A guy in a baseball cap, oversized eyeglasses and a perfectly trimmed red beard drops a dozen dress shirts on the counter of Whiz French Cleaners on 31st Avenue.
He’s a regular customer, and when Peter Tummolo steps up to help him, the bearded guy asks him about his SUV, which is parked outside the shop.
“You and your brother have the same car,” he says as a looks at the grey Chevy Equinox. “You must really like it.”
Peter says that it’s new and that he and his older brother, Salvatore, who drives a blue one, are indeed pleased with the performance of their purchases.
When the bearded guy says he’s interested in buying one soon, Peter offers to put him in touch with the dealer he and Salvatore worked with.
“When you pick up the shirts, I’ll give you his info,” Peter says as he bundles up the garments and places them in the clothes hamper.
Peter and Salvatore are the owners of Whiz, which has a cleaning plant on 30th Avenue and a drop-off branch nearby on 31st Avenue.
They switch off between stores every other day, pulling six-day stints, which is why the bearded guy with the shirts is so knowledgeable about them and their SUVs.
Whiz was started in 1956, before Peter was born and around the time Salvatore was in diapers.
Their father, Michael, bought it in 1967, and the brothers started working there full time as soon as they graduated from high school.
Michael came to America from Potenza, Italy. A machinist, he worked in a restaurant on the weekends.
“He saw that you could make a lot of money from restaurants, so he bought one when he was 25,” Peter says, adding that he served as the chef there for eight years.
Michael got the idea to open a dry cleaners from his mother, who was a talented tailor.
“He went to get a haircut at an Italian barber and saw an ad in an Italian paper saying the dry cleaners was for sale,” Peter said. “He had settled in Lynbrook, Long Island, which is where Salvatore and I grew up.”
Michael had no connection to Astoria and didn’t know anything about the area but figured the shop, at 32-10 30th Ave., would be profitable because it was close to a subway stop and there was a lot of foot traffic.
Besides which, his mother would help out – she was to be the tailor. So he invested his $15,000 and got to work making Whiz a success.
Michael worked many hours, probably far too many, and introduced his sons to the business when they were in elementary school.
“I couldn’t wait for Saturdays to come around so I could spend time with my father at the store,” Peter says. “I used to take care of the customers.”
When Salvatore, who is four years older than Peter, started working at Whiz full time, Michael opened a second store in 1976.
When Peter joined the team, Michael added store No. 3, at 37-02 31st Ave.
“My father wanted each of us to have one,” Peter says, adding that he and Salvatore completed courses at a dry cleaning school.
In 1990, when Michael died – far too young at age 56 – Peter and Salvatore sold the store he had been manning.
“Salvatore and I always knew we would be working here,” Peter says. “We’ve never worked for anyone else. I can’t imagine what that would be like.”
The industry has undergone numerous changes through the decades, and Whiz has always kept ahead of the cleaning curve. Next year, it will become an organic operation.
“With our set-up, we do everything on-site ourselves,” Peter says, adding that the business will be rechristened Whiz Organic Cleaners. “We do it the right way – we inspect everything, and our machines are up to date.”
Sometimes, Peter, who is 58, and Salvatore, who is 62, think about retiring, but they really don’t know how they’d fill their time if they stayed away from Whiz.
Peter mentions that he recently bought a house in Jupiter, Florida. He thinks he may start splitting his time between the two states, but he hasn’t set a date for such a major move.
“Our children have their own careers, and none of them want to take Whiz over, so we’d have to sell it,” Peter says. “All we know is that when we leave, we will leave together.”
The idea of Whiz changing hands doesn’t really bother him.
“Everything in life has a beginning and an end,” he says and shrugs, adding that “we want to sell it to the right person so it keeps going.”
A customer comes in to pick up a jacket. She inspects its sleeve and exclaims, “Oh, you were able to get the stain out!”
Peter, as satisfied as she, smiles.
“My father would be very proud that we kept the business alive all these years,” he says.
On the wall by the cash register, there’s a laminated newspaper ad the family took out to memorialize Michael’s 86th birthday. Peter and Salvatore see it every time they ring up a sale.
Astoria Characters Day is Sept. 13, 2020.
Sponsored by Bareburger, it’s a free, public event.
Nancy A. Ruhling may be reached at Nruhing@gmail.com; @nancyruhling, nruhling on Instagram, nancyruhling.com, astoriacharacters.com.
Copyright 2019 by Nancy A. Ruhling