Florida Keys Business
Sunday, October 20, 2013
Still spotless on Simonton
Key West Chemical: Keeping the island clean for more than 50 years

Key West Chemical carries more than 8,000 items; cleaning supplies, paper products and pool chemicals. Their patented Westodet cleaner and degreaser is found in homes, hotels, restaurants and hospitals from Key West to Key Largo. A 53-foot tractor trailer delivers their inventory every two months and the Westodet comes in 55-gallon drums.

The Simonton Street storefront is deceptively small, drawing little notice from the throngs who pass by on a daily -- even hourly -- basis.

But big things happen here. History is happening here.

Gilda Fernandez walks proudly among the towering shelves in the warehouse behind the shop. She rattles off product names, and points to the company's logo, a large "W" bisected by an old-fashioned key, that adorns everything from quart-sized spray bottles to 55-gallon drums that despite their highly concentrated strength still manage to smell pleasingly of sassafras.

"We carry more than 8,000 products," said Fernandez. "When we started we had about 20."

But that was 52 years ago.

The building at 909 Simonton St. has housed Key West Chemical for more than five decades, but it was in the Fernandez family even before that.

Benny Fernandez, Sr., who would become Gilda's father-in-law, was just 15 or 16 when he stowed away on a ship bound for America from his native Spain.

"But they caught him on board, and made him work in the kitchen. That's where he learned to cook," Gilda said, her admiration obvious.

Benny Sr. arrived in Key West, opened his cafeteria and operated it with his wife, Lydia, until heart problems forced him to retire, Gilda said.

"But he wanted to set up his son, Benny Jr., with his own small business," she said Thursday walking beneath the towering shelves of supplies. "Benny Jr. -- that was my husband -- started wholesaling brooms, mops and Pine Sol to the local Cuban grocery stores in 1961."

Benny Jr. would make his rounds in Key West selling his cleaning products while his young wife, Gilda, manned the small retail storefront on Simonton Street.

She was 16 at the time. He was 20.

"Oh my gosh, I knew nothing," she said laughing. "I could barely count back change. But I took care of the little shop and I learned everything along the way, but Benny, he was the wind beneath my wings."

Gilda pauses often to credit her late husband, who died three years ago, and her in-laws for the family's success.

"We own this whole block, except for the Moped Hospital," she said, gesturing to her daughter's Hip Tourist business, Sugar Apple health food store, Flowers by Gilda and the former Key West Pool and Spa, which recently was absorbed by Key West Chemical.

"I don't say that to brag or be cocky. I want people to know that if they work hard, things really are possible. And I wouldn't have a damn thing if it hadn't been for Benny and Lydia Fernandez buying up pieces of property here and there, back when property was less than $2,000."

Key West Chemical received a huge boost about 30 years ago when Benny Jr. realized he needed to create his own product, something to compete with a cleaner called Aerodet that he kept encountering during sales calls.

"He said he needed to come up with a great product," Gilda said. "So he bought a formula from a chemical supply place and started experimenting with it on his own."

The finished product was Westodet, the purple cleaning solution that's a familiar sight in so many Key West kitchens.

The cleaner's versatility makes it great, Gilda said.

"At first, he mixed it himself in this warehouse, but then we got too big, so we have it made for us and trucked down here."

The interior shelves of Key West Chemical are packed with a staggering array of cleaners, and Gilda knows which one will work for any stain. Go ahead and test her.

She's been doing it for 52 years -- and has no plans to stop.

Her family is still making history on Simonton Street and keeping the island clean.

mmiles@keysnews.com

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