Household helpers

July 10, 2002
Section: LIFE - HOME
Page: B01
Ann Geracimos, THE WASHINGTON TIMES

Tammy Kemus of the Laundry Club makes a delivery on Massachusetts Avenue NW. Ellen Epstein (below) is a service expediter paid to sort through clutter and bring some order to her client's life. Michelle Mantey prepares a meal in her Alexandria home while under the watchful eye of nutrition expert Robyn Webb. [Photos by Nancy Pastor, Daniel Rosenbaum & Jessica Tefft/The Washington Times]

Ellen Epstein transforms a client's cluttered house into a neat place while Rusty, the client's terrier, watches the activity from the safety of the upstairs landing. [Photo by Nancy Pastor/The Washington Times]

Michelle Mantey sets the table as her husband, Matt, grills a backyard meal with help from chef Robyn Webb. [Photo by Jessica Tefft/The Washington Times]

Stressed out by juggling domestic and professional cares and feeling in need of a third hand, if not also a second brain? Take heed. Help is nearby - for a price.

People in the business of helping others organize their lives and lighten their schedules are known as service providers or expediters. They offer to relieve customers of routine and bothersome chores such as paying bills and parking tickets, doing laundry or cooking meals at home. They are professionals who go beyond merely cleaning a house or answering the phone.

Susanne Stutman, a family therapist in Chevy Chase, D.C., had some family troubles of her own several years ago and hired Ellen Epstein of Concierge America Inc. in Chevy Chase, Md., to take care of all her food shopping so she could be free to tend to her husband while he was undergoing treatment for cancer.

"The first thing I ever had asked her to do was to rent our house for a month while my husband and I were traveling," Ms. Stutman says. "She is a lifesaver. She makes things happen for you so your life can continue flowing in spite of any tragedy. The other day, I called her to find someone to take a friend's elderly mother to New York City. She found someone within two hours."

Mrs. Epstein is in the process of slowly "uncluttering" a 6,000-square-foot Potomac home where nearly every room, including the kitchen, has been piled high with old records and papers and a collection of children's mementos, including all the shoes the now-grown children in the house ever wore. Mrs. Epstein and the homeowner work together as a team.

"You have to know how much to push and when," Mrs. Epstein says. "One of the lines I like when sorting through closets is: 'Does this article of clothing need you?'"

The homeowner, a medical technologist by training who requests anonymity for privacy's sake, found Mrs. Epstein on the Internet.

"I told her I was in chaos after three kids and working and had let so many things go that it was impossible to tackle the process. When you have your own stuff, it's hard to come up with a plan. She helps me be more objective," she says.

When finished, the woman says, "I won't be cured completely, but I'll have a better handle on it. My husband loves to travel, and whenever he gets a moment, we are off somewhere. It's hard to come and go and still stay on track."

***

Michelle Mantey of Alexandria, who works in the advertising department of WJFK-FM, met personal chef and nutrition expert Robyn Webb at the Old Town Athletic Club five years ago and hired her to give lessons on nutrition and cooking.

Mrs. Mantey describes the teaching-cooking arrangement as akin to personal training "because the lessons make you work out. She brings over the ingredients for the night because I hate going to grocery stores and she knows my pantry well. She basically changed my lifestyle and the way I ate when I was trying to slim down. When you eat out all the time, you don't control portions, and you don't know what goes into the preparations."

Mondays are lesson nights. Other times, Ms. Webb, the head of A Pinch of Thyme cooking school in Alexandria, leaves meals for the Manteys in their fridge with written instructions on how to heat them. Mrs. Mantey, who used the service nonstop the two weeks before her wedding this past fall, faithfully washes and returns the plastic delivery containers each time. Although she says she feels confident in her own ability to prepare meals, she still calls on Ms. Webb occasionally to help out.

"She is my supreme success story," says Ms. Webb, who grew up in the hotel and restaurant business in a well-known resort in New York state's Catskill Mountains. "Now she cooks circles around people. I helped her build up her kitchen - she didn't even have knives - and then helped redo her home. She took it by the horns."

***

One of the difficulties in hiring outside help of this kind is determining who really is competent and worth the money. Few regulations govern the work such expediters do, which may help explain why their numbers seem to be growing. Their Web sites have alluring and occasionally misleading titles.

One of these, the Laundry Club of Leesburg, Va. (www.thelaundryclub.com), which picks up and delivers laundry and pressing all over the Washington area, isn't really a club, explains owner Tammy Kemus.

