Although they endure a rugged landscape and harsh winters, Alaskan natives can receive luxurious pedicures right outside their igloos. See how one woman’s dream and a family van cater to the inhabitants of the Kenai Peninsula.
When one thinks of Alaska, visions of stark white forests and pink-bellied salmons swimming viciously up stream come to mind. Alaska’s Kenai Peninsula has all of those things, along with beautiful sandy beaches, sapphire lakes, and active volcanoes. Within the rugged surroundings of Kenai, Cheryl Ann Lavin’s unconventional and charming This Little Piggi & Co. delivers all of the relaxation and elegance a big city salon can offer, but with a twist. Her clients enjoy the option of having their own private salon drive right up to their doorstep. No need to get out the heavy parka and walk through miles of snow, Lavin’s clients can just take a couple of steps into her cozy mobile salon.
Although This Little Piggi & Co. is relishing in growth and success, Lavin firmly believes that it couldn’t have come together without her family. “It is nothing that I can do on my own. It is completely a team effort,” she explains. Her daughters pamper her when she’s not working, her sons do the maintenance on the van, and her husband runs the errands.
This ingenious idea brought to fruition has its roots in Lavin’s vast experiences. She’s been an airline attendant, a truck driver, an oil field worker, and a single mother of six. Throughout her wide array of occupations and experiences, Lavin has always had a passion for pedicures.
“My addiction was, and still is, pedicures. No matter what city I was in, if there was a chance to get a pedicure, I took it as my treat for my hard-working feet and legs. I used to dream, during the long hours of truck driving, how I would one day open my own business and make a good living for myself and my children while bringing comfort to others.”
It was not until Lavin fell ill that she seriously put her dream into action. Three years ago, Lavin was diagnosed with ovarian cancer. “Despite good health practices, my body was sick. There was a huge cyst and tumors on my ovary, plus internal bleeding, which suggested ovarian cancer.” She was very sick for a year and was then rushed into surgery. It took her a year to recover and that’s when she decided it was time to change her life. She moved home to Alaska and got into the beauty industry.
Resourcefulness Pays Off
Once Lavin arrived in Alaska, she began drafting a business plan, gathering her resources, and looking for a bank to grant her a business loan. During the next six months, five banks turned her down. “I had a professional business plan all drafted out, but they looked at me like I was crazy,” says Lavin. The banks had never heard of a mobile salon before so they were skeptical. They also saw her as a risk since she was recovering from her illness. She also found that there was no money available from government programs that were supposed to help women open businesses. Almost at the end of her rope, Lavin saw something that could give her the financial mobility she needed.
“I was in the darkest moment of financial rejection, then I saw my beautiful, faithful, free and clear family van sitting there, patiently waiting for the light to switch on in my head,” she recalls.
Lavin set out to revamp the family van into a mobile salon. She had her husband take out the captain chairs and the bench seat to make room for her recliner and her two tubs. Once they were put inside she had to decide how she was going to run her equipment, such as her light and footbaths. She contacted Honda and bought a $1,200 generator that was the size of a five-gallon gas can. “The generator may have cost $1,200 but it has already paid itself off. For one gallon of gas, I can have eight hours of power. It only costs me $1.53 a day,” says Lavin. She also has access to plenty of water for her services by filling up a five-gallon jug and keeping it warm with a water heater. “By incorporating my trucking knowledge and skills, my mobile salon is positioned to give clients the maximum benefits of privacy, relaxation, and comfort.”
Pedicures to Go
To make every pedicure a perfectly executed session of pure relaxation, Lavin drives to the appointment 15 minutes ahead of schedule. “When I go to their home, I try to look for the best view, hopefully where they can see the sunset during the service. This is where my truck driving skills are helpful in positioning the van in the best spot possible,” says Lavin. “Each client is met in true Alaskan style. They are asked to remove their shoes and stockings on the outside mat and enter the salon in sanitized salon booties.” Then she asks them some questions about their feet. Many of her clients are oil field workers and salespeople, so they usually have very cold, tired feet from working the fields and pounding the pavement. She makes it a point to customize their foot soak according to their individual needs. The clients are advised in advance to wear loose, comfortable clothing so that their legs and feet are exposed for the pedicure. They receive a satin blanket and barley hull pillow to comfort their neck and lower back. Lavin says that she emphasizes the need to hydrate the body by giving her clients their own bottle of water at the start of their appointment.
She can easily accommodate her male and female clients’ feet by giving them a tub for each foot. “It is less constricting if you have a tub for each foot. That way there is no stress on the client’s lower back because the client can adjust their sitting position and the knees are also well positioned because of the tubs.”
Each client is pampered with a 90-minute pedicure. As a part of the detailed pedicure, Lavin offers her clients customized paraffin wraps in peach, lavender, or eucalyptus, aromatherapy, and a relaxing soundtrack from her stereo. First-time clients receive a new pair of leather thong sandals and instructions that these sandals are only to be worn for future pedicure appointments. Native clients receive a fresh hot pink carnation and the tourists receive an Alaskan goodie bag. “This really tells the client they are special and that extra time has been taken to show that someone really cares,” says Lavin. Her last appointment is at 10:30 pm for a 90-minute service. “I will not go over five clients a day. I don’t want the stress and I don’t think that I can provide the type of service that I would like to give if I tried to squeeze more people in. I can’t do right by them if I feel pressured to add more people.”
