Rising from the ashes

KOLOA — Samuel Liu could not believe what he was told when he was approached by Up to Date Cleaners in 1992 following the devastation caused by Hurricane Iniki.

“They said the price was too high,” said the founder of United Laundry in Honolulu about negotiating the cost of cleaning linen, which would be flown over from the storm-ravaged Kauai. “They would do this for their customers? I had to lower my prices, but I told them they would have to pay the freight. They agreed. But I had to come over to see how they operate because I just couldn’t believe what they were doing.”

For Shari Makizuru and the ohana at Up to Date Cleaners, dealing with disasters while serving the community is part of doing business on an island.

The company suffered an industrial fire at its main Koloa plant in 2011.

“This was the first time we had to shut down,” said Makizuru, who came on board as owner that year. “The day after the fire, everyone helped clean up.”

Remy Ragus, business manager, said they were out doing whatever needed to be done to get back in operation.

“I remember mixing coffee and cooking eggs for breakfast every morning for the people who came to help,” Ragus said. “We did whatever needed to do.”

Following the fire, Makizuru conferred with Liu, the general manager of the operation.

“If we’re going to rescue this business, we need a clean slate,” Makizuru said. “We need to get equipment. I don’t ever want to have to shut down, again.”

The first priority was a switch gear electrical to allow the company to independently operate its battery of washing machines, dryers and pressing gear. The switch gear operates with a capacity of 1,600 amps and draws off the utility company’s 480-volt line.

“I almost got fired because I couldn’t get the switch gear here soon enough,” said Liu. “But Shari had total commitment.”

Today, the last remaining piece of the rebuild following the fire is being put in place. Up to Date Cleaners now operates two outlets in Koloa, a small center in Princeville, and services commercial laundry and dry cleaner services to the health-care and hospitality industries on Kauai.

“We’re the biggest laundry service on Kauai,” Liu said. “Shari told me, ‘We had better be ready, and not just blow equipment every six years.’ We’re finally coming to fruition in recovering from disaster — like the phoenix who comes from the ashes.”

People have noticed.

Up to Date Cleaners, which celebrates its 75th anniversary this year, was recently awarded the Small Business Administration, Kauai County Family-Owned Business award.

Makizuru is the third generation of the Makizuru family to keep the business alive. Her grandparents, Zenzo and Shizuyo Makizuru, started it in 1941.

“Actually, it was my grandmother Shizuyo who did this as a part-time business to earn extra money,” she said.

Liu said Up to Date Cleaners is ready for any challenge.

It has an isolation room where it can process laundry from the hospitals. It also has a FEMA house, in which it stores sufficient linen, scrubs and other items to supply hospitals in emergencies. The supplies are new and locked in a special house on the property, ready to go at a phone call.

There was even an instance when the laundry machinery aboard a cruise ship broke down and Up to Date Cleaners was called on to process 14,000 pounds of laundry. Another major resort had a similar breakdown, and Up to Date Cleaners took care of its laundry during the outage.

“It’s not just me,” Makizuru said. “It’s the crew of 40 employees and managers. They do it all. When the ship had its laundry emergency, we had to put on an extra shift to accommodate the load, but they did it. We have a good crew. I just couldn’t operate without any of them.”

Liu said Up to Date Cleaners is back to the old days of hiring employees.

“They don’t necessarily have to have degrees, or background,” he said. “Shari talks to them, and if they have the willingness and the right attitude, they become part of the family.”

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