Editor's note: This tour of small businesses across the country highlights the imagination, diversity, and resilience of American enterprise.
Vinegar on granite countertops is bad news. Bad for the granite's finish. Bad for the cleaner who damages the granite's finish and likely loses a customer. Bad for the whole cleaning profession when that customer decides never to trust another wipe-wielding outsider in her home and denigrates the profession to her neighbors.
Grace Reynolds won't tolerate it. The co-owner of Handmaid Cleaning, in Walla Walla, Washington, sees her job as a calling, an art, a science. She wants to elevate her fellow cleaners in the public eye and exalt their roles as champions of health and restorers of order and beauty.
That's why Grace and her husband, Kevin, preside over a Facebook community of more than 19,000 cleaners who share tips on removing stains, sure, but also reassure one another about the dignity of their work. That's why they started a professional organization to help other small cleaning businesses thrive. And that's why they persuaded the folks at the National Day Calendar, official registrar of all things commemorative, to proclaim September 17 as National Professional House Cleaners Day.
"There is a deep stigma attached to the cleaning profession," Grace says. "We want to see reciprocated respect between the client and the cleaner. And we want cleaners to have love for the work they do and the service they provide."
Handmaid Cleaning employs between 10 and 17 people, depending on the season, and has annual sales of around $500,000. It is a business dedicated to cleanliness that emerged from two very messy lives. The Reynoldses, who now speak in rapturous tones about baseboards and pH balances, survived divorce, unemployment, and--in Grace's case--abuse. Between them they have 11 children, aged 14 years to 2 months.
Perhaps that's where their empathy comes from. Empathy for other cleaners "whose family members or husbands or boyfriends look down on them for the work they do," says Grace. And empathy for clients, whose problems they can't solve but whose lives they make more manageable.
Michelle Dressler, who lives in Walla Walla, found Handmaid two years ago in an online directory of regional services for people undergoing cancer treatment. "Kevin came out to my house and was so compassionate and kind and asked what I needed," says Dressler, who is now in remission. "I was in the middle of chemotherapy, and I could barely get off the couch. They offered me free cleanings. It literally helped save my life."
Two cleaners serviced Dressler's home for three months. "It was obvious they really enjoyed their jobs," she says. "It wasn't like they were doing it because they had to. I'm sure that comes from Kevin and Grace."
A clean break
Small children seek refuge where they can. When Grace Reynolds was 5 years old and things got bad at home--which was often--she found peace and safety cleaning the bathroom. "I pretended I was a princess and that my best friend was a maid," says Grace. "She was my imaginary friend. We would clean together and share secrets."
That was in Mobile, Alabama, where Grace grew up. After high school she got married, leaving one abusive household for another. Needing money to escape, she applied for a cleaning job at a Hard Rock Café but was encouraged to be a cocktail waitress there instead. When local police declined to issue a restraining order on her husband, she loaded her daughters, ages 1 and 3, and a few plastic bags of belongings into a Ford Explorer and drove to Pittsburgh, where a cousin lived.
In Pittsburgh, Grace enrolled in community college, with vague ambitions to become a nurse. Needing to support her family, she again considered cleaning but her cousin said it was beneath her. She continued to waitress, a job that paid poorly. And when you are a young mother of young children scrabbling to survive in a strange city, you do what you have to. Grace worked nights dancing at a club. "I felt desperate, trapped," she says. The irony that she'd reached this juncture because society deemed cleaning undignified was not lost on her. One night in 2011, pushed to her limits by a customer, she walked out.
Grace had saved just $900, but it was enough. At the local FedEx, she printed up colorful flyers. Every day, when she wasn't in school, she spent 30 minutes to an hour walking around Pittsburgh's upper-middle class neighborhoods affixing ads to door handles. Her daughters helped.
Handmaid Cleaning promised to exceed customers' expectations. For Grace, that was the fun part. "I love to clean, so I would wipe down baseboards. Dust from top to bottom. Get rid of all the hard water and soap scum build-up," she says. "When I went into a house I was on a mission."
