August 21, 2017

As Strollers Roll Through New York City Grit and Muck, an Industry Is Born


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Illustration by Kaye Blegvad

There is nothing more emblematic of New York City baby life than the beat-up stroller. In this walking city, strollers become homes on wheels, where babies and toddlers log long hours eating, napping and playing.

Parents and caregivers thump these portable playpens and high chairs down subway steps, bump them over broken curbs, and drag them through snow and puddles of who knows what. Their carry baskets hide yesterday’s snack crumbs, crumpled art projects, splashed coffee and grit from the sandbox. They moonlight as grocery carts and extra storage, and mark the passage of time with ever-accruing layers of stain.

“Just like you would buy a minivan if you had a couple of kids, we buy huge strollers,” Katelyn Taylor, 32, said she tells her relatives in the Midwest. She regularly turns heads by toting four children around the Upper East Side in a single Uppababy Vista stroller, balancing two toddlers on the running board and two infants in the double seats. (Two are hers; two she watches for a friend.)

With that kind of use, strollers tend to get filthy. And as perhaps should be expected in this era, when web-based services are springing up to handle everything from dog walking to errand running, and especially in a city known for its entrepreneurial spirit, a fledging stroller-cleaning industry is emerging to deal with the mess.

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In New York, baby strollers are particularly adept at picking up the dirt, dust and the other unmentionables of a New York City street. Credit Bryan Thomas for The New York Times

Two very different businesses, one national, one local, are vying for a slice of this market in Manhattan. In the homegrown corner is Baby Bubbles, a mom-and-pop shop tucked into a quiet side street on the Upper East Side. The store is painted light blue and white, with a row of tiny white baby clothes hanging from a clothesline in the window. The vibe is meant to be part spa, part New England farmhouse, and to emphasize that the store cleans baby clothes, too.

The owner, Seth Mittman, 39, opened the store about 18 months ago, after becoming a father and noticing that each stroller parked outside the pediatrician’s office was dirtier than the next. “This cannot happen,” he said he remembers telling his wife. Mr. Mittman started cleaning friends’ strollers in the bathtub of his Upper East Side apartment, and when he realized he had a viable business idea, he quit his job in advertising sales and went all the way. (The family has since moved to Wayne, N.J.)

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Baby Bubbles is small, so all the scrubbing these days is done in the store basement by an employee, Jose Nuñez, 29, a father of two from the Bronx who brings his own baby gear to clean on the weekends. His key tools are a scrub brush, All Free and Clear detergent, and a $3,500 dry vapor steam cleaner usually used for car detailing.

When Mr. Nuñez got a hold of a Joolz stroller last week — a $1,200 Australian import — he took apart the fabric seat and started vacuuming the bottom bin. A funky smell rose from its depths, with notes of old cheese, fish and perhaps the nasty puddle that the owner, Tali Roth, said had driven her to seek professional help.

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“I try not to breathe through my nose,” Mr. Nuñez said.

With the deluxe cleaning package, which costs $75, Baby Bubbles disassembles and sanitizes the stroller, details the wheels with Armor All and wraps them up in plastic wrap, a process that takes about 60 to 90 minutes. Pick up and delivery are free in most of Manhattan and a portion of Brooklyn, and the job is usually done in a day. The company also cleans strollers donated to a charity, called NYC Mammas Give Back, at no charge.

Baby Bubbles’s competitor, Tot Squad, has a location in a Midtown office building and juggernaut-like aspirations. Its founder, Jennifer Beall Saxton, 33, came up with the idea for a baby-gear cleaning and repair business while a student at the Kellogg School of Management at Northwestern University. She wants to be to strollers and car seats what the Geek Squad is to computer repair.

“I think that sometimes if you can find something that no one else wants to do and you do it for them, there is a business opportunity there,” she said in a telephone interview.

Tot Squad’s main location is in Los Angeles, where it sets up in front of businesses like Whole Foods and Babies “R” Us and cleans car seats and strollers while parents shop. Ms. Saxton’s dream is to develop her partnerships to the point that when a parent buys an expensive stroller at a major retailer it will come with a service plan from her company.

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Jose Nuñez steam cleans a car seat at Baby Bubbles, a shop on the Upper East Side. Credit Sam Hodgson for The New York Times

Tot Squad’s New York location has no storefront, so items must be dropped off in the building lobby. It is more expensive; a full-service stroller cleaning with wheel detailing costs $119, plus $50 to $75 for pickup and drop-off. “New York City strollers are exponentially dirtier” than strollers elsewhere, Ms. Saxton said.

She has seen baby gear stained with cat urine, covered with spider webs and chewed through by mice. Mold, she thinks, is the toughest stain — she charges an extra $25 to remove it. Vomit does not even raise her eyebrows. “Carsick kids keep me in business,” she said.

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Mr. Mittman, who also washes and folds baby clothes for about $1 a pound, says he thinks New York is a unique market for baby-gear cleaning because of all the busy working parents who do not have a washing machine in their homes. So he is not planning on opening other locations.

His bread and butter are people like Ms. Roth. An interior designer from the Columbus Circle area, Ms. Roth had considered professional stroller cleaning pretentious — until her stroller got soaked by a Central Park puddle so disgusting she could not stomach putting her toddler back in it.

The stroller is now “lovely and gorgeous and feels brand-new,” she said. Even if “by January it will look like it was never cleaned.”

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Article source: http://www.nytimes.com/2016/11/04/nyregion/as-strollers-roll-through-new-york-city-grit-and-muck-an-industry-is-born.html?partner=rss&emc=rss

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