Black-owned dry cleaner struggles to survive amid pandemic

Ponder’s Cleaners owners Deborah Ponder (left) and her husband, Roderick Ponder, sort through clothing at their business in Atlanta on Saturday, June 13, 2020. (Photo: Branden Camp for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution)
Ponder’s Cleaners owners Deborah Ponder (left) and her husband, Roderick Ponder, sort through clothing at their business in Atlanta on Saturday, June 13, 2020. (Photo: Branden Camp for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution)

‘Do we let go, or keep pushing?’

Yvonne Jackson hadn’t been to the cleaners in months.

At 72, she is retired and can usually wait a while. But, last week, there she was, standing outside of Ponder’s 60 Minutes Cleaners with a handful of clothes — looking to do her part to save an Atlanta institution.

“I come here to get my best things done, so I wanted to get my usher’s uniform cleaned,” Jackson said. “I heard about what is going on, and I wouldn’t want to see them go out of business. So, I said, let me get some clothes.”

Ponder's, thought to be the oldest black-owned dry cleaners in Atlanta, is just the latest in a long line of businesses trying to recover and survive amid the coronavirus pandemic, which has wreaked havoc on the economy.

Ponder's Cleaners owner Roderick Ponder waits for customers in Atlanta, Saturday, June 13, 2020. BRANDEN CAMP FOR THE ATLANTA JOURNAL-CONSTITUTION
Ponder's Cleaners owner Roderick Ponder waits for customers in Atlanta, Saturday, June 13, 2020. BRANDEN CAMP FOR THE ATLANTA JOURNAL-CONSTITUTION

RELATED: For black-owned businesses, coronavirus is latest funding challenge

Owner Roderick Ponder applied for and received funding from the federal Paycheck Protection Program, but was denied operational loans to pay for upgrades and equipment. A GoFundMe page was set up in the hopes that the business will get financial support to make those upgrades and pay off debt.

Cleaners were struggling before the pandemic and now the situation is even worse for the Ponders.

While COVID-19 has disproportionately impacted African Americans, infecting and killing them at higher rates than the rest of the population, it has also highlighted existing economic disparities.

Some black business owners also have complained about the difficulty of getting federal assistance and a study released last week by the National Bureau of Economic Research shows, between February and March, 41% of black businesses had to cease operations. Of the 3.3 million small businesses that closed during the pandemic, 440,000 were black-owned.

“You don’t realize how deep and wide this COVID-19 thing is,” said Jackson.

Yvonne Jackson, a long-time customer of Ponder’s Cleaners. “I come here to get my best things done, so I wanted to get my ushers uniform cleaned,” Jackson said. “I heard about what is going on and I wouldn t want to see them go out of business. So, I said, let me get some clothes.”
Yvonne Jackson, a long-time customer of Ponder’s Cleaners. “I come here to get my best things done, so I wanted to get my ushers uniform cleaned,” Jackson said. “I heard about what is going on and I wouldn t want to see them go out of business. So, I said, let me get some clothes.”

Ponder’s closed on Feb. 13 and started up again on May 16. But it’s open only twice a week now — Wednesdays and Saturdays. In May, the 30331 ZIP code, where Ponder’s is located, had the highest total number of COVID-19 cases in Fulton County.

“We noticed that things started changing back as 2008 when the economy tanked,” said Ponder’s wife, Deborah Ponder. “Then having to shut down completely for two, three months because of COVID-19 was hard on us. We are having to exhaust our personal funds and are asking ourselves, do we let go, or keep pushing?”

That is a question dry cleaners are asking all over the country.

Ann Hargrove, director of events for the National Cleaners Association, said the pandemic has set forth a slow chain of events.

Since the pandemic hit, 42.6 million people in the country have applied for unemployment, according to the U.S. Department of Labor. Many of those who are working, are doing it from home. Schools and churches are virtual. Clubs have shut down and people aren’t even going on dates anymore. Nobody is getting dressed up, and nobody is going to the cleaners.

“When people started working from home, everybody started wearing things they can drop in the washing machine instead of bringing in an armload of clothes to the cleaners,” Hargrove said. “When is the last time you wore a tie?”

» COMPLETE COVERAGE: Coronavirus in Georgia

Ponder's Cleaners owners Deborah Ponder, left, and her husband, Roderick Ponder, wait for customers at their business in Atlanta, Saturday, June 13, 2020. BRANDEN CAMP FOR THE ATLANTA JOURNAL-CONSTITUTION
Ponder's Cleaners owners Deborah Ponder, left, and her husband, Roderick Ponder, wait for customers at their business in Atlanta, Saturday, June 13, 2020. BRANDEN CAMP FOR THE ATLANTA JOURNAL-CONSTITUTION

She doesn’t have a sense of how many dry cleaners have closed during the pandemic but talks daily with owners who say business has been dreadfully slow since they reopened.

