Correction appended, April 15
The new place for over scheduled New Yorkers to land a date could be a...laundromat.
The Wash House, a small "laundry bistro" with three washers and three dryers that opened March 6 in the East Village (think "La Vie Boheme" from Rent), offers drop off service in a casual, coffee house setting, and hopes to cater to young workaholics who may be trying to turn the tide on their neglected social lives, so to speak.
"We want to cater to up-and-coming young professionals who are working so hard trying to build whatever business they’re building that they don't have time to go meet people," says Veronica Kerzner, one of the owners.
With the café handling the wash and fold in the back, customers are freed up to mingle in the front. There's a "Laundry Today or Naked Tomorrow" sign right by the bar where customers can order a beer, coffee, or an artisanal Challah bread sandwich with Nutella, mascarpone, strawberry, and honey. Then they can hunker down on one of the stools under the giant roman numerals clock that says "Drop Your Pants Here" across the face and strike up conversation with someone. That way, it looks like "you’re not there to pick up girls, you’re there to do your laundry," says Christopher Conlon, another owner of the Wash House.
"I have thought about doing a speed-dating thing here just because doing laundry is so intimate," he says. "You're bringing in your undergarments, you're cleaning, you're cleansing, but maybe you're trying to find someone too, so you kind of take away that thin veil that everyone has on."
"It’s like the new way to pick up people — at the laundromat!" Kerzner chimes in, citing the music video for "Every Heartbeat", in which Grammy-winning singer Amy Grant (known for "Baby, Baby") meets the glance of a hot guy, and the two toss aside the book they are reading called "Shyness" and start unbuttoning their clothes.
The Wash House is just the latest in the cycle of laundromat cafés. They popped up around the country from the mid-1980s through the early 2000s. In the late 80s, singles would go to Oasis Laundry in San Jose, Calif., on Friday nights and watch movies. A Des Moines, Iowa-based chain Duds 'N Suds boasted "good clean fun" like pool tables and warm pretzels with cheese sauce. Saga Launder Bar & Cafe in Chicago, a combination laundromat and sports bar, promoted "Buds and suds", while partygoers danced the night away to DJ mixes at The Laundry Bar in Miami Beach, Florida.
While most laundromat cafés have washed up, the one that is still as hot as ever is BrainWash in San Francisco's SOMA (South of Market) neighborhood, where, since 1989, residents have done their own laundry in a café and live music setting — an atmosphere that not only fostered a sense of community in the area, but also brought people together in a romantic sense.
"You're sitting at the same folding table, that's a natural place for conversation," says Susan Schindler, founder of BrainWash, who ran it between 1989 and 1997. "I used to always joke it was great because a guy could look and see exactly what kind of underwear a girl is wearing as she’s folding. So of course there were very romantic hookups." During her tenure, a couple that met there got married there. "I think [the bride] walked down the aisle between the washers."
Washing and folding clothes with someone you don't know is a fast way to get to know someone--you're seeing their delicates after all. But there are pitfalls. After observing a public laundromat, sociologist Regina Kenen found people engaged in "impression management", concealing "padded bras, torn underwear, stained garments, or even designer bedsheets" to avoid revealing too much personal information.
So will the Wash House catch on in a world of hyper-efficient Tinder-style apps that connect people virtually? There is some indication that combining a chore and dating is appealing to millennials. According to data provided to TIME by HowAboutWe Dating, a dating website in which individuals nationwide and in more than 30 countries connect by posting and responding to unusual date ideas, nearly 1 in 10 U.S. users like to multitask their first dates with errands. New Yorkers are the most likely to suggest errand dates compared to singles living in other U.S. cities, and errand dates make up 7% of dates suggested in New York over the past six months. In fact, shopping — at supermarkets, flea markets, antique shops, or the Apple Store — is the most popular errand date idea, with "dog walking / going to the dog park" coming in second, apartment hunting at third, the gym at fourth, and laundry at fifth.
At the very least it's a refreshing change from the standard drink and dinner date suggestion. "Doing something that’s like, 'Let’s have champagne in a laundromat,' definitely catches your eye," says Jessica Tom, HowAboutWe's Community Director. "S ure you’re getting something done, but you’re also getting noticed for being a little offbeat."
In fact, supermarkets are gearing up to be the next unlikely date site nationwide. Throughout the Midwest, Hy-Vee supermarkets are adding restaurants with bars that start serving alcohol at 11 a.m. Bar Lamar at Whole Foods in Austin offers wine on tap until 10 p.m., while a 99-cent "walk-around beer" could give customers the kind of liquid courage they need to approach someone they find attractive in the store.
"The more multitasking that exists in a space, the more likely people will talk to each other," says BrainWash's Susan Schindler. Put another way, to use a laundry metaphor, balance your load, balance your life.
Correction: The original post misstated the worldwide presence of the HowAboutWe Dating site. It reaches more than 30 countries.