Couple from Vietnam shape their nail salon

Steve Schwalenberg, of Middle Township, and his wife, Cindy, left, share a laugh with customer Michelle Pizza, of North Wildwood, at Kim's Oriental Nails in North Wildwood.

NORTH WILDWOOD - Most of the summer, the customers who come into Kim's Oriental Nails are vacationers or second-home owners.

But owner Steve Schwalenberg, of Middle Township, said his policy is to treat everyone like a neighbor.

That business attitude has served his nail salon well for nearly seven years, he said.

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"This is a vacation area, so we serve a lot of tourists. But we treat you like you're a local customer," he said. "You have to take your time and give customers the experience they expect."

That means greeting customers when they come in the door, being friendly and offering them a chance to sit in a comfortable massage chair if they have to wait a few minutes for their appointment, he said.

"Show them that you're happy to see them. It doesn't take much to smile at your customers," he said.

He and his wife, Cindy, formerly owned a nail salon in Lancaster, Pa., before moving to Cape May County in 2007 to work at Kim's Oriental Nails in a North Wildwood strip mall under its former ownership. Schwalenberg bought the business from a friend five months later.

"People know it by Kim's, so we kept the name," he said.

Schwalenberg and his wife emigrated from Vietnam. He came to the United States as an orphaned child and became an American citizen in 1984. He is proud of his Vietnamese heritage, he said.

"It's the old saying: You can take the farmer out of the farm, but you can't take the farm out of the farmer," he said.

Schwalenberg said he always wanted to go into business for himself. The salon business is highly competitive and operates on thin profit margins.

Nail salons are almost entirely independently owned across the country, according to market analyst IbisWorld. The top four companies hold just 6 percent of the fragmented market. Barriers to entry are extremely low, with most employees working as independent contractors.

This service industry has experienced just 2 percent annual growth since the 2007 recession.

But Schwalenberg said there is opportunity for businesses that offer consistent service.

A key to success for a good salon is hygiene and cleanliness, he said, and his wife is especially fastidious about that. Nail salons are subject to routine health inspections in New Jersey.

The business employs about 10 people at the height of the summer season but is open year-round. Many of winter customers live on the island, he said.

Since the recession, people have been cutting back on some pampering, he said. His regulars usually come in about twice a month, sometimes to get a pedicure instead.

"This is a luxury. If people give up anything, they're more likely to give up manicures," he said.

Customer Michelle Pizza, of North Wildwood, said she gets regular manicures because she works as a waitress.

"Since people will always be looking at my hands, I know I'll present well," she said. "They offer very personalized service. And as a busy person, it's nice to know that when I walk in here, I'll be taken care of immediately. They say walk-ins are welcome and they mean it."

The salon also offers its manicures to children, which can be challenging.

"They don't have the patience to sit still. So sometimes you have to paint the kid's nails four or five times and end up spending more time on them than adults," he said.

The shop on Delaware Avenue sits on the bay side of the island and can face tidal flooding during coastal storms or full-moon tides. Sometimes, he has to drive through saltwater just to drive home at night, he said.

Before Hurricane Sandy last year, he used sandbags and spray foam to seal any cracks around his doors to keep floodwaters out, which helped minimize damage.

"I get so nervous because of our location," he said.

Contact Michael Miller:

609-272-7217

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