Sanitary Cleaners: A Long Look Back

It’s not quite in Westport.

But Sanitary Cleaners — right over the Norwalk line, on Route 1 (Westport Avenue) — served local residents, cleanly and sanitarily and with great spirit, for half a century.

The doors close for the final time next Saturday. The building — and the Wine Cellar next door, plus 7 homes — will be torn down. In their place: 136 new apartments.

Sanitary Cleaners

The business dates back to 1929. When many stores failed during the Depression, Morris Epstein opened a fine tailor shop in South Norwalk.

It grew quickly. Epstein expanded into cleaning and laundering. He moved to larger locations, eventually settling in at the current location. His grandson Richard Epstein and wife Gail took over.

An early incarnation of Sanitary Cleaners.

In 1984 they unveiled a state-of-the-art facility, including 2 tailors, the area’s first drive-thru, a vault for immediate pick-up or drop-off, and — the Hour reported — “the first and only computer in Fairfield County that actually writes customers’ tickets to insure correct pricing and accuracy.”

In 1996, Ann and Ben Chung took over from the Epsteins. They were from South Korea. In a classic immigrant story, Ben arrived in the US with just $20.

They worked in Queens garment factories and appliance shops. They saved enough money to build something of their own. They bought Sanitary Cleaners, and with their 2 daughters moved to Westport.

Ann helped customers at the front counter, and with alterations. Her tailoring brought a very loyal clientele.

Ann Chung, at the front counter.

Ben took care of pick up and delivery. He also operated and repaired the machinery, some dating back to the 1950s.

Sanitary’s 3 floors included a basement, and a main level full of garment conveyors, shirt presses, and dry cleaning machines.

The vast interior included Sanitary Cleaners’ conveyor belts.

The upstairs office served as Sharon Chung’s playroom as a child.

She recalls the drive-thru: “a convenient choice for families with young children in the backseat.”

The vault was a large chilled room, at one time packed floor to ceiling with rows of fur coats. “The cleaners was so hot in summers — far beyond 100 degrees inside — so the vault was a cool space to sneak in for a short break,” Sharon says.

Soon, all that will be left are memories. Fur coats waned in popularity. Office wear grew more casual; so did the number of people working at home. A developer saw potential for new homes, on land backing up to a residential zone.

Ben and Ann Chung, before their store closes.

Ben and Ann Chung hoped to continue work, and eventually sell the business. The apartment plans came as a shock.

Still, their daughter Sharon says, “They’re very proud of what they built, and continuing the tradition of excellent service.

“They really valued their customers deeply. They opened early to greet commuters, put in extra long hours during prom season, and got to know the personal stories of many regulars.”

They have no plans yet for beyond Saturday, when the doors close for the last time.

Generations of loyal customers say thank you, and wish Ben and Ann Chung many years of health and happiness.

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13 responses to “Sanitary Cleaners: A Long Look Back

  1. Barbara Sherburne '67

    Half a century, I imagine, and not half a decade. 136 new apartments will definitely make a difference in how this area looks. Good luck to the Chungs in the future.

  2. A very nice story of the journey of people who worked hard to make a life in this great country. My in-laws knew the folks who started the business and I have been getting my shirts done there for years. Such nice people. You come to this country with almost nothing and find success. So nice to read about their journey.

  3. Westport is now relegated to Flashbacks and postcards. This (used to be) small town is done as we who knew it know it. The population is quickly overwhelming the geography of the town, as we see driving in and out of parking lots (a woman sped up to cut me off entering TJ parking lot off Compo South), on 95, and wait until beach season officially opens. The casual, comfortable way of life we had enjoyed to much is now an aggressive challenge to get from point A to point B and survive.

  4. Thank you for the story about the Chungs. We have been customers for 30+ years and have observed first hand the long hours and hard work of Ann and Ben. Honestly, when I went in to say good-bye and give Ann a hug, we both had tears in our eyes. I wish them all the very best in their next chapter and will miss them.

  5. First Gail and Richard and now the Chungs…….they were all fabulous and I hope the Chungs open or work elsewhere in the area on a selfish note! Blessings and luck………

  6. My family moved to Westport in 1960 from Brooklyn, NY. We moved so that my Dad could join a family owned Real Estate Development Company My parents Allen and Ellen Wisser and my two brothers and I, Jamie and Kerry loved living in Westport.
    I graduated from Staples H.S. In 1972 and loved the school, my friends and the cohesiveness of the Westport community.
    My parents are deceased and my brothers have moved out of town so I am the last member of the Wisser family to maintain a presence in the town that we all grew up in. My company Ilise Gold Life Management, LLC is a psychotherapy practice still located in Westport. My partner Fritz Heilbron and I,and my children Alanna and Davin Gold ,have been loyal customers of Sanitary Cleaners since the Epstein’s owned it. The Chung family continued to provide the high quality of service throughout their ownership. I will miss them and their extraordinary of professional service a great deal. I am saddened to see another one of my favorite Westport small family businesses close down. LI wish the Chung family the best of luck in their future endeavors. I am grateful for all their years
    of contribution to the Westport community. Best, Ilise Gold,LPC

  7. Cristina Negrin

    And all I can say is “really??? Another apartment building???” What about the traffic? My family moved to Westport when I was 13 in 1960. The town of Norwalk was building apartments and condos then and we looked on as it became a city. Roads and cars weren’t a problem then but still….look what has happened!!! Foot note: Jeff and I moved to Cedarville MI 3 years ago in the MI UP. We love it and miss you all but I’ll say it now: “Cedarville MI is Westport CT I remember 60 years ago. I will not be alive long enough to see the future here but I’d like to think we have learned our mistakes when it comes to the environment and the wildlife and how we can address the population and traffic and the roads which don’t seem to acknowledge the population growth

  8. Sanitary Cleaners has been a cornerstone of our family’s life in Westport for the past 20 years. Our deep thanks and appreciation to Ann and Ben and their staff for keeping us going, for Ann’s remarkable tailoring, and for the kindness and grace they offered at every visit. Best wishes for the future, Lynn and Jeff Rider

  9. Marianne Seggerman

    I’ve been going to Sanitary Cleaners since Richard ran it and it was on the other side of the street. I will miss them – thank you Dan for telling his story and that of the Chungs.

  10. Robyn Levy/Weisz

    Best of luck to the Chungs! They provided our wonderful dry cleaning service for several years.

  11. WIshing good luck, good health, and much happiness to Anna and Ben and their family. It was always a pleasure to drop in to drop off or pick up clothes for cleaning or tailoring. Although Adam and I have moved to a different part of the country, we remember you warmly, and Prissa, too: Thank you so much, Anna and Ben, for all that you gave us (along to so many others) over the years that you were in Westport. May your kind hearts and hard work be rewarded with goodness in all the years ahead.

  12. I remember going to the drive through sitting in the back of the car with my dad in the 80’s and early 90’s. Every week he had his shirts cleaned and pressed and his suits cleaned occasionally. These days hardly anyone seems to wear a suit everyday, and with so much work being done remotely, even dress shirts are no longer an everyday thing either. Definitely a shame they’re closing though.

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