As the dry-cleaning industry was shrinking from the pinch of the economic downturn, Sharp Cleaners took the opportunity to expand in Cape May County, buying struggling competitors and offering new services to draw customers.

The dry-cleaning and laundry business, which opened in 1999 with two locations in the North Cape May section of Lower Township and in Sea Isle City, began its growth five years ago with the purchase of an existing Wildwood dry cleaners and coin laundry.

Two years ago, the business, owned by mother and son Yong  and Ryan Sharp, bought another dry cleaners in Ocean City. In June, they also opened a coin laundry nearby.

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“Dry cleaning has definitely taken a hit over the past three to five years. We keep adding new things and offering new services — we’re in it for the long run,” said Ryan Sharp, 30, of Linwood.

“When the economy started flattening out, we just had to revamp. We started looking ahead and we had a couple of good opportunities to expand to a couple of older (businesses). We took over and remodeled and brought them back to life,” Sharp said. “It was a risk and it’s been paying off, and I believe it will pay off in the long run as well.”

One of the latest offerings is a pickup and delivery service, something Sharp said he thought would appeal to elderly customers and those with hectic schedules.

Research firm IBISWorld said the dry-cleaning industry as a whole shrank nearly 3 percent in the past five years, but will revive in the next five years, particularly as the unemployment rate shrinks and disposable incomes rise.

The business is not easy and requires long hours, as well as a deep understanding of all functions of its operations — from fixing and running cleaning equipment to sewing, Sharp said.

Sharp Cleaners has two plants — in Ocean City and North Cape May — where the clothes are processed.

“We’re here every day from open to close at one of our stores. That’s how we keep our production and quality up so high,” Sharp said.

“I have friends that have opened up businesses and tried to let other people run their businesses and it just doesn’t work,” he said. “You really have to be hands on to keep the customer relationships, to keep the quality high, to have a surviving, thriving business, especially in this economy. ... You have to have good employees, but you have to be able to do every aspect of your business to survive.”

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Been working with the Press for about 27 years.

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