BERKELEY — The moment Steven Soares, of Oakland, brought his clothes to Arlene's Cleaners here, he could sense there was something different about the place.
"When I drive here from West Oakland, I must pass 10 dry cleaners from my house to here, but for some reason I keep coming back," Soares said.
For most, including Soares, a big reason is the owner, who spends nearly 70 hours a week behind the counter of the small store at 2986 College Ave., near the Claremont Spa and Resort. Her real name is Hea Pak, but most know her simply as Arlene.
"Arlene's really sweet," Soares said. "The first time I came here, she talked to me like she knew me for years."
Five years ago, Pak was living through tough times. She was barely making ends meet as a meditation instructor with her husband. It was then that her sister-in-law offered her Arlene's Cleaners at no charge. Her brother, who owns a plant in Oakland where the actual dry cleaning is done, picked up the expenses when she took over.
Pak's mission was just to return the business to profitability.
"They were really struggling at the time, and my sister-in-law probably would have sold the business if I hadn't taken it," said Pak, 59, who came to the United States in 1981 from South Korea. "I was really appreciative what she did, because we really didn't have much of anything."
After about a year of running the store, the job turned into a passion for Pak and eventually business improved. Using her background in meditation, Pak continues to do everything she can to connect with her customers.
"When I talk to them, I try to be one with them," she said.
For the first month she took over, monthly revenues were about $6,000. In 2010, she estimates Arlene's Cleaners is bringing in about $15,000 a month.
"I know other businesses are struggling really bad because of the economy, but we are doing very well right now," Pak said.
Her prices in general are in lock-step with other cleaners nearby. She charges about $1.85 apiece to launder and press men's dress shirts, $12.50 for suits and about $9.50 for dresses.
However, if she thinks a customer can't afford the prices, oftentimes she'll make exceptions — all for the goal of keeping her customers.
"If someone comes in, and I can tell they are hurting, I tell them to pay what they can," she said. "Sometimes I even give it to them for free, because I understand what they're going through."
Nationwide, there are currently about 31,000 dry cleaning shops, said Ann Hargrove, director of the National Cleaners Association. And most of them are struggling.
"The industry has been hit by the economy really bad," she said. "With people out there without jobs, they don't need to have their clothes dry cleaned as much as they used to."
In California, some cleaners struggled to modify themselves when regulations on what chemicals could be used to clean the clothes. Arlene's fortunately made the changes before the regulations took effect, so it wasn't affected financially.
Pak believes honesty is the key to dealing with customers.
"I always try to think, what can I do for them to make their experience good," she said.
For example, if a button breaks during the cleaning, Pak will immediately tell the customer what happened. Sometimes she'll drive to a fabric store and buy a replacement button and sew it on.
When she has several days to complete an order, she inspects the clothes that come back from the Oakland plant where the cleaning is done. About 15 percent of the time, she isn't completely satisfied and will send clothes back for a redo.
If a customer asks for a rush service or needs a pickup or delivery, she does that, too. Free.
If she has a black dress and there's lint on it, she'll sometimes pick off each spec by hand, even if it takes 20 minutes to do it.
Some might say this is bad business. But for Pak, customer satisfaction always comes first.
"Every piece of clothes I treat as if it were my own," she said. "All that matters is that I do everything I can to get it right."
Contact David Morrill at 925-977-8534.