In the high heat of July and August it might reach 110 degrees in that back room. And “100 percent humidity.” The 3 a.m. alarm was set to beat the heat but still, working at Ronnie’s some days meant getting the steam room treatment.
Ronnie’s Dry Cleaning in Navarre has been in the Kullberg family for 71 years, but it’s time now to turn over the keys to a new owner. Keith Kullberg, son of the business’ patriarch, Ronnie Kullberg, is taking his retirement. “Finally,” says wife Deb.
‘EVERYBODY’S ALWAYS GOING TO HAVE DIRTY CLOTHES’
Keith sits at the small table in back. Behind him is the all-in-one unit that supplanted the step-by-step transfer units of his dad’s time. Its particular shade of green-gold hints at what Keith confirms: that thing has been around since the ‘70s. And like Ronnie’s, it’s still humming, though Ronnie’s legacy goes back farther.
“I remember being really young and my dad tells me, ‘Everybody’s always going to have dirty clothes.’”
Ronnie Kullberg opened his business in 1949, renting a space at County Road 19 and Shoreline Drive. He’d been a “bob tailor” for Johnny Eidem in Mound, rushing from house to house picking up and delivering the shirts and linens of those who lived in the area. But Ronnie had always wanted to go into business for himself, says Keith.
Ronnie purchased the current location at 3600 Shoreline Dr. in 1965. It proved a good luck purchase when that year’s tornado caved the walls of his old shop, shot the beams into Lafayette Bay and buried Minnesota’s pro-heavyweight Verne Gagne’s buffalo hair coat, in for cleaning, under the rubble. Ronnie moved into the new location and reopened by year’s end.
It was in the 1970s that Keith and his brother, who had just returned from Vietnam, took ownership, bought that all-in-one unit and saw their dad Ronnie take off for northern Minnesota and early retirement.
With his own retirement before him, Keith says he refused some earlier offers to sell Ronnie’s because he was holding out for an owner-operator who would invest in the business the way he had.
He found that owner-operator in Jessica Connors. Connors took over Aug. 27 after shadowing Keith for a few months and in that time learning as much as she could about fabrics, chemicals and treatments.
Kullberg said the transition to retirement, about a year a half in the making, wasn’t so hard after he found Connors to take his place. More difficult has been the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic; business has been only a fraction of what it normally would be.
“They might have come in every week and now they might build up that same load in six months because they’re only wearing a dress shirt and their pajama pants,”adds Connors. The upside has been that Ronnie’s has seen a different sort of items come in recently—comforters and cushions that have been scrutinized between Zoom calls, their owners finally deciding that these could do with a bit of a wash as well.
As Ronnie’s new proprietor, Connors now gets to learn her customers, and if past proves to be precedent, she’ll know her neighbors by the clothes they wear: a recent pop quiz for Keith recently had him correctly matching pants to person.
“People’s clothes tell a story. They’ll bring it in and tell you a ton about it,” says Connors. “When things come in, these are items that they are trusting you with, that they’ve had from a great-great grandmother—a blanket, or it could be something that was the last item that they have from someone that’s not here anymore. You really have to care about what you do to give it that quality and give it back to them.”
Keith and his wife, Deb, moved to Newport, Minn. at the end of July after living on Jennings Bay for the past 22 years. On the horizon is a long-desired RV trip around the States.
And when those RV wheels get to turning, much here at Ronnie’s will remain as it always has.
Still here are the gold and rest-red carpets that Keith had installed in 1978 (Connors says she was quite taken with the vintage). So, too, the youth hockey and baseball trophies that have lined the front room shelves since Ronnie’s time. A 3 a.m. wakeup call might be in Connors’ future, too, as she jokes that facials were included in the proprietary transaction. In other words, the on-site cleaning is here to stay.
The customers are still here, too, and a certain buffalo hair coat, surviving both tornado and a half century of time: Keith says Verne’s grandson came by this spring with that same coat, as did a customer who has been loyal to the family business since those first days in ’49.
“It’s like the hair salon,” interjects Connors. “You never cheat on your stylist. It’s the same when it comes to cleaning. If their great grandmother came here then their grandmother, their mother...it just kind of follows down the line.”
What won’t stay on is that green ochre all-in-one unit. Alas, Connors ordered a new hydrocarbon machine. She’s also put up a corrugated steel facing to the counter and commissioned a high school student to paint the “Ronnie’s Est. 1949” on the wall behind it.
“We’re investing in the business because we want [our customers] to have quality items, we want them to see that we’re here to stay.”
Ronnie’s lives on—and so, apparently, does that gosh darn buffalo hair coat.