Heating Up Business, Calfornia Style

Considered the “Club Med” of nail salons, Judy Franck’s California Nails salon in St. Charles, III., is a whimsical paradise for snow-weary clients.

During the miserable winter of 1996, it would have been easy to understand if the women in Illinois had decided to give up regular manicures for a few months. After all, they probably had their hands full with other projects — like shoveling snow off the driveway.

But at California Nails in St. Charles, about 35 miles west of Chicago, business was booming — even during the worst winter in years. “I have 250 regular clients and I really don’t have time to take on any more,” says owner Judy Franck, who started the home- based salon in her basement six years ago. And those clients don’t mess around when it comes to keeping their nails in great shape, Franck says. “The temperature has been as low as -52°, with the wind-chill factor,” she says, “and the women still keep their appointments as long as their cars will start!”


Perhaps one of the things that inspires her clients to brave those cold, windy streets is the treat that awaits them at California Nails – a one-hour “vacation” in a balmy spot some 2,000 miles away from the Golden State. In fact, just walking into the 320-square-foot salon warms the blood just a bit, says Franck, who began doing nails 1$ years ago in Arcadia, Calif., for celebrities like Meg Ryan and Lynda Carter as well as for those clients who followed die ponies at,, nearby Santa Anita racetrack. But in order to be closer to both her and her husband’s families, Franck packed up and moved to St. Charles in 1988.

To create the effect of a beach-side nail salon, Franck ripped out the old brown carpet that covered the basement floor when she and husband Tony bought their house. Then she painted the floor with acrylic paints and added seven coats of sealer. But Franck didn’t just paint; she created a Southern California sanctuary of fuchsia, purple, and yellow flowers.

And she didn’t stop with the floor. In fact, it’s hard to know where to look first when you enter California Nails. On one wall, the sun is setting behind a calm ocean scene complete with sailboats, swimmers, and cruise ships in the distance. Another wall depicts Muscle Beach in Venice, where tourists snap pictures of hard-bodied weightlifters while “Baywatch”-type babes pose with their surfboards. Above the water, a bright red airplane pulls a “California Nails” banner across the clear, blue sky. And just to the left of the green wicker shelves lined with bottles of nail polish, a cow wearing a purple visor and sunglasses basks in the sun under the “Hollywood” sign.

It’s easy to forget you’re in a basement when you enter Califor­nia Nails. And Franck has worked hard to create that bright, any, and — dare we say it — warm feeling. “I have one window that lets in light, but I also added track lighting and lights at the table,” she says. “The shop is very bright.” To complete the summer-like, sand-between-your-toes feeling, Franck added pots of pink, purple, and yellow silk flowers, ficus and palm trees, and forest-green wicker furniture with pink and aqua floral cushions. “I also rearrange the shop frequently to give it a fresh feeling,” she says. “My clients never know where the chair will be. I keep them guessing.”


With such an inviting salon to welcome them, some of Franck’s customers don’t even bother to wait for those freezing morning temperatures to rise just a bit, she says, noting that her first client of the day arrives at 6 a.m. “In fact, when there are no openings and I get an early-morning cancellation, some clients will take the appointment and come over wearing their pajamas under their coats!” she says. “They go home and go back to bed after I finish their nails.”

Because she opens the salon so early, her day starts at 5 a.m. “I put out coffee and biscotti or doughnuts for the clients, get my sons clothes ready for him and make his lunch, take out something for dinner, and by then it’s 6 a.m. and my first client arrives. It’s a long day,” she says. “The shop is open Wednesday through Saturday, and some days I work until 9 p.m.”

But while the days are long, the commute to work is blissfully short. “It s great being able to work from home,” says Franck. “It’s convenient and it allows me to stay home and take care of my son, Eric.” It’s the flexibility, she says, that makes working from home so appealing. It also helps to have clients who are more like friends than customers. “From time to time a client will stay to dry her nails while I pick up my son from school. It’s a five-minute wait. I have great clients who understand my situation.”


In keeping with the family’s entrepreneurial spirit, 9-year-old Eric has recommended some additions to the salon that make it one of the most kid-friendly spots in town. “Sometimes my clients will bring their children with them and Eric will have somebody to play with for an hour,” Franck says. “We have five different video systems, including Nintendo, in a separate playroom for the kids to keep them busy and out of mom’s hair for awhile.”

Because she has room for a separate play area (not to mention a 9-year-old resident Nintendo expert to provide on-the-house tutoring), “I can have an atmosphere here that’s a lot different than at many other salons, where kids aren’t welcome,’ Franck says.

