Making It

CARVING OUT HER OWN NICHE: Alicia Groncki says getting rich isn't the point of her business.
CARVING OUT HER OWN NICHE: Alicia Groncki says getting rich isn't the point of her business. (D.A. Peterson)
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By Vanessa M. Gezari
Sunday, March 15, 2009

Alicia Groncki was manicuring a client's nails 18 months ago when frustration got the better of her. Like those of all nail techs, her cuticle trimmers dulled over time; buying a new set was expensive and wasteful. "I wish I could find someone to sharpen my tools," Alicia told her client. Nearby, a couple of hairdressers chimed in. They hadn't seen a sharpener in years, and their scissors also were dull.

So began Alicia's transition to a trade that dates from an era when people saved rather than spent and sharpened their knives, scissors and shears instead of buying new ones.

Decades ago, sharpeners wheeled carts full of tools or drove trucks down back alleys, ringing a bell to summon housewives with dull blades in hand. Today, sharpeners have become something of a relic, but their services are still in demand. Last spring, Alicia, 35, launched Sharpen This, a mobile sharpening service. She drives the roads of Loudoun, Fairfax and Prince William counties in a specially outfitted minivan, stopping to hone the blades of pet groomers, hairdressers and cooks.

"I've had a few people say, 'I was just about to go and buy a new set of knives, and then I found you,' " Alicia says. "I have had a lot of groomers tell me, 'I used to just throw my clippers away.' You might be paying a hundred or a couple hundred bucks for scissors, and it costs $10 or $15 to sharpen them."

Alicia was born and raised outside Miami, and she realized early that hands-on learning suited her best. She left college and switched to technical school, receiving a degree in early childhood education. She taught preschool and ran a day care before going back to school to get her aesthetician and nail license. Two years ago, she married Randy Groncki, a computer programmer at Northrop Grumman, and the couple moved to Leesburg.

Alicia got a job at a spa doing nails, but when it came time to renew her accreditation, she decided to give her sharpening idea a try. After some research, she found a master sharpener in Illinois and flew out for a week's training. Digging into their savings, she and her husband spent about $16,300 to start the business, mainly for equipment, training and an inventory of scissors and shears to sell, she says. Randy built the Sharpen This Web site and refitted their van to hold the new machines.

Last spring, still working part time at the spa, Alicia visited groomers and hair salons, introducing herself and handing out fliers. She quit her nail job last summer and has since built a regular clientele of hairdressers, residential customers and groomers, including PetSmart and Petco outlets, she says. Michele Peterson, owner of the mobile grooming service Classy Canines, has become a regular. She used to bring her gear to semiannual grooming expos for sharpening or mail them out.

"I hate sending it out, because then I'm without it for a couple weeks," Michele says. "With [Alicia], I don't need to be without it at all . . . The bonus is, I also get my kitchen knives sharpened by her."

Sharpen This eked out a net of about $1,000 after expenses last year. Alicia has high hopes for 2009, based in part on the steady stream of customers who showed up at a regular engagement she started last month at Williams-Sonoma in Reston. In January alone, the business netted about $2,000, she says.

"I'm not looking to be a millionaire," Alicia says. "If I sold more stuff, I could bring in more. But I really didn't want to be a salesman; I wanted to be a sharpener."

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