The dry cleaner has been removing spots in Alexandria for 68 years!
By James Cullum
ALEXANDRIA, VA- In the middle of the night on August 8, 1974, Buddy Gritz got a call from the U.S. Naval Observatory. It was then-Vice President Gerald Ford, who had some top-secret information. In just a few hours, President Richard Nixon would resign and he, Ford, would be sworn in as the 38th President of the United States. There was one pressing problem, so to speak. Ford needed his suit dry cleaned.
“[Ford] called me up and said, ‘Buddy, I know you had top secret clearance. Nobody knows this. The news media doesn’t know Richard Nixon is resigning, and I’m going to be the president in the morning. I need you to come to the Naval Observatory,” Buddy said. “Get my suit, go back to the house in Alexandria and get the kids’ clothes. I need them back by 4 a.m.”
Buddy received a similar call from Ford, who lived in Alexandria as a Congressman for decades, when Nixon accepted the resignation of his Vice President Spiro Agnew. Just as before, Buddy sat up, put on his glasses and got dressed. After all, as an investigator for the U.S. Air Force a decade before, he never failed in his duty, and once again he answered his country’s call.
The rest is history. The Ford family looked stoic, but sharp, waving goodbye on the South Lawn of the White House at the finality of Nixon famously thrusting his hands into peace signs and flying away from the public eye on Army One.
Lights, Camera, Action!
Buddy, 77, married into the 5,500 square foot the business at 1623 N. Quaker Lane and took over the operation in 1967. He and his wife, Janet, have been married for 56 years and have one son, Larry Gritz, a two-time Academy Award-winning graphic artist. It was Janet’s father, Harold Weisblut, who opened the store in 1951.
“Everyone is a customer,” Buddy said. “President Bill Clinton, Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, former Vice President Al Gore… The list goes on and on. The bottom line is that we are a customer service business that happens to do dry cleaning, and customers come in here because we know they are important.”
“They won’t let anyone else do the costumes, because we’re the best,” Buddy said. “That started 25 years ago when I was called by the Washington Opera, and they were complaining because their performers were fainting onstage. So, what they were doing was cleaning the dresses in rancid cleaning solvent and when they got under the hot lights the fumes would come out and they’d fall over. We cleaned the outfit the right way, and they said, ‘Oh. You’re our dry cleaner now.”
A Family Business
Partial owners Diane and Chet [Michael] Chatelain are constantly at Presto Valet. In fact, it’s where they met, and have raised their four children over a career that’s lasted nearly 40 years.
“We started from the very bottom,” Chet said. “And we worked our way up. Neither one of us went to college, our parents couldn’t afford to send us to college. So, this was our life and we worked hard for what we got. And he helped us a lot and in return we worked hard for him. And 10 years ago, he gave us a stake in the company.”
Production manager Frank Pannell has worked for the company for 12 years, and said extra care goes into the removal of stains.
“If you were to get ink on your clothes, what would you do? You bring it to the cleaners,” Pannell said. “We have different types of chemicals to get different stains out. And it’s not like your ordinary dry cleaner who would just take some chemicals and splash it on the stain and scrub it and put it in the machine. We are chemists and we talk about things here. We’ll look at a stain and decide the best way to remove it without damaging the clothes or remove the color. We test it in a safe area, and if I don’t know what to do, I ask Chet, or we’ll sit around the table and talk about it. We talk about everything.”
The dry cleaner prides itself on its cleanliness as a 100 percent certified Environmental Dry Cleaner, which uses GreenEarth cleaning solution.
“I am so proud of this place I can’t express it,” Buddy said. “We do about 400 pieces of dry cleaning and about 400 to 600 shirts a day. Our philosophy is to be nice to people and do something nice for someone every single day. The role of the store is, if we’re here, we’re open. We don’t care what the door says. I’ve got people waiting for me at five o’clock in the morning. Come on in.”
Presto Valet is open Monday – Friday from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m., and on Saturday from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m.