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.
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.
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.
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 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 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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