By ROBIN FINN
John-Claude Hallak knows the proper way to press trousers, coax a spot from a wedding gown, or restore a carpet to its original glory. He is a second-generation dry cleaner; his parents, Joseph and Marie-Louise, opened Hallak Cleaners on the Upper East Side in 1966. (His mother, widowed in 1992, is the president.) Mr. Hallak, 54, who has a master’s degree in economics from Rutgers University, joined the company in 1982; he and his younger brother, Joseph, 49, are both vice presidents. He lives in Basking Ridge, N.J., with his wife, Michelle, and their 16-year-old twin sons.
Destined to clean: I was doomed to be in the family business. I remember being about 8 and asking my father if I could go to work with him on a Saturday and him telling me, ‘If you come with me, I’ll give you a dollar, but if you stay home and help your mother, I’ll give you $5.’ And I took the dollar. My first real job was to make pants hangers by putting those sticky pieces of cardboard on the bottom of wire hangers; it was work you could probably teach a rhesus monkey to do.
Aspirations: It was always assumed that I’d be the first one in the family to go to college and live the American dream. I wanted to be a lawyer. I worked weekends and summers at the store. I was a politics and history junkie, so it was a big thrill for me to clean Theodore H. White’s carpets.
Dressing like Dad: I emulated my father, always wore a shirt and tie. Even in the 100-degree heat pressing pants in the summer in the store’s basement, I never took that tie off. You physically removed the damp clothes from the machine; there were these big vents called ‘sniffers,’ but you could still smell the chemicals. It never bothered me. I guess it’s genetic.
The family business: My father was thinking of selling in 1980. He was such a perfectionist, the Felix Unger of dry cleaning, but he was tired. So my younger brother, Joseph, dropped out of Seton Hall to keep the business going. After I graduated, I worked nine months for an equity firm. Then my father and brother asked me to join them. I said yes, with two conditions: that we move our production facility out of New York City and expand it, and that they let me introduce automation and computerization.
Thinking big: By 1983 we had a facility in Hackensack. Now it’s 13,000 square feet and employs 60 people. But 80 percent of our clientele is in New York City. People who spend $10,000 a month on dry cleaning are not the norm, but we have them. I had a client who spent $150,000 a year. He even sent us his underwear. There was a template on how his boxer shorts should be folded.