,000 to 16,497 between from 2001 to 2022, according to the US Bureau of Labor Statistics, McCrea’s answer to this is to stand out by diversifying her services, following an emerging industry trend.

“People say, ‘Why laundry and not just dry cleaning?’” Tonya says that more people work from home and don’t dry clean as often. Diversifying her business services has been key. But that’s only part of the equation. 

To gain more loyal customers, McCrea is active on Facebook and offers regular promotions. For example, she is offering a $99 Mother’s Day special; customers can treat the women in their lives to a large laundry bag and a whole month of unlimited laundry services.

 “You can bring that bag in as many times as you want for 30 days,” Tonya says. “For a mother or two parents in the working world, it’s a great idea. Now, is that idea going to make me money? No, but I hope to get at least 20 to 30 new weekly customers.”.

McCrea is also planning to secure a contract to do full-service laundry for casinos, hoping that that will turn East Hills Cleaners into a commercial business, diversifying her income streams and offering more stability than just residential laundry alone.

“I will try any idea out there that makes sense. If it doesn’t work, then I stop it,” she says. “We have to continue looking for ways to grow.”

Tonya McCrae of East Hills Cleaners checks dry-cleaned clothing at one of her St. Joseph locations.
Tonya McCrae of East Hills Cleaners checks dry-cleaned clothing at one of her St. Joseph locations.

Surrounded by support

Tonya purchased East Hills Cleaners in 2018 and transformed the store by actively researching and networking, joining Facebook groups and building a supportive community. 

 “I built the business, and I did it by being different and creative,” she says, priding herself on how she markets herself more than a typical dry cleaning business would. “I’ve been surrounded by good people.”

One of those relationships is Rebecca Lobina, continuing professional education director and Missouri Small Business Development Center director. Rebecca guided Tonya toward the Elevate program in 2021.

Elevate is free customized consulting for growing businesses and takes an in-depth look at their social media and marketing and explores how business owners can better serve their customers.

“The Elevate program was a turning point for me. It’s huge,” Tonya says, valuing how she was able to learn more about her business’s demographics and how to cater to customers in the best way possible with her services.

The Missouri SBDC, part of a nationwide network funded by the Small Business Administration, pairs with universities and other economic development arms across the nation to educate entrepreneurs, helping them succeed in their ventures.

“It’s kind of like a children and parents’ relationship in the sense that our whole goal is to help business owners grow to the point where they don’t need us anymore,” Rebecca says.

For new entrepreneurs entering a market or industry they have no prior experience in, Tonya  says the best thing to do is to get your hands dirty and seek out the connections and resources you need.

“Work hard. Look for opportunities. Think outside the box,” she says “Give it a chance and be willing to try whatever it may be.”

Help for your business

Connecting with your local SBDC is a great way to find a no-cost business mentor and classes that can help level up your business game. But did you know there are over 650 organizations in Missouri that can help your business, too? Best thing is MOSourceLink knows them all. Just tell us what you need online or call use at 866-870-6500 8 a.m. – 5 p.m. Monday through Friday. We’ll whip up your very own customized plan of next steps and the resources that can help. And it’s all free.

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