Business at LA Vista Cleaners in Westchester is booming. But success didn’t come fast or easy. For the last 21 years, Maria Villasenor has been putting her heart and soul into each and every garment she’s cleaned, pressed or altered by hand, growing her business stitch by stitch. From humble beginnings, this single mother of three has ridden the ups and downs of a recession, then a pandemic, only to come out on top. Her company secret? Hiring her son.
Born in Guadalajara, Mexico, Maria always loved fashion and seeing people get dressed up for special occasions. Her mother, Adela, is a highly skilled seamstress who went to school to study dressmaking and taught Maria everything she knows about constructing clothing and altering fine garments like men’s suits and wedding dresses. But as a young, single mother in Los Angeles, Maria wasn’t exactly sure she could support her family using those skills.
When she saw that a shoe repair shop had some extra space in the back of their Manchester Ave. storefront, Maria got the idea to start a small dry cleaners that offered expert alterations. It was incredibly difficult at first.
“It was hard paying the rent, and I needed a second job to survive, so I got a sales job. I would work until 7 p.m. at the dry cleaners then make appointments at 8 or 9 p.m. with families at their houses to sell cemetery plots. I did that for about three years to pay the bills,” she says.
After finally getting the new business up on its feet, things at the dry cleaners started to pick up. Maria had regular customers and enough repeat business to quit her gloomy side hustle. She settled into an entrepreneurial lifestyle that included hard work, but also had room for family. She enjoyed starting her day by taking her kids to school in the morning, then heading into the cleaners. After school, her youngest, Fernando, would come to LA Vista and do homework and help with small jobs.
“It was a dream for me to send him to school, so he could have a career,” says the ever-business-minded Maria, who hoped Fernando would discover his own place in the world and find a profession where he could flourish.
But as Fernando became a young man, he started to get a strong sense of where he belonged–helping to run the family business.
“After he turned 18, he said, ‘Mom, I can work with you here,’” says Maria. “And I said, ‘No, I want you to go to college and be prepared to have a career.’ So, you know what he did? He went to sell cars at the Toyota dealer.”
But after two years, Fernando wasn’t happy selling cars. Maria was adamant that he continue his schooling, so he enrolled at West L.A. College. But Fernando still had his heart set on being an integral part of the family business. After just a few days of classes, Fernando sat down again with Maria.
“He said, ‘Mom, I need to work with you, we can grow the business together.’ And I cried that morning and I said, ‘This business is hard!’ I even fired him that day. I said, ‘You know what? I don’t have a job for you! You need to go back to school!’” says Maria.
But Fernando had a clear plan of not only wanting to work in the family business, but also taking steps to help it grow into something bigger and better. Maria could tell Fernando was serious. Moved by his passion and commitment to the family, she was finally swayed. How could she say no?
“I said, ‘Okay. But we’re going to have to work hard.’ So, we started working together. And since that day nine years ago, the business has been growing,” she says.
In fact, it’s blowing up. These days, they have a trusted team of 10 full-time employees, including six expert tailors who make the magic happen. Regular customers include community leaders and neighborhood celebrities. They also have accounts for some high-profile clients like local sports teams. Alterations are coming in all the way from states like Texas, likely due to their stellar reputation on the internet.
A Google search reveals a surprising fact about this unassuming storefront on Manchester and Truxton Ave.—it has more than 1,500 5-star reviews on Yelp. When Fernando began working with his mom, they had only three. He was on a mission to change that.
“I came in here and I focused on every single customer that walked in the door and got to know them. And word gets out,” says Fernando.
Customers loved Fernando’s excellent customer service and many long-time customers had seen him grow up at the store, making the Villasenors feel like members of the family. The Yelp reviews began to add up to the point where Fernando was shocked when he received an actual phone call from the Yelp headquarters.
“It was so wild. I’m like, what does Yelp want? And so, they tell us, ‘We don’t know what you guys are doing, but you have the highest-rated cleaners and alteration shop in the entire country.’ And I told my mom, ‘This is unbelievable. You work for things in life, but you just never know what you can do until you try.’ Now, it’s a dream come true.”
Those reviews not only tout the great service and quality of alterations, but also LA Vista’s welcoming atmosphere that the mother-son duo have created. Since joining the family business, Fernando has made it his goal to have a personable conversation with every customer who comes in. A whiz with faces, he also remembers everyone’s name, which creates a nice personal touch, especially when people are trusting the shop with some of their most prized clothing items. The pride in owning your own business also shines through in other areas: Fernando starts every morning at 7 a.m. by sweeping his stretch of Manchester to keep the area clean and inviting.
Now, nearly a decade after becoming partners, Maria and Fernando are enjoying the spoils of success. Not only did they recently expand the business to include the building next door, but they also purchased the commercial building.
“We own the land!” says a jubilant Fernando.
With Westchester real estate prices soaring through the roof, it was a big investment. But both Maria and Fernando are already seeing it pay off in some fun ways.
Maria went from sharing an old, beat-up Honda with her son, to driving her dream car. For Fernando, who’s always loved American automobiles, he also upgraded to a cherry red sports car.
“I think it’s a real success story–we started in such a small place and now we’re in a big building,” says Fernando. “I look at it sometimes and I think it’s a dream. My mom would always be scared of making rent, and now we have two tenants paying us rent. It’s the biggest accomplishment ever in my life, and I’m just so happy that I did not let my mom down.”
Maria agrees, adding, “He’s a wonderful kid. I mean, what can I say?”
With no plans to retire or open a new location anytime soon, their focus is now just keeping the business going strong.
“We are all in on Westchester,” said Fernando. “It’s our home, and it’s the community that we love and loves us.”
LA Vista Cleaners is located at 6208 Manchester Ave. in Westchester.
Story by Shanee Edwards. Photos by Zsuzsi Steiner.