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Sunbrite closes amid environmental concerns

Company’s 52 years in city yielded many loyal customers

Jan. 21, 2009

It’s not the work Sally Yesbeck will miss, because sometimes the stress of owning a business follows her home.

Instead, when Sunbrite Cleaners ends its 52-year run Saturday, Jan. 31, Yesbeck will miss the customers.

“It’s just really hard leaving everybody,” Yesbeck said. “These aren’t just our customers coming in, these are our friends.”

Yesbeck said her customer directory has 6,000 entries. The Milwaukee Avenue dry cleaner serves about 300 people each week, some of whom have been faithful for all of the company’s 52 years.

Sunbrite’s problem isn’t corporate competition or tough economic times. It’s tetrachloroethylene, a dry cleaning solvent called “perc” for short.

Some scientists say long-term exposure to perc may cause damage to the liver and kidneys, and possibly cancer. Because of its potential danger, the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources tests dry cleaners for signs of perc spills. In a preliminary check, which tested for the presence of perc on the surface of the floor, Sunbrite tested positive. The next step is a more thorough test, which would determine if the spill has any depth, followed by potential cleanup requirements.

Yesbeck swears she has never had a perc spill, but the two owners before her may have.

Either way, Sunbrite’s landlord, Henry Ciesinski, said he is ready to get out of the dry cleaning business.

“It’s just all the hoops and everything you’ve got to jump through,” Ciesinski said about the chemical restrictions.

The property owner said Sunbrite could stay if it switched to greener methods of dry cleaning, or cut the service from its menu. Yesbeck said she is getting too old to reinvent herself or move to a new building.

“If I were younger and the economy were better, I’d consider a move,” Yesbeck said.

She’s 63 now, 14 years older than when she bought Sunbrite with the hope of selling it and retiring by age 62.

“I really wasn’t planning on this, but these things happen,” Yesbeck said.

Yesbeck will sell off Sunbrite’s equipment and hopes to break as close to even as possible. Then she will get a part-time job to cover the rest of the cost.

“This was supposed to be my retirement, and I’m not getting anything out of it,” Yesbeck said. “I’ll probably be paying this off for years.”

Still, Yesbeck said, she feels grateful for all the friends she has made while owning Sunbrite, and is proud of the business, a long-time staple of the avenue.

“It’s really the end of an era for South Milwaukee,” Yesbeck said.

Isral DeBruin can be reached at (262) 446-6608.

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