Working from home also allows Franck to run upstairs to put dinner in the oven while a client is washing her hands. But combining home and career can sometimes lead to ordering pizza at the last minute — by necessity. “Sometimes I burn dinner due to my hectic schedule!” she says. “My clients and I laugh about how the house has been filled with smoke on occasion, all because I tried to do too much.”

While the ability to run up the stairs to the kitchen makes life easier for Franck, having clients in the house at 6 a.m. was a bit of an adjustment for her husband, she says. “Tony wasn’t thrilled to have women saying, ‘Good morning’, as he was getting his first cup of coffee in the kitchen while wearing his p.j.’s. He’s strange that way.” The couple soon installed a door at the top of the stairs to separate work from home just a bit.


In fact, finding that balance — creating a professional atmosphere in a home-based salon — is one of the biggest challenges home-based nail technicians face, Franck says. And while clients do become friends, even to the point of laughing off the occasional smoke alarm disturbance when the meatloaf burns, they still want to know they’re getting the best professional service for their money.

First impressions count, Franck says. And having a separate entrance for a home-based salon is important. “My clients enter through a side door and go straight down the stairs to the salon,” she says. The entrance to California Nails provides a cheery welcome, with a freshly painted white door, a nearby window box handpainted with a watermelon motif and filled with bright green ferns and hanging plants, and a big “OPEN” sign above the California Nails sign. There’s even a red welcome mat in the shape of a slice of watermelon.


But even with such a welcoming entrance, Franck says, she can’t attract walk-in customers off the street. In fact, if you were to walk down Franck’s street, chances are you wouldn’t know which house was the home of California Nails. “In Illinois, you can have a home-based business, but you can’t have a sign out in front of your house,” she explains. “The sign can’t be visible from the street. Also, you can’t have more than two cars in front of your house at the same time.” That’s one of the reasons Franck hasn’t been tempted to expand the salon and hire another nail technician.

“There would be too many cars in joint of the house,” she says.

Even with these restrictions. She says starting a home-based business in Illinois is far simpler than in California. “I always wanted to do nails in my home in California, but when I lived there, you f couldn’t legally do nails in a home- based shop in the city where I lived.” In Illinois, running a home- based nail salon is legal, she says. In addition, an owner can claim certain business expenses, like a percentage of utility bills, on her income tax.

Even though Illinois nail technicians were only recently required to be licensed, Franck has faithfully renewed her California manicurist’s license each year at a cost of $35. Franck expects to be grandfathered into Illinois’ licensing requirements. “It’s important to remember that the regulations in every state — and even in different cities within that state — are different,” Franck emphasizes. “You have to do your homework. When I moved here, I called the city government offices to find out what I had to do to run a nail business from home.” Luckily, the red tape was minimal, she says. “I just had to fill out a home-business questionnaire for the city.”


Franck has worked hard to ensure that she provides a healthful atmosphere for her clients and good working conditions for herself. With a basement location, she knew she had to be extra careful to provide adequate ventilation. “I have an exhaust fan in one of the basement windows,” she says. “And I have an ionizer in the room that pushes the air toward the window. There really aren’t any offensive odors in the salon,” she says.

With a home-based shop, it’s especially important to show clients they can expect cleanliness and good sanitation practices, Franck emphasizes. “I use a heat sterilizer for the metal files and I use Barbicide for the washable files and brushes,” she says. “Plus I use a Client Guard box for each regular customer. Ninety-eight percent of my clients have one.” The boxes cost about $3 each and come with basic files and buffers. “I also add other things like an orangewood stick or a rubber pusher,” she says. Franck also recommends adding a bottle of the client’s favourite polish and a card with her preferences. “It’s tough to remember when a client requests the polish you used on her nails last Christmas!” she says.

And filling customer requests is what it’s all about, Franck emphasizes. “Most of my clients wear nail art on all 10 nails,” she says, noting that nail art is much more popular in Illinois than it was with her California clients. Franck charges $50 for a full set, $25 for a fill, $4 to $5 for an individual nail repair, and $12 for a manicure. Nail art costs $6 for each 15 minutes. “I book on the hour,” she says. “Fills take about 35 minutes, and then I do nail art for the remainder of the hour”.

“My nail art has really grown in popularity m this area,” Franck says. “When my clients show their nails to someone, that person often says, ‘Those look like Judy’s nails!’” While she advertised in the local paper when she first opened California Nails, advertising today is strictly word-of-mouth. “I have a tremendous business going, even without advertising,” she says.

It’s that customer loyalty that makes running her own salon at home so rewarding, Franck says.

“A couple of my clients even showed up for their appointments during a tornado warning,” she says with a laugh, noting that this was one time no other local nail salon could compete with California Nails. “They needed to get their nails done anyway, and they must have figured that if a tornado struck, they’d be in the best place to hide — in a basement!”

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