Karen Franco is the biggest nitpicker you ever saw.
Her expertise is lice removal — the fine-toothed combs, the tediousness — a talent she discovered several years ago after volunteering to man the front lines of an outbreak at her daughter’s school.
When The Washington Post published a piece about Franco in 2007, her lice work was a part-time gig, something she did in addition to her job as an art teacher. She was charging a pittance of $18 per head — an amount she chose because it’s a sacred number in the Jewish faith — and giving most of the money to charity. But once the article was published, desperate parents began flooding Franco’s phone line, wanting to put their children’s heads in her hands.
A few weeks after publication, Franco quit her school job and began nitpicking full time. In June of 2008, she opened an office in Kensington. Her husband, Allan, had originally planned to operate his retail business out of the same space. But when he saw how in-demand his wife was, he decided to abandon a 30-year career in sales to become her partner in lice.
“He had,” Franco says approvingly, “a lot of aptitude.”
Now, the duo team of Advice On Lice charges $85 per hour for office visits (house calls are $100 plus travel costs). “Peak season, we schedule five sessions a day,” Franco says, referring to the early September stretch when parents are trying to rid their kids of summer camp pests as the children go back to school. Each session also includes education and prevention techniques, and Franco regularly makes presentations to school PTAs.
Over the past four years, Franco has perfected and refined her techniques. She’s found that most homeopathic remedies are bunk (“I like mayonnaise on my tuna, not my head, thanks”), and she mistrusts products that instruct users to wet their heads before application. The water can serve as a warning signal to lice, she says, which then hunker down to become immune to the treatment. Her favored remedies are over-the-counter ones such as RID, which she buys by the case. She and Allan comb their own hair twice daily with a gadget called the Lice- Meister and wear protective lab coats.
Franco never anticipated that her once-volunteer service would become a full-time calling: “I just saw it as protecting my own family by keeping the problem out of our community,” she says, but she can’t deny that business has been good.
“You never know what’s going to walk through your door. ... Sometimes, it’s standing room only in here.”