New owner of Menlo Park dry cleaners asks for clean slate

West Bay Cleaners owner says he's not associated with former tenant

Guilt by association is a pernicious thing, as the new tenant of Menalto Corners in Menlo Park is discovering.

Eric Ybarra opened West Bay Cleaners at 1921 Menalto Ave. in January, after the popular owner of a different dry cleaning business in that same space was arrested for multiple counts of alleged credit card fraud.

"A lot of people in the neighborhood are having a hard time distinguishing between me being the new owner and Gary (Smith)," said Mr. Ybarra. "People thought we were connected, that I'd taken it over for him, that we were related -- you name it, they thought it. We're still facing it to this day," he said.

"We are not connected to him."

This is Mr. Ybarra's first foray into dry cleaning. After Mr. Smith was evicted the day before his arrest, the cleaning equipment remained behind, as did longtime manager David Lopez, and the new business owner thought he recognized a great opportunity.

"The key is to hire the right people," Mr. Ybarra said, which is why he hired Mr. Lopez. "He's my only employee right now and he's a godsend. He's an amazing guy, and he's done an amazing job. He has 20 years of experience cleaning -- 15 years of that here with Gary."

The fallout from Mr. Smith's arrest included difficulty getting a credit card processing machine for West Bay Cleaners simply because the address had been blacklisted, according to Mr. Ybarra. Finally, after getting letters from the landlord and from the bank, he got approved.

"It was ugly," Mr. Ybarra said. "It took a month and a half for them to say OK, we'll take a chance on you. I said, 'Wait, take a chance on me? I'm not the previous guy.'"

When the former tenant showed up post-arrest to collect and return some items of clothing to customers, it further stirred suspicions of ties between the old and new dry cleaner, according to Mr. Ybarra.

Other businesses in the same small shopping center -- particularly those relying on walk-in business, including Cafe Zoe, saw customers dwindle, sources told the Almanac. Slowly some are returning.

"Our business owners and customers have been through an awkward and confusing time," said Kathleen Daly, owner of Cafe Zoe. "The negative impact had a cascading effect throughout the community. The opening of West Bay Cleaners is the beginning of a great new chapter for all of us."

Nona Ybarra runs a dance studio next door to her husband's West Bay Cleaners; Ms. Daly said the family is already part of the close-knit Menalto Corners community, describing the couple as "wonderful, hard-working people."

Mr. Ybarra said the whole family, along with fellow tenants and the landlord, are pulling together.

"My wife rallied behind me. My children are being as patient as they can be with us both owning businesses. It's starting to pay off. It's awesome. I wouldn't trade it for the world, being right next door to my wife."

Mr. Smith was arrested on Jan. 14. He has pleaded not guilty to 40 counts of alleged credit card fraud, and is currently out of custody, awaiting the preliminary hearing.

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15 people like this
Posted by Susannah Hill
a resident of Menlo Park: Linfield Oaks
on Mar 10, 2015 at 12:31 pm

Good luck Mr. Ybarra! We hope you find Menlo Park to be as welcoming as possible.

16 people like this
Posted by Rick
a resident of Menlo Park: The Willows
on Mar 10, 2015 at 1:01 pm

OK - I'll be back! I was still hanging back in shock and disbelief at the whole episode...

23 people like this
Posted by Carol
a resident of Menlo Park: Allied Arts/Stanford Park
on Mar 10, 2015 at 1:16 pm

We have know Eric Ybarra for many years and know him to be a sincere, honest & conscientious person (as well as a great dad). His wife owns and operates Captivating Dance By Nona, which is the dance studio next door to the cleaners. Nona is also the coach & choreographer for the Menlo-Atherton High School Dance Team. They are a wonderful family, and I would highly recommend Eric!

15 people like this
Posted by Jessie
a resident of Atherton: West of Alameda
on Mar 10, 2015 at 2:08 pm

Our family has known Erik and the Ybarras for many years now - a wholesome family all around and a man with a good head on his shoulders. I know this business will do well, and we will be visiting West Bay Cleaners soon!

20 people like this
Posted by Rebecca Bloom
a resident of Menlo Park: The Willows
on Mar 10, 2015 at 4:00 pm

I encourage everyone in the neighborhood to try West Bay Cleaners--they're great. I have known Erik and Nona for over ten years--they are family-oriented, super hard-working and honest. I am so happy to be able to continue to bring my dry cleaning to a local business in the Willows, and even more thrilled because I have every confidence in Erik and David. Our neighborhood has been through a tough time, but this is such a big win for the Willows! The business owners at Menalto Corners give so much to our community--let's all renew our commitment to keeping it local!

5 people like this
Posted by Carolyn Helmke
a resident of Menlo Park: The Willows
on Mar 11, 2015 at 4:31 pm

Carolyn Helmke is a registered user.

I'm a resident of the Willows and having been taking my shirts and other clothes that need dry cleaning to the new proprietor for over a month. I'm happy to report that they are doing a very nice and professional job with my clothes, the prices are much lower than when it was Menalto Cleaners, and the staff are friendly and helpful.

I am so thankful I don't have to go to downtown PA to get my clothes cleaned!

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