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‘Personal concierge’ businesses take on to-do lists of the time-starved

Published: Friday, May 25, 2012

Updated: Friday, May 25, 2012 18:05


PALM BEACH, Fla. — Andrea Maida got the panicked phone call early one morning.

Her client was working in Belize but the camera he needed for his job was still in the backseat of his car, parked at Miami International Airport.

Could she fly down with it to Belize City, then catch a small plane to the beach community he was developing?

Maida grabbed her passport.

A personal concierge never says “no” to a client.

Maida, a former financial analyst who started Fifth Avenue Concierge in Palm Beach Gardens 10 years ago, said, “You find a way to give them what they want.”

Even if that means a white-knuckle flight to a remote Central American building site, a feat that impressed her client.

“It was a comfort knowing that anything I needed to get done, Andrea could do at a moment’s notice,” said Cliff Goodrich, developer of Dreamscapes of Belize.

Money may not buy happiness but it can buy time, and sometimes even salvation.

Once, Maida delivered a $1,500 Louis Vuitton purse to a man who’d forgotten to buy his wife a birthday gift.

She also pet-sits, manages snowbirds’ winter homes and runs almost any errand — but draws the line at feeding live rats to a client’s pet snake.

“I found a snake handler for that job,” said Maida, whose voice retains the Caribbean cadence of her native St. Lucia. She was spending a recent morning stocking the refrigerator at the vacation home of clients due the next day from Montreal.

Her company is one of dozens of Palm Beach County micro-businesses willing to take on the to-do lists of time-starved people.

Starting at about $30 an hour, busy people can outsource chores to a doppelganger who will get the car’s oil changed and pick up the dry cleaning. Research the best air conditioner or cellphone plan. Provide a week of home-cooked meals. Solve the puzzle of the new Ikea shelving unit. Organize closets and tuck patients in bed after minor surgery.

Parents are even hiring coaches to help their children pass auditions at the county’s performing arts schools.

After her husband’s death left her with a mountain of financial paperwork to decipher, Francine Quitko of Boynton Beach, Fla., started Quitko & Associates to help other women in the same situation, as well as newly single men flummoxed by household tasks.

“I’ve had male clients who were married 30 years and didn’t know how to run a washing machine,” said Quitko, who also shops and runs errands for clients.

Having a personal assistant only when you need one “allows middle- and upper-middle-class people to live like the wealthy,” she said.

Since the recession thinned their ranks, personal concierges have evolved from party planners to periodic aide-de-camps for those willing to exchange time for money.

Seven years ago in Miami, Danielle Norcross was arranging celebrity-studded parties on private yachts. Today, as the owner of Concierge Couture in Jupiter, Fla., she arranges closets and home offices and helps her clients remain fashionable.

“People juggle these big roles in their lives and there isn’t time to get it all in,” said Norcross. “We take care of the little things so they can do the big things.”

Personal chefs used to be the province of wealthy Palm Beachers, but Carol Lewanda’s clients are usually seniors or harried families that would otherwise eat dinner from a drive-through window.

“People are just too tired to cook, they’re working two jobs, the kids have activities at night,” said Lewanda of North Palm Beach, Fla., whose company is called Chef Du Jour.

Hiring a “surrogate daughter” is the way Deborah Irvine describes the concierge service division of Family Private Care, her home health care company that serves 13 South Florida counties. Aides will pick up patients following surgery, fill prescriptions, make a meal and even spend the night.

“So many of our clients’ families are a thousand miles away,” said Irvine.

Many concierge services are licensed, bonded and insured, to protect clients.

But Craigslist is packed with a mostly unregulated crowd offering shopping, driving and cooking services. Students can even outsource their homework.

For $50, aspiring novelist Gisselle Diaz of Delray Beach, Fla., who said she started college at age 14, will write a “guaranteed ‘A’ or ‘B’ ” college paper.

“The way I see it, if you need a service, I’m providing that service,” said Diaz, now 20.

Jeff Okean, whose jewelry-making business was a recession casualty, is offering his epicurean tastes via Craigslist to source bushels of Maine lobsters, duck breasts from a Miami meat market, French wine or “the best high-thread-count sheets on sale from high-end linen shops.”

“Since I spend so much time researching these things for myself, maybe others will appreciate the effort I put into it,” said Okean.

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