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Small Business Spotlight: Pilgrim Dry Cleaners and Launderers

Alerus | NOV 13, 2017

A Family Legacy, a Community Mainstay

It is 2017 and Pilgrim Dry Cleaners and Launderers is a thriving operation with locations blanketing the Twin Cities metro area. To explain how the company has become what it has – the quintessential example of small business success – is to document the history of a family and its commitment to the community, to employees, and to each other. The story includes patriarch and founder Don Rosen, transitions to his daughter and current owner Bonnie Engler, and appears poised to continue into a third generation. 

But before getting too far ahead of ourselves, let us begin, in the words of the great Lewis Carroll, at the beginning.

Dreams of a Father

Growing up in the 1920s and 30s, a young Don Rosen would have experienced firsthand a nation suffering through the most severe economic crisis the Western world has ever seen. The roar of the early 20s had drowned out the creaks and groans of an increasingly frail economy that finally and famously collapsed in 1929 and swallowed a whole decade. The Great Depression, a label whose origins many historians trace to a 1934 book by that name, written by British economist Lionel Robbins, spawned a generation of Americans renowned for frugality and for the ability to make something out of almost nothing.

It is not difficult, then, to understand why family and community would become the focal points and pillars of Don’s life. Those were the only reliable things for so many young people of the era. 

The nation finally began breaking free of its economic chains in 1939, only to find itself plunged into the middle of World War II in 1941. By that time, Don was working for Vic Cleaning Machine Company, owned by Oscar Victor. Don enlisted in the Army and when the war finally drew to a close in 1945 he returned to Vic’s, where he sold cleaning equipment and helped open multiple new plant locations. But before long, dreams of independence had taken root, and it was time for him to embark on a new venture.

Along with two partners, Don formed Johnny on the Spot, an independent cleaning service that quickly grew to serve customers around the Upper Midwest. By the early 1950s, Don’s vision had become clearer. He bought out his partners, changed the name of the company to Pilgrim Dry Cleaners and Launderers, and re-centered its operations to focus solely on the Twin Cities metro area. 

Over the next 30 years, Don would lead his company to rousing success, raise a family to which he was utterly devoted, and become a pillar of the Twin Cities business community thanks not only to his business acumen, but to his charitable, kind, and giving nature. Then, in the mid-1980s, something unexpected happened that shapes Pilgrim to this day.

A Daughter Enters

Bonnie Rosen (now Engler) grew up working in Pilgrim stores as a teenager. It was the perfect job for someone of that age, and of course, being the owner’s daughter had its perks – perhaps a little extra time for lunch. But Bonnie never thought of the job as an eventual career. She had her eyes first on college, and then on a career in the mental health field. Indeed, she became a registered nurse and subsequently worked in psychiatry for nearly a decade. 

Like her father, Bonnie was eventually bitten by the entrepreneurial bug. Around the age of 30, just as she was contemplating opening an independent office with a psychologist friend, Bonnie’s father said it would be great if he could find some help with Pilgrim, which had grown by then to about 200 employees. 

The company was built on three concepts that Don believed to be the keys to success in the cleaning business: convenience, quality, and service. Those core concepts are what allowed Pilgrim to maintain its integrity as a small, family-owned business. Whether he ever expressed it out loud or not, Don must have believed that delivering those three things to customers in the future could only be done by someone he could trust. And perhaps hearkening back to his youth, when family was the only thing that got many people through the day, he knew that he could trust Bonnie implicitly and completely. 

Even if that was what Don believed on some level, he was not necessarily turning to Bonnie thinking that she might run the entire company. In the mid-80s, female-owned businesses were rare in general; exceedingly so in the cleaning industry. And so began a years-long process of proving to her father that yes, she had what it took, that she could take the reins when he was ready to hand them over.

