Todd Pliss was working as a tutor to child stars like the Jonas Brothers when he started hearing complaints. They weren't about groupies or the paparazzi or bad lighting--they were about child care.
Families who had moved to Los Angeles so their kids could pursue showbiz were frazzled by unprofessional babysitters who didn't show up on time or spent hours on the phone.
"I heard these complaints," Pliss says, "and asked myself, 'Who's more responsible? More mature?' I thought, Hey, grandmas! We all have warm, fuzzy feelings about grandmas. And they don't text or tweet while watching the kids."
Last year Pliss closed the book on tutoring and began recruiting women over 50 for a child-care service he called Rent-A-Grandma. And it took off. Soon, in addition to watching kids, the grandmas were being asked by clients to cook, clean, plan parties and pet-sit, so Pliss expanded the scope of the agency to all domestic services.
After Rent-A-Grandma was profiled on Fox News in March 2011, Pliss received more than 300 calls asking if he was franchising the concept. He decided to give it a shot: In May, he offered franchise territories in 36 states. So far, he has sold units in Dallas and Houston. He hopes to have 15 in operation by year's end and 20 more in 2012.
"The feedback has been great. People really bond with the grandmas," Pliss says. "They say they're like real-life Alices from The Brady Bunch."
We tore Pliss away from a plate of homemade cookies to find out more about the franchise.
Is this just a gimmick?
There is a novelty factor. People say the name brings a smile to their face. But there's a demand for this service. There have never been more single-parent and working-parent households than today. There are more kids under 18 than there are seniors. A lot of parents want somebody there from 3 p.m. until 8 p.m.--someone they trust in their home.
Are grandmas really better?
Not everybody over 50 is the best ever. But about 90 percent of our grandmas have previous domestic experience. These are not retired women who are bored. These are women who are passionate and want to work. It's kind of disappointing to see how many good, older women are out there who can't find a job. One of our grandmas was homeless and living in a shelter before she found work with us.
What's wrong with younger people?
A lot of times people in their early 20s are thinking about their career or going back to school, or they meet somebody and get married and move away. They're in a different stage of life. We recommend clients interview at least three grandmas before hiring them. We're trying to create a lasting relationship.
Does anyone object to being called grandma?
They love it and have no problems. We've placed women around 85 or 86, though I'd say the average age is about 60. Most are actual grandmas, though it's not a requirement. Sometimes these women really do act as grandmas. They become part of the family. I hear over and over again that the kids love her, and that their real grandma lives in another part of the country, or passed on. They create a real bond.
Jason Daley lives and writes in Madison, Wisconsin. His work regularly appears in Popular Science, Outside and other magazines.