Margaret’s wins big as Best Family Owned Business

The La Jolla dry cleaner maintains the name of the woman who started it in 1953; though she’s long gone, it remains a family owned and operated establishment.

Margaret’s at 7511 La Jolla Blvd. is so homespun, in fact, that it recently received the 2006 Best Medium-sized Family Owned Business Award from the San Diego Business Journal and the University of San Diego Family Business Forum.

Managing the day-to-day operations at Margaret’s is Chuck Horst, company president, who, along with five other family members - father and mother, sister and brother and an uncle - run the shop, which serves all of San Diego County. Margaret’s also has stores in Del Mar and Newport Beach.

“There are six of us in the family here every day,” said Chuck Horst. “We all live in Escondido within a mile of each other. We all eat lunch every day at Harry’s.”

Horst noted Margaret’s is not your garden-variety dry cleaner.

“We’re a couture cleaner,” he noted. “There’s only a handful of us across the country.”

Synonymous with customization, couture is a term derived from the sewing world. “A seamstress who is couture means that everything is hand-fitted,” Horst said. “It’s all done with individual personalization. The dress isn’t a size 14. The dress is a size for Janet Smith. Sophistication, that’s what we try to do here.”

Dry cleaning customers know what they want, said Horst. Whether that means putting all their white shirts in a box, folding a man’s pants over a hanger because he has a double-level closet, or hanging a lady’s silk and linen pants from the waist so they don’t crease, Margaret’s strives to give it to them.

Margaret’s employs a sophisticated computer system that can track the progress of every garment that comes in, as well as profiling the preferences of every customer, so the shop knows exactly how they want their clothes handled.

About 1,700 garments, pretty evenly divided between men’s and women’s items, are processed daily at Margaret’s. Horst characterized his shop, which has a customer outlet adjacent to a processing plant in La Jolla, as being high-price point. The average cost of an item dry cleaned at Margaret’s is $17. Pants are a little less. Dresses a little more.

Drycleaning means low-moisture, not the total lack of moisture. Some fabrics need more specialized attention than others. Wool generally requires dry cleaning. Silk and cashmere are almost always dry cleaned. Horst noted dry cleaning is a much more exacting process than wet cleaning in removing stains and leaving clothes ready to wear. “Something that’s dry cleaned is pretty close to the way it’s going to look,” he said, “whereas something that’s wet cleaned doesn’t look the way it’s intended.”

Because a number of different specialized solvents are used in the cleansing process, dry cleaning is better than wet cleaning at getting out many kinds of stains . But there are some stains, like “sweet” stains, soda pop, things containing sugar, that are difficult for the dry cleaning process to get out. For removing oil-based stains, dry cleaning does a much better job than wet cleaning as well.

The Horst family is into its fourth generation in the dry cleaning business. Chuck Horst’s great-grandfather started the family business in Ohio. A physicist, Chuck Horst was in California when his parents came out to the state to retire. He said his father, John Horst, was a little too young to retire. So John and his wife Barbara purchased the five-employee Margaret’s Knit Blocking business in 1987, after successfully running their own 80-employee dry cleaning business for 34 years in Ohio.

The defense industry was in decline in San Diego when Chuck Horst’s father bought Margaret’s. Chuck is glad he made the decision to switch from defense to dry cleaning. “I get an immediate response to my efforts,” he pointed out. “Working on a defense project, it may not come to fruition until after you’ve retired. But here when I do something, I get to see its value almost immediately.”

In the 20 years that the Horst family has operated Margaret’s, a number of unique items have come through the door to be dry cleaned. Said Chuck Horst: “Last year we did about a dozen Civil War uniforms for a woman in Orange County in her 90s. She wanted to restore them and get them back East to her brother who was passing away and was a Civil War buff, to cheer him up. We had to find out which side he was on. We didn’t want to turn them over and cause his demise by sending him the enemies’ stuff.”

Margaret’s also does a lot of bridal business, so much so that it has a special division devoted to it. Horst related another story about a time when Margaret’s was called upon to “resurrect” someone’s wedding dress, right before the ceremony. “I had a bride call me about six months ago from Hawaii,” he said. “The cleaner had ruined her dress. She said, ‘It stinks, and it has shrunk: I’m getting married in 24 hours.’

“She flew over from Hawaii and I had a staff of three standing by. The dress literally stunk: You couldn’t get within 10 feet of her in this dress. The bodice had shrunk three inches.”

Margaret’s crack crew had to completely retailor the wedding gown. They worked on it the better part of a whole day and got the job done. “We got the smell out,” said Horst. “We delivered it in Orange County the next morning.”

Customers at Margaret’s vary widely. Horst has some who spend $7,000 a month in dry cleaning. Others come from long distances once a month to do a few choice articles. Regardless of where they come from or how much they spend, Margaret’s takes care of all their cleaning needs.

For more information, call 454-2375 or visit