"The name is more of a marketing device that I haven't really expanded upon," she says. What it means is that long-term clients - she has a customer base of 300 and a truck and driver in addition to her own car - get preferred treatment and bargain prices.

Concierge America Inc. (www.conciergeamerica.com) was begun in 1993 by Mrs. Epstein and a partner who since has dropped out of the business, mainly to serve people in Europe who need an assortment of matters handled on a continuing basis on this side of the Atlantic. The word "concierge" is familiar abroad, they reasoned.

"One of my good friends was appointed ambassador to the European Union, and every single day he would send me an e-mail from Brussels," Mrs. Epstein recalls. The e-mails read, "'Could you go to my dentist and get my X-rays because I need some dental work to be done?' and 'Go to Nordstrom and get so-and-so-number item in the Nordstrom catalog for my wife.'

"A woman in Norway wanted us to open a post-office box in Northern Virginia, and a man in Mogadishu wanted us to buy a gift for someone from L.L. Bean at a time when the company had only an 800 number and no computer Web access."

Her business shifted homeward in quick order, and today, Mrs. Epstein has a key chain that contains house keys for 20 clients. The "simple" requests are overseeing a housing move; more complicated ones are planning an entire wedding or a funeral out of town, both of which she has done on deadline.

"I get hired because I don't do just organization," she says. "I'm a problem solver. I know how to get information. It has nothing to do with intelligence but with how your brain is organized. Some of the smartest people I know, as soon as something goes wrong, they can't figure how to go under or over it. I reel off 42 suggestions, and they say, 'How did you think of that?'"

Specialists such as Mike Coleman, president of the Lanham-based Maryland Tag Service, and Michael Dorsey of the District-based Dorsey and Associates, take on the tedious, mundane task of dealing with government agencies that oversee automobile registration and the payment of parking tickets.

Mr. Coleman, who works all three jurisdictions locally, advises clients to have title, insurance information, driver's license and any lien information in hand before coming to his office to have tags and titles changed. Mr. Dorsey, a former D.C. government employee, spends much of his time attending hearings on behalf of clients at the D.C. Department of Motor Vehicles' Bureau of Adjudication at 65 K St. NE, near his Capitol Hill office.

He helps "everybody, rich and poor," he says, sometimes with a power-of-attorney statement in hand. A business client long ago had parking and moving-violation tickets that amounted to $55,000, which Mr. Dorsey got reduced to $18,000 by knowing the habits of bureau personnel and details about the protest process.

***

Potential clients who invest in such services over the Internet will want to know how long someone has been in business and to check references. It also may be wise to get in writing an itemized account of the work to be done - when and how and by whom. Charges are not uniform by any means. Mr. Dorsey's fees start at $20 but can get into the thousands for extreme cases in which a person or business has racked up a backlog. Mr. Coleman, who has six employees and says most of his business comes from automobile dealers, recently charged a District client $25 - that included a parking fee - to take care of the paperwork involved in getting tags transferred from an old car to a new model.

A personal chef such as Ms. Webb might ask $350 a week or more for a minimum of five meals a week for two people, including ingredients and delivery twice a week anywhere around Washington. The Laundry Club, which promises on its Web site that "all our cleaning methods are environmentally responsible," says basic pricing for general household laundry is $1.95 a pound. "Natural dry cleaning" - a water-based process that avoids harmful chemicals - ranges upward from $4.95 a piece.

Mrs. Epstein asks $75 an hour for residential organizing, $100 an hour for corporate clients and $100 an hour for taking charge of a home move. "I bill in 15-minute increments, but I'm overly generous to clients, and I don't charge for a consultation," she says.

One request she turned down was from a woman who was going away for the summer and wanted the burglar alarm in her house wired to Mrs. Epstein's home. Mrs. Epstein will, however, take care of bills, open mail and write checks using power-of-attorney within limits.

Professional personnel interviewed for this article offer individual service for the most part; they pride themselves on being able to respond quickly and reliably, often at the last minute and often to some unusual requests.

"I had a guy hire me to get him a wife," Mrs. Epstein says. "His wife had died, and I had helped take care of his medical bills. He was the vice president of an electronics company and wasn't around much because he had to go every four weeks to Korea. I fixed him up with six people."

He told her he was very pleased with all of them, but, she says, to date he hasn't remarried.

 

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