County Seat Laundry
“Laundromats have a bad reputation, and frankly, many deserve it,” says Laura Patten, co-owner of County Seat Laundry in Viroqua, Wisconsin. “They’re dirty, machines are out of order. A flickering TV blares at you from high on a wall. And the whole time you get a sinking feeling that you and your things aren’t safe.”
But that’s not the case at County Seat Laundry, where, in 2018, Laura and Andy Patten founded the business with the simple promise of making people’s wash day better.
“We do that in all kinds of ways,” explains Laura. “By cleaning and sanitizing machines and surfaces throughout the day so that people can actually enjoy their experience. By cheerfully greeting people and playing cool music that puts everyone in a better mood. By offering services that people value. By maintaining our machines so people can get in and out quickly. And –perhaps this the most important – by taking care of one another.”
The husband-and-wife duo moved from Milwaukee to Ferryville, Wisconsin, in 2016, and selected Viroqua – the county seat of Vernon County – as the site for their laundromat due to it being a “vibrant community that respects its roots yet is forward-focused,” Laura says.
“There always have been so many great things going on in this area, but we also envisioned many more to come, especially in food manufacturing, hospitality and tourism,” she continues. “We saw Viroqua as a town that believed in itself and its future.”
Before opening the County Seat laundry doors, the Pattens spent more than a year on a business plan, which included visiting every laundromat in the general area and one in Milwaukee.
“We watched people’s behavior and listened to conversations and took notes on what seemed to bug people and what people liked,” explains Laura. “Then we designed our place with those insights in mind.”
County Seat Laundry is a full-service laundromat where customers can utilize washers and dryers themselves or have their laundry done for them. Natural light streams through the building’s large windows, and games and a free bookshelf offer downtime entertainment while people wait for their loads of laundry to be finished. Laura and Andy are also onsite themselves six days a week.
“People say they like having us there, helping people while we process orders. Our laundry attendants also keep the good vibe going by interacting with people,” explains Laura. “Interestingly, our customers do that as well, for strangers and acquaintances alike. We often say that we own the business, but that it belongs to our customers.”
While County Seat Laundry has definitely found its place in the community of Viroqua over the past several years, at first there were some hurdles to overcome.
“Viroqua is a tightknit community, and no one knew us, given that we live in Ferryville and have been full-timers since only 2016,” says Laura. “Patten isn’t a common name around here, either so we got a lot of politely worded ‘who are you and where did you come from?’ questions at first.”
In addition to the task of settling into a small tight-knit area as newcomers, the Pattens also had to overcome some attitudes of doubt in regard to the nature of their business.
“We knew that some people scoffed at it,” says Laura. “We heard, ‘Who can’t do their own laundry?’ a lot in the beginning. So, we explained over and over that many people need a hand with laundry, such as people with mobility issues, small business owners, busy people, those working multiple jobs and even people who hate doing laundry so much that it piles up. Clean laundry is essential, like food and shelter.”
The Pattens soon discovered that while their laundromat didn’t appeal to everyone, it did have an essential place within the community.
When much of the area was struck by disastrous flooding in August of 2018, County Seat Laundry was only six weeks old, but it soon became a vital place for many.
“While we were still getting to know our machines and how to present our business to customers, suddenly we were ‘on’ when people, often in tears and shock, came rushing in to try and salvage what belongings they could,” says Laura. “They came in with nothing, so we offered free supplies and our time, and then a donor stepped up and put money on our laundry cards and handed them out in several towns. It was a tragic time, yet inspiring. People were so good to one another.”
After the flooding came a polar vortex, and then a world-wide pandemic. For the first several years of operation, County Seat Laundry and the Pattens didn’t have “normal” rhythms or patterns to follow, but they continued to offer the community what they could – even above-and-beyond their typical business services.
“We used our own money and started the County Seat Laundry Fund in 2020 at the beginning of the pandemic as a bridge for people who lost their primary income,” explains Laura. “When people heard about the fund, donations started coming in and it evolved into a community-powered effort to keep it going – and it still is. People donate, we discount the washer pricing, and anyone in dire need of clean laundry can wash and dry a few loads free. So far, the fund has paid for well over 2,500 loads.”
County Seat Laundry also offers daily discounts and a loyalty program that helps people stretch their money with bonus bucks and free dries.
“But despite all the financial help we offer, our customers help set us apart in the way they treat one another,” says Laura. “Our customers seem to understand and value that at County Seat Laundry, respect matters. Kindness matters. People are treated like neighbors here – because we all are.”
The support of those neighbors and the community has also led to the success of a related venture that grew from County Seat Laundry: Soap Sister, a natural laundry powder detergent developed by Laura herself.
“We go through a lot of detergent. Most brands don’t really meet our high standards, though, especially the so-called natural formulas,” says Laura. “All those wasteful plastic bottles really bug us too. So, I started experimenting with my own concoction in the summer of 2022.”
Laura, who says she was never into science as a kid and could usually be found reading, daydreaming, or playing outside, now found herself researching how soap works and what different ingredients go in laundry detergent in order to start her own experimentation process.
“I mixed, tested, and tweaked, no fewer than 20 times. I even found the courage to ask strangers and customers to sample my powdered mix and give me feedback. I listened and tweaked some more,” Laura says. “Finally, I settled on a recipe that performed the way I’d hoped, featuring just five ingredients to leave laundry fresh, bright, soft, unscented, and naturally clean.”
Laura mixes approximately 35 pounds of Soap Sister detergent each week for use at County Seat Laundry and also sells two-pound packages to boutiques and co-ops in Viroqua, Gays Mills, Menomonie, and Eau Claire.
“I also sell Soap Sister pouches and refills at the laundry,” says Laura. “Soap Sister has developed its own following so now I’m focusing on growth.”
With the holidays approaching Laura has been planning a Soap Sister gift pack featuring a beautiful hand-crafted glazed scoop and hand felted dryer balls made from the wool of the Pattens own sheep.
“I’m also always looking for new retail partners whose customers are trying to reduce plastic and are searching for an effective, natural laundry powder,” says Laura. “And, of course, I am experimenting with other extensions of the business because I can’t seem to help myself.”
Having worked to develop an atmosphere of a caring community within County Seat Laundry, Laura notes that technically a community is just defined as a group of people with something in common (like geography), but it’s the relationships formed between and among people that really defines a community and makes it great. Each of us has the power to strengthen the fabric of our community, she adds.
“I feel the need to express gratitude,” she says. “I often think about how lucky we all are to have opportunities to create right here in this inspiring little corner of the world, and how no new thing – whether it’s building a full-service laundry in a rural-ish community or making and selling a natural laundry powder – is possible without the support of friends, customers, and complete strangers.”