Lavin’s pedicure business thrives on word of mouth referrals and some from local bed and breakfasts. She started a grassroots public relations campaign for her business by giving away 25 free pedicures for special occasions like prom night and Mother’s Day. From the 25 pedicures, her business bloomed and she received several repeat customers and referrals. “Don’t be afraid to give away services. What is it really going to cost you? There’s plenty of business out there and you need to have people sample your work,” she advises.
The bed and breakfast referrals provide plenty of interesting clients to Lavin’s salon. “To date my clients have come from all over the world, ranging from Germany, Egypt, Africa, to Texas and Ohio. Thanks largely to the bed and breakfasts in my area that offer my services, I have had massage therapists, clinical microbiologists, registered nurses, and salespeople,” she says.
Some of the guests who stay at the establishments to purchase Lavin’s services as anniversary gifts. The men treat their wives to Lavin’s pedicures, so while they fish, their wives can relax in the van and get pampered.
Clients, both female and male, enjoy the privacy the van provides. Lavin’s clientele is 60% female and 40% male. When asked whether she has a hard time relating to her male clients, Lavin says that it’s a breeze. “I’ve worked in male-dominated industries all of my life like the airlines, trucking, and oil fields so I know how to talk to them when they come in for a pedicure. They know that I know what I’m talking about.”
Dollars and Sense
For the quality of service Lavin delivers, her price of $47 plus $5 extra for fuel is a bargain by any measure. Some local nail techs have criticized Lavin for having such low prices. “They get upset because I charge $47 and they charge $65. I tell them that they have their own clientele that can afford it, but I serve the masses,” says Lavin. “Since my prices are so reasonable, the tips I receive are great.” She makes a good living by having a fully paid van, which in turn leaves her free from rent, utility bills, and overhead. She doesn’t let anything expire and she never runs short on supplies. She says that if anything, she stocks up on toe rings. “The rage is toe and foot jewelry. I buy 14-karat toe rings and offer them after each service.”
Lavin’s success not only comes from delivering great pedicures and having low prices, but also from her vast experience and business know-how. Her trucking experience has definitely helped her with mobile salon. “You have to know the equipment so that if it breaks down you know how to get it up and running. You have to know how to maintain your equipment and know how to maneuver the roads so that you won’t get stuck somewhere. When you’re on the road, you have to have your stock secured so that things don’t fall over,” says Lavin. She has her clients sign her log book (a trucking practice) when they visit. According to Lavin, it is both rewarding and helpful in giving her a record of who to re-book and follow up on.
With so much emphasis these days on disinfection and safety, it was common sense for Lavin to run a clean operation and teach others to do the same. Lavin takes all of the needed precautions to make sure that her area and implements are disinfected. She uses the Let’s Touch system to disinfect her implements. She keeps two sets of implements so that after she’s down with a client, she can use her second set on the next client, while the first set is disinfecting. “I strive for excellence not perfection. I have very high standards for my business and myself,” says Lavin.
Because of her drive for high standards, Lavin went to OSHA, off the record and asked them to come out and inspect her salon. Needless to say, she passed hands down. “They were completely blown out of the water. I have a carbon monoxide detector, fire extinguisher, handrails, and commercial liability insurance. They could not find a single thing that was in violation.” Again, her background in the trucking and oil industry helped her comply with all of the different safety standards.
Alaska has stepped up to the regulation table, but Lavin had already started making strides of her own. Last May, Alaska passed Senate Bill 51, which will require nail technicians to get licensing. This law will be going into effect in January 2000; however, Lavin has already approached Shear Allusions 2000 Training School to put into place a 72-hour course for pedicures and manicures. This course would cover health, sanitation, and salon safety, and upon completion, nail technicians would receive a certificate stating that they were trained in these areas. “I want to help women get started in their own businesses. I want to help single moms or women who need extra income. I see myself as a mentor,” says Lavin.
Participating in charity events is an important and soul-nurturing endeavor for Lavin. “As for community involvement, my attitude is give, give, give. As Auntie Mame said, ‘Life is a banquet and most poor suckers are starving to death.” “Twenty percent of Lavin’s income goes to charitable organizations such as the Kenai Peninsula Women’s Run. About 266 women run in the race and Lavin sets up a booth at the event where she gives away community awareness promotion bags, conducts mini tours of her van, and gives paraffin hand dips. She is also involved in Nikiski’s Tool Time program that feeds 100 children every Wednesday. As incentives, Lavin gives gift certificates to young people who volunteer their time for various community projects. “Volunteering enhances my life. When people tell me about their lives, it is like a gift of lie to me,” says Lavin. “I want to commit myself to constant improvement. Credit goes to my family and to the wonderful mentors along the way. Life is a highway and I want to ride it for a long, long time.”
Ready to roll, Lavin makes it a priority to have her van ready for her clients. She lights aromatherapy candles, puts her cell phone on silent, and plays a classical guitar tape on her stereo. “It is essential that there are no interruptions during a session.” A mobile moneymaker, Lavin says that this type of business can be done for just under $450,000. “You need to know how to put money away when the season slows down and you have to know what to write off.”
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