Many event rental operations have effectively integrated their linen processing in-house. See what their secrets are to making it work.
Started in 1974, Party Rental, with locations in Teterboro and South Jersey, N.J., and Franklin, Mass., as well as Landover, Md., handles more than 55,000 events per year.
Linen processing “always has been a big part of our business since the 1970s,” says Gary Halperin, president and chief operating officer, and a member of the American Rental Association’s (ARA) Large Event Rental Company Council. “Not only do we launder our linen, but we also buy raw material, and we manufacture linen every day. We are making and manufacturing whatever we need for that point in time.”
Halperin admits that “the top five colors — white, black, ivory, cream and navy — make up 50 percent of the rentals and definitely represent the huge swath of what we rent from a fabric point of view, with the next 800 colors making up the next 50 percent,” he says.
Turning around all this linen is a challenge. “There are some things we have done over the years that have helped. One has been using a spectrometer, which allows us to look at linen from a color perspective and decide based on what the math is whether it’s faded — gone out of the spectrum of color. That has helped a lot. Rather than have a human subjectively deciding whether or not a linen is good or not good, now we take a snapshot of the color and see whether it is in the variance that we allow. If it falls outside that variance, we take it out of stock. It works only on solid colors. It doesn’t work on prints or things like that, but we have lots of solids, which make up a huge portion of what we do,” he says.
All the linen is processed at the Teterboro location. “The machinery on the laundry side is advanced. We use large tunnel washers, ironers and folding machines. The technology has gotten decent over the last 10 years. That has helped on the production side,” Halperin says.
Due to the vast amount of linens, the company uses a combination of radio-frequency identification (RFID) and barcoding to identify the linens and put them away in the right location. “Without a barcode and without a scan into a location, you’d never be able to find what you’re looking for because the cloths move too fast and too much. You need some sort of system to do that. It’s still a bear to retrieve when you’re looking through 150,000 cloths even though you know the section and the location you’re going to. You’re still finding a section that it could be within 50 cloths, and even that takes time to find the cloth that you are looking for in particular,” he says, adding that in the next couple of years “we’re definitely going to entertain more automation for putting away and retrieving linen.”
The company has 30 employees dedicated to the linen department, which manufacturers tablecloths and picks up orders. There are another 26 in the laundry area who sort, wash and press the linens seven days a week. Each area has a manager.
“The laundry side is very technical. That manager has to be mechanical and has to understand the chemicals, the machines, the heat and the water. We run our laundry like a professional laundry. There are a lot of mechanics to operating a laundry,” Halperin says, adding that the laundry manager has a strong working relationship with their chemical supplier. They also have a mechanic on site to ensure the equipment stays in good working order.
To keep everything on track, “there is a lot of timing, logistics and planning on any given day,” Halperin says. “Being in a rental business, you are turning things around a lot. If laundry is not done, making sure they are not backed up is critical. Another part of our world is production. On any given day we could be manufacturing 100 or 500 tablecloths or chair covers, napkins or whatever. That planning is essential. You can’t do that volume without good planning.”
Event Source, Cleveland, and Panache Events and So Cool Events, Pompano Beach, Fla.
This family-owned-and-operated rental business, which started in 1979 as a Taylor Rental franchise, has been processing linens in-house for at least 35 years.
“When we first started, we tried using laundromats, which obviously didn’t work,” says John Bibbo, CERP, president, and a member of ARA’s Event Rental Advocacy Work Group. “Anybody that’s on the commercial end of things that does hospital sheets and big-time production houses do not have the quality standards or the turnaround time that we would require.”
Like Halperin’s operation, Bibbo’s companies are considered higher-end event rental businesses. “We handle approximately 20,000 events a year. We have about seven different sizes of linen and more than 400 different options of fabric. You have to have those options to be considered a major player in the linen rental business, but I can tell you that our top five colors — white, black, ivory, hunter green and royal blue — they alone do more than the 400 other options,” he says.
Linens are processed out of the Cleveland and Pompano Beach locations. As far as equipment, there are six 125-lb. washing machines in Cleveland and four 125-lb. washing machines in Pompano Beach. Each location has an ironer from Belgium and will soon add a folder on the back of each ironer. “That will help us to redirect some labor in other areas instead of having so many people on the back,” Bibbo says.
To help with spot detection, Bibbo will soon implement “a vision detection system, which uses a video camera to spot stains on the linen. It will see a stain and kick the linen out, so it doesn’t get folded,” he says. He also tracks production through piece counters.
Bibbo also invested in larger boiler systems to make sure the hot water is consistent with the demand.
He says that installing top-grade equipment is a long-term investment, but it is necessary to run a professional laundry service that addresses the needs of his customers.
As far as staff, he has a total of 18 people on the day shift and less at night who are part of the linen area — anything fabric related such as laundry, the napkin department and the chair pad/ties department. This number includes a linen manager who handles everything, a manager of the ironer who handles the processing speed, a manager who oversees the washing process and a lead person on the dock. For the ironer, he has three people on the front end and five on the back.
“We believe in the process of return on the other side. That’s why there’s five people on the other side of the ironer rather than feeding it in and taking it out on the same side. Those are probably where you have to start. If you want to get any type of production, you need to send it through one end and out the other,” he says.
Bibbo admits that jobs in this area can be difficult to fill. He is grateful, though, that he has staff “who are conscientious about the product that is coming out on the other end. It’s all up to them because if they don’t pay attention, the next time you will see that stain is on the table,” he says, noting that he has under 5 percent rewash.