At first she charged $20 an hour, but she soon raised that to $30. As she grew quicker and more confident, she simply gave out estimates for whole jobs. "Over six or seven months quite a few clients were paying me $75 an hour," she says. "They were happy to pay it, too." By year's end she had around 50 regular clients and was a star on Angie's List. Although she completed her degree, nursing--with its late nights and long shifts--no longer appealed.
Polishing their image
Grace and Kevin met through an online dating service and fell in love during long conversations on the phone. A former paramedic from California, Kevin had divorced and followed his ex-wife to Walla Walla to be close to his three kids. He struggled to find work there, so when Grace moved out West to be with him late in 2012, he eagerly joined the business.
"Naturally, at first I thought I'm not going to like scrubbing toilets," Kevin says. "But I loved being around Grace, and I loved her passion for what she was doing. I wanted to be out there in the field with her doing it."
Grace became Kevin's sanitation sensei. She taught him how to treat fixtures and surfaces in a home, what works on granite versus marble versus wood. She explained how to mix different consistencies of the mild abrasive Barkeepers Friend for optimal performance on porcelain, chrome, or stainless steel.
The Reynoldses knew how to clean. They didn't know how to break into the local market. The flyers that had worked in Pittsburgh didn't generate a single call. One email did come in. "It said your business name sucks," Kevin says. "Good luck, but your business is going to die."
Down to their last $100--surviving on food stamps--the Reynolds used $30 to buy an ad on Facebook. They worked for as little as $5 an hour. From those early jobs they collected dramatic before-and-after photos, which they posted on their Facebook page. "It ended up blowing us up out there," Kevin says.
The Reynoldses always planned to grow Handmaid into a bigger business. But Grace fretted over relying on others to uphold her standards. Then, in 2013, complications developed in Grace's pregnancy. Forced to spend a month in Spokane, where their daughter was in a neonatal intensive care unit, they brought on their first employee and entrusted her with 20 clients.
By 2014, Handmaid Cleaning had eight employees, who earned as much as $30 an hour. Then one day, "the government literally knocked on our front door," Kevin says. Two agents from Washington State's Department of Labor and Industries asked to see the Reynoldses' books. They concluded the couple was illegally treating their cleaners as contractors instead of employees, demanded $12,000 in back taxes, and ordered them to change their business model. Under the new structure, employees would earn considerably less. "Five of them quit, and one took a lot of our clients," Grace says. "That time was devastating."
Helping an industry shine
Over the next few years, Handmaid rebuilt its workforce and won more clients. The Reynoldses increasingly used Facebook--not just to demonstrate their cleaning prowess but also to organize community events, like charity drives. In 2017, Facebook selected Handmaid Cleaning for its Small Business Council and flew the couple to a meeting in Menlo Park, California. That event generated local press, further raising Handmaid's reputation in Walla Walla. They also earned good will helping other local businesses leverage the platform.
At a Council reunion the next year, a fellow alumnus suggested the Reynoldses start a professional cleaners' community, Grace says, "to spread the idea that cleaning is something to take pride in." The House Cleaning Community ("powered by Handmaid") was born and is now more than 19,000 members strong.
The nonprofit American House Cleaners Association, which the Reynoldses launched in May, is meant to raise the profiles of individual members and help them professionalize their services. To date, about 60 cleaning services pay between $10 and $150 for a logo, access to a private Facebook group, local promotions, and counseling on marketing and business development. One member--Clean Heart Cleaning Service, in Oneonta, Alabama--was profiled on the local Fox affiliate thanks to an AHCA promotion.
McKenna and Troy Hargis became paying members soon after the AHCA's launch. The owners of Hargis Helpers Cleaning had been struggling for three years to grow their small family business in Raleigh, North Carolina. In short order, the Reynoldses helped them create contracts, raise prices, jazz up their online marketing, switch to natural cleaning products, and adopt a chatbot to handle clients. They also publicized Hargis Helpers on the association's page. "We got a good 15 to 20 calls just from that post," McKenna Hargis says.
"The natural products are a huge reason we're getting a lot more clients. And people see we're part of an association so it's like that backs us up," she says. "We've gained a lot from Grace and Kevin. They know what they're doing."