Making It
Salon owners offer one-of-a-kind pedicures with the help of hungry fish

By Elizabeth Chang
Sunday, August 24, 2008

JOHN HO AND YVONNE LE had one contracting business, two hair and nail salons, and three kids. Then the couple decided to add 5,000 flesh-eating fish to the mix, and things got really crazy. As owners of apparently the first U.S. nail salon to offer fish-assisted pedicures, they've appeared in newspapers and on CNN, "The View" and the "Today" show, and customers are swarming.

John and Yvonne, both 37, emigrated from Vietnam (he as a child; she as a teen) and married in 1997. That same year, he started his contracting business, and she opened her first salon, Yvonne Hair & Nails, on Route 1 in Alexandria. (The second salon, in Woodbridge, opened this year.)

After health concerns prompted the state to ban the use of razors in pedicures, John and Yvonne trolled the Internet for a bladeless approach to beautifying scaly feet. Up popped garra rufa fish: minnow-size members of the carp family that feast on dead human skin cells and are colloquially referred to as "Dr. Fish." The toothless denizens of warm, freshwater pools in the Middle East got their reputation and nickname from their use in helping to treat such conditions as psoriasis and eczema.

"I said, well, maybe this might work," John recalls. Yvonne was more enthusiastic. "She really wanted to do the fish," John says, adding that she told him, "You're very creative; you're the only one who can do it." Finding no practitioners of the art of carp pedicures in the United States (some spas in Asia feature Dr. Fish), John applied for and received several trademarks, including Dr. Fish pedicure.

John located a fish broker in China and invested $50,000 in the tiny fish and a system he built to accommodate them. Yvonne Hair & Nails started offering the service in April in Alexandria and June in Woodbridge; John estimates the salons' fish have smoothed the feet of 6,000 customers.

Clients must have their feet washed before the pedicure. Then they proceed to a cubicle, where they rest their tootsies in a tub filled with a few hundred fish, paying $35 for 15 minutes. After the treatment, their feet are scrubbed again. Both salons are booked several weeks in advance.

On a recent Friday afternoon, the back of the narrow Alexandria location is crowded with customers, gawkers, media folk and people hoping to be squeezed in for a treatment. Clients invariably giggle or shriek as they gingerly step into the water and feel the gentle assault. (To this reporter, who stuck a hand in the water, the fish "bites" feel almost like sandpaper.) "You just gotta laugh," John says. "You cannot hold your laugh."

Ivy Tominack of St. Louis is visiting relatives in Maryland and "took a detour" to experience the pedicure firsthand. "I love it," she says, describing the feeling of the fish nibbles as "prickle kisses." Genie

Boswell of Alexandria says she can go longer between pedicures when the fish "have me for a buffet."

John says he has already made back his initial investment. If the current trend of roughly 50 pedicure customers a day continues, he says, he could clear $500,000 annually on the fish. He has also received hundreds of calls from people who want to open franchises. He's amazed and thrilled by the potential success, he adds, because Yvonne had always hoped that someday she would make enough money to help people in need, and whatever makes her happy, makes him happy.

"It's all about her," he says. "She's the one who convinced me to do it."

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