Down & Dirty: Cleaning house the old-fashioned way
BY Jason Sheftell DAILY NEWS REAL ESTATE CORRESPONDENT
Maria Arateaga of New York’s Little Elves cleaning service.
When you’re at least two to three times the price of companies that claim to do the same thing, you better be good. When it’s a house- cleaning service in New York City, you better be great, and you better run a legal, trustworthy ship.
Barbara Roche Fierman founded New York Little Elves 32 years ago. She runs the residential cleaning service with a firm but motherly hand that keeps worker turnover down to nothing and customers paying $45 per hour for individual cleaners, by far the most in the city.
“Three decades ago, I noticed a need in the city for a well-run cleaning service run by a person who may not have been of the same background of the clients but who was close enough to be familiar with their needs,” says Fierman, once an upper middle class divorced housewife who became a substitute teacher in New York City schools and state prisons before starting her company. “Our clients need people to scrub hard, climb ladders, get under counters. They deserve them to look good, show up on time, and know how to smile and say ‘Good morning.'”
While many other cleaning services charge less and do solid work, none work with more top architects, contractors and interior designers.
“They are as thorough as I have ever seen,” says Manhattan designer Alan Tanksley, who has used the service for years. “They’re the best.”
Cleaning everything from small apartments to the city’s most palatial homes, Little Elves built a reputation providing honest cleaning professionals. Working with her daughter Sabrina Fierman Cusin, whom she raised on her own in downtown New York, she dispatches three- to 12-person crews over one- to three-day periods to give apartments a deep, sanitary cleaning. When crews arrive with ladders and big boxes, landlords often think they’re doing construction.
Keeping workers is the key to their success. In an industry where 70% of workers will leave their cleaning company in less than four months, around 10 of Fierman’s 55 workers have been with her for more than 15 years. More than she can count have been there over 10. Some even get married to each other. Those who go home to their countries of birth are welcomed when they return to earn money.
“We offer health care and we have a 401(k) with matching funds,” says Cusin, in charge of marketing. “It sounds cliché, but this is more than a place to work for people.”
“I want our workers to love this country,” says Fierman, who notes that all workers are legal but most are not citizens. “I want them to better themselves.”
This familial rapport creates a circle of trust, crucial in the cleaning game where breaking irreplaceable objects or accusations of theft can bankrupt and destroy a company. In three decades, Little Elves has been accused of theft only two or three times. Workers are encouraged to discuss any peculiarity when cleaning objects, whether a marble bust from ancient Greece or a pool ball.
“Our workers are trained to find damages and report them,” says Fierman, a New York character who hates job titles, dyes her hair blue and red, and walks around with a little Pomeranian lap dog. “When we encounter something we’ve never cleaned before, like some piece of 2,000-year-old silk, I’ll call Sotheby’s to find out the best way to clean it. We thrive on new challenges.”
At recent jobs on the lower East Side and in the West Village, Elves workers constantly innovate. They use chopsticks folded into wet cloths to clean grooves in doorways and moldings. “Green” cleaning to these pros means warm water and vinegar or even vodka, the way it was done 200 years ago.
Through word of mouth only, their client list numbers in the thousands, and they’ve cleaned in such prestigious addresses as 15 Central Park West and the residences at the Time Warner Center.
Crew chiefs wear polo shirts; crew members, T-shirts. Staff wears white, sanitary booties over their socks. Some wear hair nets. They live in the Bronx, Queens and upper Manhattan; the Dominican Republic, Argentina and Ecuador before that.
“Deep cleaning to us means no dust anywhere in the entire apartment,” says general manager David Brugiatelli, who estimates most jobs and oversees crew chiefs. “Every one of us tries to find better ways to clean every day.”
Fierman recently noticed the average person has fewer cleaning skills than previous generations. To satisfy customer needs, Little Elves trains homeowners and domestic staffs in the art of cleaning.
“There’s a generation of people who have never seen good housework,” says Fierman. “Their mother worked. She didn’t stay home and clean. That makes for a lot of dirty apartments.”
Still, though, people sometimes question the thoroughness of Little Elves. Some first- time customers misunderstand estimates that require multiple hours of housework. But after inspecting the results, not one customer has refused to pay the bill.
“Customers say to me all the time, ‘What are you going to do in my home for 30 hours? I can do it myself in six,’ ” says Fierman, who from time to time urges customers to find the cheapest cleaner. “That’s just cleaning in the middle, though. I want customers to visit the job while we work. Then when they get the bill, they happily pay. I even ask people to tell me if they find another company that can beat our quality. I haven’t gotten a call about that yet.”
“When you do post-construction cleaning, people expect to walk into a brand-new apartment,” says Andre Jones, a partner in Richard Wise Construction, Manhattan contractors specializing in luxury renovations. “We’ve been using them for at least 10 years and no one has ever complained, and we have finicky customers.”
To demonstrate their capabilities, Little Elves cleaned my West Village apartment. After they finished, I could smell the lemon cleaning products from yards away. Everything was exactly where I left it, but sparkling. It was dustless. The bathtub was whiter than when I moved in. I felt better just being there.
Little Elves’ tips for keeping your home clean
To contact Little Elves for a cleaning or employment possibilities, call (212) 673-5507. A minimum of 4 hours, approximately $200, is required per job.
1 De-clutter every day. It is much easier to keep your home looking nice and easier to clean when there is little around. Put things away in their place instantly, so you don’t have to move the item more than once (keys, coats, bags, etc.). Pick up whatever is on the floor that shouldn’t be there. When you go through the mail, sort it on the spot, toss the junk and file the bills.
2 Clean as you go through your home. Leave Swiffers in various places in your home, and wipe/dust as you walk through a room or hallway. After using the bathroom, for the tub – put a large dash of shampoo or liquid dishwashing soap into it as you exit. Swish around with a brush or washcloth and watch the soil go down the drain. Rinse well. If you have a glass-enclosed shower, keep a window squeegee there and wipe down before you exit. Rinse down your sink and faucets after use.
3 Clean one room at time. Or one category at a time: mirrors, toilets, floors, tabletops, kitchen counters, etc., rather than attempting the whole apartment. Your home will look better, stay cleaner and you will feel better throughout the week. Do one thing or room section a day.
4 Do double duty. Make personal calls while dusting or cleaning the refrigerator. You won’t notice you are cleaning.
5 Cleaning products: White vinegar/lemon juice. A 50% solution with water sprayed on kitchen counters will keep bacteria at bay. Use full strength to remove calcium deposits from hard water, and mixed with salt to clean tarnished brass or copper. Cheap vodka works, too! Put in a spray bottle undiluted for a real disinfectant. It is better than peroxide, alcohol or Clorox (which can be hard on skin, nose and eyes). For stainless steel, we love Liquid Clorox. It does not streak, and repels fingerprints. For the all-natural “green” and pH-neutral home, we love Dr. Bronner’s Castile soap. You can clean almost anything with it.
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