Located at 607 N. Hughes on West Amarillo Boulevard, North Heights Linen Service sits on a lot that once housed the prestigious Inn of Amarillo. Formerly known as the Vic-Mon Hotel and then the Holiday Inn West, this once-luxe destination welcomed travelers along Route 66 in the 1950s and 1960s. Then it fell into decline. NHLS Board Member Bowden Jones grew up in the neighborhood but couldn’t remember the last time it had been in operation. To him, the derelict Inn exemplified the lack of attention given to the North Heights over the years. “It had been kind of forgotten,” he says. A prominent new business in its place feels symbolic of progress.
Finally, Amarillo’s dirty laundry will stay in Amarillo. As the summer wraps up, construction at the North Heights Linen Service has finished, industrial equipment has been installed, and the first employees of this new enterprise are cleaning hospital linens. It represents the culmination of 10 years of dreaming and planning.
“It’s been decades since there’s been any significant new movement in the North Heights,” says Bowden Jones Jr., a board member of the North Heights Linen Service (NHLS), which oversees the new business in a partnership with the North Heights Advisory Association and the St. Anthony’s Legacy and Redevelopment Corp. (SALAR).
Before its opening in recent weeks, local health care and nursing home facilities were sending their soiled linens off to places like Albuquerque or Oklahoma City. There simply wasn’t a place in Amarillo to handle that kind of volume. The new business in the North Heights means those jobs and dollars can stay in Amarillo. Specifically, it brings much-needed development to the historic neighborhood.
The new venture is modeled after the Evergreen Laundry in Cleveland, Ohio, a worker-owned cooperative that provides jobs for individuals who have, for whatever reason, struggled to find well-paying, sustainable careers. “Employees will have an opportunity to have ownership,” says Jones. Individual wealth, he says, often begins with ownership. “By creating this laundry as a co-op, it gives employees who have not had the skills or opportunities to have a living-wage job and something they can have ownership over.” As these workers become fully vested at the laundry—making them partial owners of the whole enterprise—the additional income will benefit their families and the entire neighborhood.
A partnership with Amarillo College adds an educational component to the work. The new building includes a
classroom space equipped with computers and instructional technology. This allows employees to learn financial literacy, earn a GED, and become familiar with the ins and outs of business. “As this co-op is implemented, the employees will have opportunities to have input on decisions made at the laundry,” says Jones. “They’ll need basic knowledge to read a profit-and-loss statement and understand those decisions. This gives them the best opportunity to be successful.”
Currently, the new laundry service operates with a couple dozen employees under the supervision of General Manager Richard Engler and Assistant GM Reuben Morales, both of whom have extensive experience in commercial and health care laundry operations. Eventually the laundry will employ up to 100 workers, allowing it to service 6 million pounds of linens per year. Should the need arise, the building was built with space to expand.
Engler and Morales both moved to Amarillo over the summer. The duo had been working in similar capacities in the Metroplex area. While Engler relishes the opportunity to start a laundry service from the ground up, he says the unique ownership model and humanitarian focus at NHLS are the icing on the cake. “I had heard about this and, the more I looked, the more enamored I became with the ideas behind this project and the leadership’s vision,” Engler says. “The deeper I got, the more gratitude I feel to be a part of it. It’s such a gift. This is an unexpected pleasure.”
Creating sustainable, life-enriching careers is one of the laundry’s goals. “A huge detractor for people is having to work long hours,” Engler says. For instance, a typical 8-to-5 workday is not always convenient for single parents who need to pick up kids from school. While many similar facilities run 24 hours a day, the board’s desire to create “liveable jobs” means limited hours. On most weekdays, the machines run from 6 a.m. until 6 p.m., in staggered shifts for the convenience of employees who need to keep early mornings or late afternoons open.
A few days before the business officially opened—on the cusp of receiving the first laundry deliveries from customers—the management team gave Brick & Elm an exclusive tour of the new facility. The impressively automated washing tunnel, dryer and folding machines are now humming, and being managed by a workforce of employees on a smooth pathway to business ownership and success.
North Heights Laundry Service General Manager Richard Engler (left) has worked in the hospital linens industry for decades, most recently as the textile processing manager for JPS Health Network in Fort Worth. “I’ve been running health care laundries for 25 or 30 years,” he says. Reuben Morales has been in the business for five years. Arriving this summer, both expressed how impressed they were not just with the North Heights Laundry Service mission and focus, but also with the city of Amarillo itself. “It has continued to exceed my expectations,” Engler says.
Once sorted, dirty linens ride a conveyor into a segmented wash tunnel. More than 50 feet long, these fully automated batch washers serve as an assembly line, with linens passing from compartment into compartment as they are cleaned. Each of the 10 chambers douses the linens in clean water and a fresh dose of sterilization agents.
Computer displays reveal what type of linen is running through each chamber, along with the weight of the products and even the customer.
Newly cleaned laundry passes out of the final washing chamber and into an enormous press, which squeezes the batch of linens into what Morales calls a “cake.” Think of it as a 100-pound pile of sterilized hospital gowns, compressed into the shape of a giant hockey puck. “That gets all the excess moisture out and then it goes into our dryer system,” he says.
The linens are then tumble-dried with heated air before dropping into carts at the end. Two pocket loads from the washer can be dried at a time. Like everything else at the laundry, this process is fully automated and can be customized based on the category of linens.
By far the most visually impressive process in the laundry, these folding machines take loose pieces of clean linen—from a hand towel to a bedsheet—and run them through a system of components before dropping a perfectly folded product onto a conveyor belt. These crisp, clean linens then travel down the conveyor until they are packed back up for the client.
Programmed to handle specific items, the machines can iron, fold and stack each linen in a number of seconds. “You’ve got to love automation,” Reuben Morales says. “The machines take the majority of the hard labor out of it. That’s the great thing about the laundry and linen industry: There’s so much automation to it.”