How a laundromat became a community hub in the Mission

It’s Tuesday morning at Planet Clean Laundry on Mission Street between 18th and 19th and two men leaning against the windows inside are drinking from Budweiser tallboys. Admiring the view on Mission, the day drinkers gaze out the front window while blasting N’Sync’s “I Want it That Way” from a baby-blue Bluetooth speaker. Their conversations range from fighting techniques to haircuts to missing absent friends. 

The speaker’s owner, a younger-looking man wearing a soccer jersey and Adidas sweatpants, takes a sip from his beer as a new friend armed with a fierce-looking mustache arrives and catches them gazing at Bella Salon across the street. 

“I got my haircut there,” the mustachioed friend says as he matches their gaze on the beauty salon.

The older man looks at him and smirks.

“Really? What did they cut?” the older man jokes. 

Before long, they elect to leave together, saving Scott Chernis, the owner of the laundry at 2267 Mission St., the trouble of having to kick the men out.  

Drinking at Planet Clean Laundry can be a bit jarring for patrons coming in to wash their loads for the week. Sometimes they will complain to the owner, who then has the “awkward” task of asking men to leave his laundromat. 

What makes it awkward?

“This is their neighborhood. Sure, I own the place, but I don’t live here. They do,” Chernis said.

And for them, the laundromat is clean, economical — $3.25 for a big load and a quarter for every seven minutes in the dryer  — and relatively safe. 

“I’ve never seen a fight inside here. Maybe outside, but people keep it peaceful here. That’s probably because of the cameras,” said Sergio, a newly arrived immigrant from the Yucatan peninsula who works at a nearby pizza shop and sends money home to his family in Mexico. 

Planet Clean is not only close, he said, “it also has free wifi.”

And some find offerings other than machines. On Tuesday, Elvis Saraceno was looking for housing by checking the back wall for a second before turning back out. 

“I come here every once in a while to check the advertisements,” Saraceno said after looking at the corkboard on the wall next to the owner’s office. It has hand-written announcements for everything from missing dogs to rooms for rent.

Though this was only one stop among many, Saraceno said he’s been able to find good deals posted on the back wall of the laundromat on occasion. His friend, he said, needs to find a room to rent and recruited him to help scour notice boards in the Mission.

“I’ve got a place, thankfully, but my friend doesn’t and I told him I’d look. I just ended up giving this place a second glance,” Saraceno said. 

In this part of the Mission, where life moves quickly, a second glance can help bring about a new opportunity in life.

The other Planet Clean Laundromat at 3343 18th St. Photo by Abraham Rodriguez.

Chernis, the owner, knows a thing or two about opportunity. 

Though he also works as a commercial photographer, Chernis found an hour between gigs to drive over to the Mission in his grey Toyota Prius to drop off some much-needed supplies — boxes full of laundry detergent and fabric softener. 

To Chernis, a laundromat is a lot like the rivers he saw in Peru where villagers turn up to do their laundry. In washing their clothes at the same place, he said, villages developed a stronger sense of community. 

“It’s a meeting place, it’s a community center and as a practical matter people go to wash their clothes,” Chernis said as he pulled out boxes from his Prius.

He owns two laundromats in the Mission— this one on Mission and another around the corner on 18th Street. His patrons know him well. When they see him on the street, they’ll wave and smile. He also pays a couple of them to help clean and maintain the laundromats. Sometimes the machines break but he always offers a refund, he said.

As he wheels the boxes of detergent into the storage room, Chernis explains his business philosophy: keep things clean and safe for everyone and keep prices as economical as possible. 

Initially, he wanted to run solar panels and help keep the business green, which is how he managed to come up with the name “Planet Clean Laundry.” But the plan faltered since he doesn’t own any of the buildings.

He got his start in the laundromat business during the recession as his photography business slowed down. While doing a photoshoot in 2011 in Chinatown, he noticed a laundromat was being sold. He overheard someone talking about how the neighborhood needed another laundromat and something clicked. Though he’s lived in San Francisco since 1995, he never once considered the role of a laundromat in a community. 

“This is a business that people are really involved with,” Chernis said. 

Scott Chernis, owner of Planet Clean Laundry, looks at the old sign for Mission Clean Laundry. He had it hanging outside of the laundromat he bought in 2013 until recently. Photo by Abraham Rodriguez.

Discovering the networks and business associations of laundromat owners, he decided to jump in and found a way to purchase his first business at 168 School St. in Daly City. Then in 2012, he found another one for sale on 18th street and bought it from its former owner who was on the verge of retiring for health reasons. Then, in 2013, he finalized the purchase of Planet Clean.

As he stacks up boxes in the storage room, Chernis recalls the day he got a call about a group of men drinking inside the laundromat and watching a soccer game on the television. He pulled up the security camera feed on his phone saw a group of men getting loud and drinking. But he decided to solve this problem without calling the cops or initiating a confrontation. He called up Comcast and had them turn off the television connection.

Within minutes of doing so, the men left and the laundromat was left empty. 

On a recent Tuesday afternoon, Chernis tackled a few more tasks: He loaded up the vending machine with new bottles of cleaning supplies, fixed a dryer in minutes and pulled out coins that were jammed in a coin slot and handed them back to his customer. 

Then he knelt down next to a broken washing machine displaying an error code. 

“Watch this, it’s probably just coins stuck in a flap,” he said. 

Within moments he had taken off the front of the machine, removed a tube and extracted two dollars in quarters that had clogged up one of the tubes.

“At least I’ve got my parking money now,” Chernis said.