Some have gotten federal loans that allow them to pay workers, Hargrove said. “It is one thing to bring the employees back, but you gotta have the clothes. Just like everybody else, we are all a little afraid.”

Ponder’s 60 Minutes Cleaners sits in the corner of a nondescript shopping center that houses a storefront church, barbershop and dollar store on Campbellton Road in southwest Atlanta. Across the parking lot, a Jamaican restaurant fills the air with the enticing aroma of grilled meats.

It is a view Ponder’s has had for 50 years.

In 1970, just two years after the assassination of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. and three years before Maynard Jackson was elected Atlanta’s first black mayor, Margaret Ponder secured a loan with the Small Business Administration and opened a dry cleaner in what was then a white neighborhood. She promised service in an hour and specialized in alterations and hand cleaning high-end fabrics like silks, sequined, linens and designer knits.

“It was very revolutionary,” said Ponder’s oldest daughter Jackie Ponder-Howard. “This was an all-white neighborhood, and I think a lot of people thought mom was the help.”

Bible tracks are displayed at Ponder's Cleaners as owners Deborah Ponder, left, and her husband, Roderick Ponder, sort through clothing at their business in Atlanta, Saturday, June 13, 2020. BRANDEN CAMP FOR THE ATLANTA JOURNAL-CONSTITUTION
Bible tracks are displayed at Ponder's Cleaners as owners Deborah Ponder, left, and her husband, Roderick Ponder, sort through clothing at their business in Atlanta, Saturday, June 13, 2020. BRANDEN CAMP FOR THE ATLANTA JOURNAL-CONSTITUTION

Margaret Ponder, who died in 2002, also did missionary work. Her legacy still resonates in the business she built. Some people come in just for the rack of religious tracts and devotionals that sit on the counter.

“She was always progressive,” said Roderick Ponder, adding that his mother learned the business by working in white-owned dry cleaners and figuring out their technique. “She came to a point where she said, ‘I can do this myself.’ She didn’t play and the main reason is she wanted to leave something for her children.”

All six of Margaret Ponder’s children have worked in the cleaners.

But it has been tough. Over the last decade, at least 10 newer dry cleaners have opened within five miles of Ponder’s.

“Every year, it gets slower because this is about discretionary money,” he said. “Dry cleaning is a dying breed.”

This is why the Ponder family is trying so hard to keep the doors open.

A niece posted the family's story on social media and set up the GoFundMe account, with the goal of raising $250,000. They are still a long way off, but "anything helps," Roderick Ponder said.

Ponder’s Cleaners owner Deborah Ponder (center) hands a receipt to a customer as her husband, Roderick Ponder, sorts clothing at their business in Atlanta, Saturday, June 13, 2020. (Photo: Branden Camp for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution)
Ponder’s Cleaners owner Deborah Ponder (center) hands a receipt to a customer as her husband, Roderick Ponder, sorts clothing at their business in Atlanta, Saturday, June 13, 2020. (Photo: Branden Camp for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution)

An Instagram post from rapper and activist Killer Mike — “Headed there this week to drop off my clothes. #SupportBlackBusiness” — garnered more than 79,000 likes.

That is partly why Ingrid Glenn, who had never heard of the cleaners before, drove across town from Buckhead to drop off a load of clothes.

“This is about supporting a black business that I do not want to shut down,” Glenn said. “If I have to drive all the way over here to support a black business, that is the least I can do.”

Ingrid Glenn, who had never used Ponder’s before, drove from Buckhead to the Southside to drop off a load of clothes because, “This is about supporting a black business that I do not want to shut down.”
Ingrid Glenn, who had never used Ponder’s before, drove from Buckhead to the Southside to drop off a load of clothes because, “This is about supporting a black business that I do not want to shut down.”

Nowadays, Ponder’s allows only one customer at a time inside.

Wearing masks, and with a bottle of hand sanitizer handy, the Ponders carefully handle each piece of clothing.

A garment can hold the virus for four hours, a button for 24 hours and a zipper for three days, said Hargrove, from the National Cleaners Association.

“Our base customers have rallied behind us,” said Roderick Ponder, sorting a load of clothes. “We are going to stay open. But, because of COVID-19, I don’t think we will ever operate the same again.”

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