Justin Strong keeps a 90-year-old business viable by doing what he's always done — adjusting to the times | Community Profile | Pittsburgh | Pittsburgh City Paper

Justin Strong keeps a 90-year-old business viable by doing what he's always done — adjusting to the times

click to enlarge Justin Strong - CP PHOTO: JARED WICKERHAM
CP photo: Jared Wickerham
Justin Strong
“In these uncertain times …” begins every commercial that’s trying to sell you a product you probably don’t need right now. It’s both maddeningly condescending but also sadly honest. Times are “uncertain,” “unprecedented,” and “trying,” and businesses around the city are struggling to serve their customers and pay their employees, all while remaining viable enough to exist.

But uncertainty is not something new or difficult for Justin Strong, chief executive manager Strong Fabric Care, LLC, or the family cleaning business that was started by Strong’s then 19-year-old grandfather in Shelby, N.C. in 1930 and is now celebrating its 90th anniversary.

“During the great migration, [my grandfather] moved the whole family up to Homestead in 1942. They opened up the shop in Homestead and a couple years later opened one up in Braddock. There were like three main Black cleaners in the city. Us in Braddock, Trowers in Homewood, and Pryors in the Hill District.”


In 1987, Strong’s father bought the cleaners from his grandfather. And in 1991, he bought the Trowers out, “during one of the city’s renaissances that never really happened in Homewood,” Strong says.

As a kid, Strong would get paid $2.50 to clean the bathrooms, which he spent on candy bars at a Braddock Rite Aid. But it wasn’t a clear path from owner’s grandson to the chief executive manager role he is in today.

“When we were younger and got on my mom’s nerves on a Saturday, we were dropped off at the cleaners. It was like punishment,” Strong says.

Though he always had employment available at the cleaners, Strong focused on the arts and opened Shadow Lounge in East Liberty, which in its 13 years of existence provided a stage for Mac Miller, Kellee Maize, Real Deal, Akil Esoon, and many others.


“The fun we were having, I don’t think we were in those mockup renderings,” Strong says about the lurking development that eventually chased Shadow Lounge out of East Liberty in 2013.

After a one-year attempt to reignite the creative fire in a new space in Oakland, Strong found himself at a crossroads. “I shouldn’t have quit all my jobs,” Strong laughs. “What’s the future of this? My daughter is 5-years-old. You start sacrificing dreams for reality.”

So in 2014, Strong pivoted full-time into the family business. But Plan B quickly required Plan C, as Strong II’s biggest client failed to renew their contract, which resulted in $80,000 in losses for the rest of that year on top of the costs of the equipment Strong purchased for their newly opened downtown location. Strong navigated his business through the financial adversity of 2014 and talked about the current losses in business due to the pandemic.

“We had medical lab and hotel contracts. That’s not there anymore.”

But just as he had so many times in the past, Strong has adjusted his mindset and business to the current circumstances with seasoned aplomb.

Strong II is offering a 90th Anniversary special on dry cleaning as well as pickup and drop-off service during the pandemic.

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