In 2007, riding the success of transforming a former Downtown department store into a 24-unit condominium complex, Ben Kunkel, president of construction company Kunkel Group, eyed the location of former clothier deJong’s. The vision, known as Meridian Plaza, included 31 condos, a five-story annex tower topped with a 2,500-square-foot penthouse, and 15,500 square feet of commercial space. With the project finished in 2008, Walker Studio Artistic Photography moved into some of that available space, yet another portion on the corner of Third and Main streets remained empty. After rumors of a grocery store failed to materialize in the building, Steve Schmitt arrived with a plan.
Hoping to capitalize on a Downtown office district with committed employees working long past normal business hours, Schmitt, the owner of Don’s and Clayton’s Fine Dry Cleaning, opened a location in Meridian Plaza this year with new technology — Fetch!, a 24-hour automated drop-off and pickup device for dry cleaning. Fetch! looks and operates like an ATM. The gist: A customer swipes a credit card, and a video screen of directions follows. Customers place clothing items in a bag, which can be bought via the machine, and the customer notifies the cleaners how many items are in the bag and if they have specific cleaning instructions. The machine spins on an axis and pushes the bag inside the facility. From there, it’s business as usual until the customer returns and enters his or her phone number to inform the machine the order is ready to move along a conveyor belt for pickup.
Schmitt, whose father opened Don’s Cleaning in 1956, saw automated technology in self-serve lines at grocery stores and airports throughout the country for years. “People were ready for this,” Schmitt says, “but I didn’t know if the machinery was ready for our industry yet.” In spring 2009, a trade show in New Orleans showed the longtime business owner the technology finally was ready for dry cleaning customers. The premise “is catching on,” Schmitt says; the most used time for Fetch! is between 7 and 8:30 p.m.