Like other rental operations, he also has found a trusted chemical company to assist with that end of the process. “The chemical side for us always has been about the person servicing the account solutions. Who can program the machine correctly? If you have a problem, does someone come out to help you solve it? We have a close relationship with our rep and receive great service,” he says.
Bibbo said one of his biggest mistakes was centered around chemicals. “Chemical companies can either make or break you. If you don’t have a trusted partner, you can spend a ton of money on chemicals. My philosophy is that as long as we’re getting good results, we’re OK with it, but we had one vendor who was literally pushing chemicals through the machine, then dumping them out and then putting more chemical in. You have to really be on top of the chemical piece of it because otherwise your costs can skyrocket,” he says.
Turnaround is key. “The faster you can get it back on the shelf, the better you are. There are different foods and stains that get on the linens. The sooner you get to washing it the better. What happens sometimes is that there is a backlog, which makes it more difficult to process stains if they are really bad. We strive to keep on top of it,” he says.
While Bibbo does not use RFID for putting linens on the rack, “we are working on a labeling system. Right now, we bring it out of the ironer and put it on a hanger. It goes up to our second floor, where it is automatically bagged. The newest piece of equipment that we plan to install in the next few months will allow us to press a button on a screen for the right size of the linen. After going through the bagger, a label is slapped onto the bag denoting the size of the linen,” he says, adding that he always is looking at ways to improve this area of the business.
Established in 1985, Signature started as a party and tool supply operation and then quickly focused solely on the event side. They now have a main warehouse and showroom in Santa Ana and another one in Indio, near Palm Springs, as well as a showroom in West Hollywood.
For the first 20 years, the company outsourced its linen processing, partnering with a local linen rental and laundering company. “Our company was built in the early days on a lot of caterer work. It snowballed. The volume of linens we were renting got to the point where there was enough volume to justify the capital expense for washing machines, presses, chemicals and finding a good chemical vendor and being able to control the quality on that side. It was a learning curve, and it continues to be,” says Jason Davis, general manager.
When Davis came to the company in 2011, there were two small ironers and two washers. “We have grown over the years. In the last decade we have more than tripled in size. In 2018, we moved to our new facility and rebranded our operation. We took on a large single warehouse space in Santa Ana and expanded our inventory, including our linen offerings, and have continually expanded since then,” he says.
The company now handles about 25,000 events a year. “We have had aggressive double-digit growth for the last decade with the exception of the pandemic. This year we expect to surpass what we did in 2019 and expect to fully recover by the end of the year,” he says.
The move to the new facility in 2018 allowed Signature to redesign and modernize its linen processing operation. “We invested in an ironer from Belgium. We initially had looked to go with tankless heaters. We quickly realized that the amount of heat we needed to generate to run our washing machines was not enough with what we had. We went back to a boiler tank system. Now we have four washing machines: 55-, 90-, 135- and 250-lb. washing machines. We bought the 250-lb. washer after we moved in here. We had a huge volume of linen, so we bought a larger press, but we couldn’t wash enough. We were washing over multiple shifts to play catch-up. We realized that we needed a larger washing machine. That is why we ended up buying the 250-lb. washer, so we can wash enough to keep up with the production of the ironer. That has allowed us to be really efficient,” Davis says.
Like the others, Davis strives for a quick turnaround. “We usually pick up between Saturday night and Sunday. Dirty linens are coming back here, getting offloaded and sorted, usually on Monday, and then we start washing them. They will be processed the same or next day,” he says. “If they sit, they will mildew. It happens quickly, especially where there is more humidity and heat. Linens can’t be allowed to pile up. You have to have a process to get through your wash,” he says.
That is why Davis is a stickler for flow. “It starts closest to the loading dock with dirty and moves forward from there. Having worked with consultants, I also wanted to make sure we were implementing lean management practices, so our night crew drops them by color. They will get mixed between polys and silks. Then the laundry staff sorts by texture for wash. After washing, they set them into the bins for ironing. We have incorporated measures so that our staff move as little as possible. We look for efficiency — not having to walk far and reducing repetitive movements that can lead to injury. We continue to learn by doing,” he says.
He estimates his staff processes about 20 standard laundry carts a day through the ironer. “They are washed and put in a clean laundry cart with a cover so we can keep some moisture in the linen. Then they come up to the machine,” he says.
He has three people on the front end of the ironer. One person pulls the linens out of the cart, opening them up and handing them to the two people who stretch them out, lay them flat and feed them into the ironer.
“We dial the machine to run at the highest speed it will let us — 72 ft. per minute. On the back end of the ironer, we have four team members. They are rotating, taking the linen off the ironer, folding it and putting it on the table. While they are folding it, the other two people come into line, take the linen off and fold it. Behind that I have an additional person who takes all the linens off the table, puts them onto hangers, attaches the size ticket and puts them onto a rolling rack to be bagged and put onto the shelf,” Davis says.
Pre-pandemic, they were running two shifts in their laundry department — a day shift and a second shift. “We have recovered enough to be full capacity on our first shift and looking at starting a second shift. We are excited about that,” he says.
As far as best practices, Davis has found that the right chemicals and the machine settings are essential. “You don’t want a lot of rewash. You want to use the right chemicals in the right amounts. You want the ironer to be at the right speed and temperature to get it dried, ironed and wrinkle-free. You also need dryer settings set properly for the linens you don’t press,” Davis says.
It’s all about “having a global perspective and being strategic instead of short-sighted,” Davis says. He also knows that mistakes will happen. “The key is not to be stubborn. It is OK to make a mistake — staying with that mistake is where you get into trouble, and it costs you. Do your research upfront, find partners who have been there and done that and can mentor you in the process.”