COLUMBIA, N.C. — When Mark Yacobi heard that a fire had struck the small-town laundry and linen service where he worked, he thought it was no big deal.
“I was expecting to see a little bit of damage,” he remembers.
But when he arrived at Whitecap Linen on Feb. 23, 2006, he found the laundry and its equipment nearly destroyed.
Of the 17 washers, including two 250-pounders, only five, with a capacity ranging from 50 to 100 pounds, were salvageable. Twelve 200-pound dryers, three ironers and two folders were charred and mangled beyond repair. Lenses on the electric lights had melted. The 25,000-square-foot building’s sheet-metal exterior was marked with holes and scorch marks.
A small, portable fluorescent light on a table near the dryers is considered the cause of the fire, says Monica Mauffray, vice president of ownership company Graywater Traders. It either had faulty wiring or it overheated, she says.
“I’m not going to have a job,” Yacobi remembers thinking. He supervises sales and customer service for this eastern North Carolina laundry that cleans and, in many cases, supplies the linens for some 200 restaurants, small hotels and motels, and home-rental agencies along the coast.
He couldn’t have been more wrong. Owner Bob Oakes, who had started the company in 1999 to serve rental units of his Nags Head-based Village Realty, determined that Whitecap would not only stay in business, it would do it without missing a beat.
He made the decision, he says, but he credits his self-motivated staff with the actual work. “You just couldn’t ask for more from a group of people.”
The day after the fire “was pretty much a crying day,” recalls Mauffray. But it was also a day of contacting customers who, at that time of year, were primarily restaurants that leased Whitecap linens. Those who were expecting deliveries that day were informed that the trucks would come the next day.
Mauffray, then manager and co-owner John Brabrand, Yacobi and production supervisor Sonia Salazar found some undamaged linens still in the trucks. Some packages of cleaned, folded linen stored in the relatively untouched back of the buildings were usable. And they got on the phone to order more.
“We only missed one day of regularly scheduled deliveries,” Yacobi says proudly.
‘WE HAD LAUNDRY COMING OUT OF OUR EARS’
Just four years earlier, Whitecap had moved inland from a smaller site in Manteo, 35 miles east on the Outer Banks. It opened in Columbia with a new building and all-new equipment, but a skeletal operation had remained in Manteo for a time.
Two weeks before the blaze, five small (50 to 100 pounds) washers and five small dryers – the last remaining pieces of equipment – had been moved to Columbia and the Manteo building closed.
Seventeen UniMac washer-extractors enable Whitecap Linen to produce nearly 250,000 pounds weekly during the busy summer season.
These were the only pieces of equipment not destroyed, and they became the nucleus of Whitecap’s effort to stay in business while rebuilding.
The bolts were cut and the machines moved back to Manteo. “We had to put the light fixtures back up,” recalls Mauffray. “We had linens on the front porch, the street, the back, the sides. We had laundry coming out of our ears.”
Some of what couldn’t be handled in Manteo went home with the crew. Salazar had clotheslines strung across her backyard with hundreds of bar towels flapping in the breeze. The team bought hand irons. “I did a bunch of tablecloths and ironed them,” Yacobi remembers.
One coin laundry closed to the public in the evenings to let Whitecap use its equipment. At another, Whitecap employees took their chances getting their turn at the machines. The regular customers, Mauffray says, “were getting a little upset because we took over the whole thing. We would send four or five girls at a time.”
Within five months, Whitecap was back in business at the partially gutted and rebuilt Columbia location. Oakes outfitted it with some $900,000 in new equipment supplied by Consolidated Laundry Equipment in Raleigh.
The machinery included 17 UniMac washer-extractors (12 of them 150-pound capacity, five were 100 pounds), a dozen 200-pound-capacity UniMac dryers, two G.A. Braun three-roll steam ironers, a small Chicago Dryer Co. ironer and two Braun towel folders. The Manteo site was again closed.
Then, less than one year later, disaster struck again.
‘BAD CALL TO GET’
It was late afternoon on April 27 this year when Mauffray got word of another fire. “I thought, ‘Oh, dear Lord,’” she says.
The culprit, she was told, was the heating element in a strapping machine used to package linen. The device likely hadn’t been unplugged at the end of the workday.
Owner Oakes was in Las Vegas. “I’d just come out of a class in liability and risk management. That was a bad call to get.”
He decided again to forge ahead. “We had customers who stuck with us through the first fire. We really couldn’t let them down at the second.” Deliveries went out the day after the fire.
This time, damage was not as overwhelming as it had been in 2006. Of all the machines, only three dryers were lost, though all had to be rewired and their computer motherboards replaced.
“It was just a lot of cleaning,” Mauffray says. “Any little nook and cranny, (there was) soot and smoke.”
Instead of gutting the building, Whitecap had it repaired, with the management team calling shots from a picnic table outside. “We like to call it command central,” says Yacobi.
Rick Foister, a laundry industry veteran, had taken over as general manager from Brabrand, who had retired. He got on the phone to laundries across the state and in Virginia, finding four that could handle portions of Whitecap’s load.
One of them, Alsco textile service in Chesapeake, Va., opened its doors to Whitecap employees, who worked from there. It was decided that Whitecap’s Manteo site would remain closed.
“We were well versed in what to do,” Yacobi remembers. Several employees descended on nearby coin-ops, loaded with comforters that customers were submitting for spring-cleaning.
“It took forever for them to dry,” Yacobi remembers. When the employees’ money ran out, “I came back and got $500 worth of quarters. An hour and a half later, I had to get more.”
Deliveries began the day after the April 27 fire, and production resumed at the refurbished plant within a month’s time. During its peak weeks this summer, the laundry processed 249,000 pounds weekly. Not a single customer was lost, Mauffray says, and about 20 have been gained in the past year.
COMMITTED TO THEIR CUSTOMERS
Security guards now watch over the building after the last shift leaves, and a sprinkler system is in the design stage.
There have been some changes: Security guards now watch over the building after the last shift leaves; there are two shifts in the summer. “They look at everything that could possibly go wrong,” says Mauffray. They check to see if everything electrical is unplugged. If there’s still laundry in the dryers, they take it out.
In addition, the building has been wired so that electrical outlets hang from the ceiling, in plain view. And a sprinkler system is in the design stage. “Sure wish I had invested in a sprinkler system after the first fire,” Oakes says ruefully.
Whitecap’s management gives credit to the local volunteer fire department, suppliers and friends for helping them stay in business.
“The Columbia Fire Department did an excellent job on both (of the fires),” Oakes says.
Besides seeking help from Consolidated Laundry Equipment, Whitecap turned to Hulon C. McCraw of Horseshoe, N.C., to rework its ironers and to Glenn Davenport of Davco Electric in Kill Devil Hills, N.C., to handle the laundry’s electrical needs after the second fire.
“They are really super, super people,” Mauffray says. “We’ll always be in their debt.”
And Whitecap’s people recognize the worth of their own hard work.
“A lot of people did things they’d never done before,” Yacobi remembers. Even during the worst times, he says, they remained committed to their customers. “We pulled together, and we’re still here, because of what we did back then.”
“We had a great team then,” says Mauffray. “We’ve got a great team now.”