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Florida pressure cleaning and washing company aims to test post-coronavirus market

Staff Writer
Walton Sun
Walton Sun

SARASOTA – Just how vigilant or paranoid post-coronavirus America will be as it renews its bonds with public places remains to be seen. But at least one Sarasota entrepreneur is thinking some people won’t unclench until they’re convinced it’s been rinsed. So John Cloud has a plan.

Truth be told, it wouldn’t be a huge moneymaker, not in the grand scheme of his nine-year-old Gorilla Kleen pressure cleaning operation. After all, once production catches up with demand, you can pick up a decent portable fogger — which can spritz chemical mists capable of vanquishing COVID-19 and any other aerosol viruses and bacteria — for about $125. And they require no special training or know-how to operate.

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But let’s say you’re checking a menu outside a restaurant, and you see a sticker declaring the place was sterilized just two days ago. And the joint next door — well, there is no sticker, no sterilization certification. Will that affect where you decide to eat? Maybe. At least for now.

Cloud, whose six-vehicle fleet of mobile pressure-washing rigs cleans up everything from Sarasota National Cemetery’s Patriot Plaza and the Unconditional Surrender statue to downtown’s grungy commercial back alleyways, is about to jump at the opportunities presented by the “new normal.”

“Had I had (sanitization) before, no one would’ve wanted it because was no need for it. I’ve sanitized personal fitness facilities before, but those should be sanitized every night, to be honest,” he says. “But the point is, it just wasn’t part of our consciousness until the coronavirus hit.”

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The former Sarasota High School class president knows first-hand what it takes to recover from an epic financial disaster. A decade ago, between the collapse of the real estate market in North Carolina, with which he’d planned to coast into retirement, and getting cored out of his $6 million savings by convicted Sarasota Ponzi-scheme swindler Art Nadel, John Cloud was on the ropes himself.

Today, at 66, he has the city contract for pressure washing Sarasota’s public exteriors, not to mention concerns such as Sarasota Memorial Hospital, Selby Gardens, Ringling College, and the Baltimore Orioles’ digs at Ed Smith Stadium. And he still sounds like he can’t believe he actually pulled it off.

Looking for a “low-entry threshold” and largely unregulated business where “you’re competing against people with a white pickup truck who are doing your neighbor’s driveway and didn’t pay a lot of money to get there,” Cloud settled on pressure washing as a way out of his jam after a three-day seminar in Salt Lake City in 2011. Even though he knew nothing about it.

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He would find himself handling degreaser chemicals so corrosive, “if you splash it on yourself and it stays for a minute, you’ll start bleeding.” Only trial and error could find those high-pressure sweet spots that can melt away “fossilized” gum without chewing divots into cement.

He would learn to mobilize his troops — the original two-man operation expanded into 20-some employees — for long nights and weekends, while the city slumbered. And he would slog through the tedium to navigate the maze of municipal permits required to close downtown thoroughfares for access to breezeways, facades and high-rise rooftops.

“There’s no part of this that sounds at all sane. In hindsight,” says Cloud, “I’m not sure I could’ve have picked anything that would’ve been much harder to do.

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“You know that Farmers Insurance commercial — we know a thing or two because we’ve seen a thing or two? Well, we know a thing or two because we’ve screwed a lot of s--- up! I go to your house with a large piece of equipment that could potentially be dripping a lot of oil, with a large turn radius, pressure hoses and steaming hot water — often a couple of hundred degrees — and caustic chemicals and pressure that can chew holes in wood. And you’ve got a flower garden over there.

“Like, what could possibly go wrong?”

The point was to polish the rough edges on the front end and set a local industry standard for efficiency. The centerpiece of that effort is a complicated, $175,000, state-of-the-art, deep-cleaning, hard-surface, cab-mounted contraption called the CY-5500.

This thing can wash and suck up street-level crud in 34-inch wide swaths. Instead of simply moving the scum around, the “Cyclone” vacuums it into a storage unit for safe disposal later. It can clean 45,000 square feet of parking garage space in four hours. Cloud has also attached his own pressure-washer innovations to the CY-5500, including a cleaner with three adjustable heads that can tackle the tops, sides and bottoms of most curbs simultaneously.

But that cat’s been out of the bag for awhile now. Cloud is looking to the future to figure out if America’s fixation with cleanliness will be a permanent shift or just another one-off scare to be ignored.

Years ago, he ran into a guy who told him about the ultrasonic humidifiers employed aboard cruise ships that not only kill viruses like MRSA on contact, but provides continuous coverage for 60 days. By the time Cloud woke up to the idea of adding virus killers to Gorilla Kleen’s arsenal, in early March, it was almost too late.

Upon requesting a dozen “Fogmaster Jr.” units from a manufacturer on Florida’s east coast, Cloud was informed the shelves were empty, and he’d have to wait ‘til August. Undeterred, he followed up with an email, stating that instead of the 12, he could live with just three so that others could get their fair share. The company sent him three. Cloud faced similar obstacles with another manufacturer, and tried the same approach. He wound up getting six, and he shared them with other business owners.

Local customers are lining up now for sanitizing fog jobs in addition to exterior cleaning, and Cloud is anxious to get his crews back on full salary. In an ideal world, his Gorilla Kleen logo would be ubiquitous in Sarasota County.

“I’m printing stickers that go on the door that say this area was sanitized with this chemical shown to be effective, and we show the date,” he says. “From an optics standpoint, if I’m an employee or a customer, I’d be happy to see that.

“If we could get this done on a monthly basis, I think the establishment or business would be saying to the public, hey, we care about taking that extra step for public safety.”