Succession

Working side by side with her father, who barely slowed down even as he entered his 60s, Bonnie absorbed his knowledge. At the same time, she took care to demonstrate that she was in this for more than a job; she was capable of one day running the company. The two labored together for a decade and then, in the mid-1990s, Don named Bonnie Pilgrim’s new president. This vote of confidence from her father, a man who was not one to play favorites when it came to business, was validation for Bonnie.

With Don getting older but still working, the family wisely brought in an outside consultant to assist in the succession planning process, which can be notoriously sticky in family businesses. The consultant analyzed the company and the family, ultimately coming back with a recommendation that reinforced what Don had been seeing for himself: that Bonnie was fully capable of ownership, and was indeed the best person for the job. 

The early 2000s brought a few attempts by Bonnie to purchase the business from Don, but even in his 80s he wasn’t quite ready. Until finally, in 2004, after a career spanning more than six decades, Don knew the time was right. He sold his daughter the company he had built, convinced that she was capable of maintaining the legacy and values he had cultivated with such pride.

Pilgrim, Coats for Kids, and a Legacy

It is 2017 and Don Rosen is gone, passed away less than two years ago. Under Bonnie’s leadership, Pilgrim is going strong, as Don knew it would. The next generation, in the form of Bonnie’s son, Derek, is going through the same proving process that Bonnie herself went through all those years ago. All indications are he is doing well, even introducing a totally new and wildly successful concept to the company: free home and office pickup and delivery. It is the kind of innovation and customer-first spirit that make Bonnie’s confidence grow now, as her father’s confidence grew then. 

Also going strong is the Pilgrim Cleaners Coats for Kids program, which Don started in 1986. That year, while Don was working in one of his stores, a woman came in with her son and asked if there was a used winter coat her son could have. He badly needed a coat, but she couldn’t afford one. The scene tugged at Don’s heart, and he dug around until he found an old coat that was about the right size. When the boy tried it on, it fit. The woman broke down.

After that incident, Don was inspired to enlist the community to collect coats, which were then cleaned by Pilgrim and distributed to needy families. With over 425,000 coats collected since 1986, one can hardly begin to understand the difference this program has made in the lives of Minnesotans during the last 30 winter seasons. 

In the same caring spirit, Pilgrim started a Costumes for Kids program in 2010, collecting Halloween Costumes for children whose parents can’t afford to buy them. It’s a program that helps to make sure kids are able to enjoy Halloween, even when times are hard.

And so it goes. Pilgrim keeps running and keeps giving back to the community. It stays true to the values that Don and Bonnie worked so hard to exemplify. Family comes first, and Don viewed the community as part of his family. It only makes sense, looking back to his roots, for things to have turned out this way.

About the Company and its Relationship With Alerus

Pilgrim is a full-service dry cleaning and laundering business, which also offers a variety of services such as tailoring and other specialties. It operates throughout the Twin Cities, with 25 locations strategically positioned around the metro. 

Pilgrim provides exceptional and innovative services, including free same-day cleaning and free office or home pickup and delivery. Equipment is state of the art, and the employees are highly experienced and caring when it comes to treating every garment and every customer the right way. Pilgrim does not charge extra for things like stain removal or starching. As Bonnie says, those are standard tasks that people have the right to expect their cleaners to do, there’s no reason to pay extra for them. 

Bonnie loves banking with Alerus because she has the ability to talk to people who have the ability to make decisions, which makes things more efficient. In addition, Alerus has been willing and able to help Pilgrim grow, providing financing and guidance along the way, much of it through relationship manager Lisa Moncrief. Overall, the ease and convenience of working with the Alerus team is what keeps Bonnie satisfied and is why she has recommended Alerus to many other business owners.

For More About Pilgrim Dry Cleaners and Launderers

You can get full details about Pilgrim’s services, including ultra-convenient home/office pickup and delivery, by visiting the company’s website or by visiting any of their 25 locations across the Twin Cities. 

If you would like to see what some past customers have to say, check out these testimonials. And for tips and tricks on clothing care – plus occasional discounts on services – make sure to follow Pilgrim’s blog!

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