by Lou Mancinelli
When she moved to Philadelphia in 1983 from South Korea, Denise Hellenbrand was 12 and did not know any English. Not the alphabet, not anything. Her uncle had moved from Seoul in 1976 and later opened a clothing manufacturing warehouse on Broad Street near Olney.
Her parents were expert tailors who ran their own fabric shop in the fashion district of Seoul. They were 19 when they met at vocational school where they both studied fashion. Their uncle told the family he needed help running the factory.
It was always expected that Denise’s mom and dad, Chon and Bong Kim, respectively, would go to America where they could continue to work hard and improve their lives. It was more a question of when.
Now her parents have just brought their tailoring skills to Crystal Cleaners at 8622 Germantown Ave. at the top of the Hill. Hellenbrand purchased the store this July and plans to apply what she’s learned about running a business in the corporate world to the store.
“My parents can make a $100 suit look like a $500 suit because it fits like a glove,” said Hellenbrand. When customers bring something in, the first thing that will happen is an inspection. Same thing when you pick it up.
If there’s a stain they can’t get out and they need to send it out and an item will be late, Hellenbrand said the customers will be called. She always hated running back and forth to the cleaners to pick something up that wasn’t ready.
Hellenbrand, 43, is a budding entrepreneur who recently purchased and opened her own Farmers Insurance Agency in Warminster, lower Bucks County. She’s spent the last 18 years learning every aspect of the industry from claims to sales, marketing, sales operations and office operations.
As a teenager Hellenbrand worked with her parents at her uncle’s factory. Many South Koreans were employed there. She learned about invoicing young. But when clothing manufacturing left the U.S. for cheaper labor in the mid-’90s, her uncle’s factory closed.
So her parents opened a cleaner’s shop at 13th & Walnut Streets in Center City. They ran it for a number of years, sold it and opened another cleaners at Germantown Pike and Dekalb Pike (Route 202). But they were forced to close a decade ago because of the Route 202 expansion. They met the same fate at the next store they opened.
Though the Kims’ store closed, their work as tailors continued at home, where they worked altering various suits and dresses. Numerous cleaners in the area outsourced to the Kims because their expertise was so highly regarded in the industry.
When the former owner of Crystal’s approached her parents this summer about purchasing the shop, Hellenbrand wanted to do something for her parents. She thought they worked too much at home for other people. She wanted them to be able to run their own store again. “I wanted them to have pride again,” said Hellenbrand, a Southampton resident.
Now in their mid-60s, the Kims will only be at the shop a few days a week, but they will handle all of the tailoring work. “Their dream was to come to the U.S. and build a better life for themselves and their children,” she said, “and that’s what they did.”
As a young girl, Hellenbrand’s own dream was to be an actress. She learned English within six months of arriving in the U.S. by watching television. Then the family lived at 11th and Lindley in Logan. She went to Webster Elementary School and took “English as a Second Language” courses.
Before her junior year the family moved to Glenside, and Hellenbrand transferred from Central High School to Abington High School. “That was more difficult than coming to the United States,” she half-joked.
Denise went to Beaver College (now Arcadia University) and graduated in 1996 with a degree in English and theater arts. She went to school at night and worked at her uncle’s factory during the day.
After graduation she lived at home and tried to make it as an actress. There were some performances, and she did a commercial or two, but she needed money to chase that dream. Her parents preferred that she worked. Hellenbrand was even kicked out of the house. Tough love!
Denise took a job in insurance, thinking she would save enough to move to New York, but her destiny was to be otherwise. She first met Joe Hellenbrand in high school, and 10 years later they went on their first date. She married Joe in 1999. They have a son, Thomas, 11, and a daughter, Siri, 8.
Hellenbrand started with Hartford Insurance in 1998 but for the past two years has worked for Farmers Insurance, where she has overseen the opening of four offices and has run an office of 100 people in New Jersey.
More information about Crystal Cleaners, 8622 Germantown Ave., at 215-248-6000.