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From Pampers to Pampering: Spas and Salons Court Younger Set

Karla VandenBerg created the children's hybrid spa/salon in 2001 in Yakima, Wash., to coax her haircut-weary son into agreeing to a trim.

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LOS ANGELES — Two friends can prep for a wedding by getting their nails painted, makeup done and hair coiffed for $65 at Monkey Dooz in Riverside, Calif.

It might be a good deal, but it’s doubtful brides and bridesmaids are going to stop by. Flower girls are more up Monkey Dooz’s alley.

Karla VandenBerg created the children’s hybrid spa/salon in 2001 in Yakima, Wash., to coax her haircut-weary son into agreeing to a trim. To appeal to young boys and girls, the walls of the tiny 500-square-foot location were painted in rain-forest murals and the salon chairs were shaped like jeeps.

As an afterthought, VandenBerg added a manicure/pedicure station to entice her daughter to Monkey Dooz as well. “I am a tomboy. I never expected anything to come out of a pedicure,” she said.

Something, of course, did come out of the spa services. The demand for so-called mini manis and pedis, at $10 and $18, respectively, soared, and VandenBerg capitalized on their popularity by broadening the spa menu to feature $20 French manicures, $45 exfoliating facials, $20 mud masques, $18 makeup makeovers and $40 faux sun body bronzes.

Immediately, the small Yakima location churned up profits, bringing in over $7,000 in sales a month. Subsequent units — the chain has grown to five; the most recent, the Riverside location, opened late last year — grew in size to around 1,200 square feet and, in revenues, to about $450,000 per year.

Children’s services were introduced at adult spas and nail salons to occupy daughters while mothers were being worked on. But as Stephanie DeBonis, owner of Monkey Dooz in Riverside, pointed out, not all women are keen to have their spa visits interrupted by offspring, even their own. “It is your time versus their time,” she said.

Catering to kids has become the province of a small crop of spas that is quickly spreading with license and franchise agreements. In addition to Monkey Dooz, which VandenBerg reported has fielded franchise inquiries from as far away as New Delhi, Sweet & Sassy, based in Southlake, Tex., has expanded to eight stores since its 2004 founding and has commitments to reach up to 80 in the next two years. The chain’s locations average 3,500 square feet and are done in bright pink and lime green.

Ronda Erickson decided to open a Sweet & Sassy in Frisco, Tex., after taking her daughter to numerous parties at the Southlake location. “If you have a daughter in Southlake, you know about Sweet & Sassy,” said the mother of five-year-old Kennedy. “She got invited to so many birthday parties, it almost seemed like we were there once a month.” Erickson expects to notch at least $500,000 in sales at the Frisco store this year.

The parties are central to children’s spas’ business models. Both Sweet & Sassy and Monkey Dooz have set aside areas to host theme parties — “Rockin’ Pop Star” and “Night on the Red Carpet” are Sweet & Sassy’s themes, “Glamour Girl Glitz” and “Princess Party” reign at Monkey Dooz — where girls dress up, get makeovers and have their nails polished.

“In the last 20 years, birthday party services have been growing,” said Eleanor Keare, president of Circle of Friends, a Santa Monica, Calif., children’s hair and bath products company that sells to Monkey Dooz. “Parents are looking more and more to outsource birthday parties, and they are looking for unique locations to do that.”

At Monkey Dooz, VandenBerg estimated the average party cost $225, but the price tag can exceed $500. At the year-old Monkey Dooz in Boise, Idaho, parties account for 65 percent of revenues. Due to lower overall labor costs, the parties have higher profit margins than individual treatments. As Erickson’s experience indicates, they are also an effective way to market the spas to girls who may not otherwise visit.

VandenBerg has taken the party on the road to hotels, such as the Atlantis Hotel in Paradise Island, Fla., where she transformed a room into a beauty parlor for four hours of various services, including manicures and pedicures. Each child pays $50 to $75 to attend what VandenBerg dubs Glamour Camp at a hotel. She plans to move Monkey Dooz corporate headquarters to Las Vegas this year to take advantage of the concentrated hotel population there.

Monkey Dooz and Sweet & Sassy make spa services age-appropriate. DeBonis explained that the Monkey Dooz in Riverside, where customers are an average four to six years old and top out at 13, uses chocolate, banana and strawberry lotions. The makeup routine excludes foundation and consists of lip gloss, eye shadow and stars placed on cheeks. Glitter nail polish is popular, as are vibrant colors such as hot pink and blue. “They don’t want mommy colors,” said DeBonis.

One challenge for DeBonis has been digging up green nail polish, a frequently requested color. To tailor polish to its needs, Monkey Dooz is developing its own line for an expected early 2008 release. Sweet & Sassy is getting into the hair care product business with a shampoo line to be launched this year.

Another challenge is staffing children’s spas. Keare reasoned that beauty school graduates may opt for adult locations, which have more cachet — and often higher pay. Erickson, who had 38 predominantly part-time employees on her payroll at its height, has had trouble finding people willing to work for an hourly rate rather than on commission. Another requirement is crucial: a desire to be around children.

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