Fire marshal Joe Valyo was beaming as he conducted one of his final inspections of Pump It Up, a new indoor children’s play space in Hamilton. The building, newly painted in vibrant shades of purple, blue, yellow, red, and green, is full of giant inflated mountains, slides, and obstacle courses. Also, on that early spring day, it was full of the laughter of red-faced, sock-footed, bouncing kids. They were the new kids on the block, replacing the brown-shirted UPS workers for whom their play space had once been a work space, a warehouse full of pallets and fork lifts.
“If you look around, all of these buildings were warehouses,” says Valyo, pointing to some of Pump It Up’s neighbors, newly-converted office buildings at the end of a short road near the Hamilton train station. “This is the way to go,” he says of the conversions. “If you ride around, you see empty buildings all over the place. They were built specifically for one application. When that application goes away, they just sit.”
Eight Commerce Way, says Valyo, was lucky to find new life. “Nancy took a UPS substation, came in, and overwhelmed everybody,” he says, referring to Nancy Cavolo, owner of the Pump It Up location. “This looks good,” he says. “She didn’t just slap a few walls up. She treated it like a brand new building.”
Cavolo, just recently a stay-at-home mom with zero interest in starting a business, says that Valyo was not always this enthusiastic about her plan to turn a dirty, bare warehouse, lacking even basic plumbing, into a play space. “When he first heard, he was not crazy about it,” she says. “He heard ‘inflatables’ and ‘indoors’ and he thought it was not a good idea.” A recent Arizona transplant, Cavolo says that indoor play areas full of inflatables are common in the rest of the country, but haven’t yet caught on in Mid-Atlantic region. The concept was foreign to Valyo and to the Hamilton zoning board. Charged with ensuring safety, and used to seeing inflatable play structures only outdoors, they didn’t think much of her plan to bring a Pump It Up franchise to their town.
As a result, it took Cavolo three full years to open. This compares to a company-wide average of one year. Pump It Up, which has some 125 franchises, did warn Cavolo that siting one of its franchises in New Jersey would be a challenge. Its only other New Jersey franchise, in Freehold, took five years to open.
Only a tiny fraction of the time it took for Pump It Up to host its first gaggle of kids was taken up by the build-out. The majority of the time went into working on getting the space re-zoned. Finding a suitable space was also a challenge.
Cavolo started the process by “just riding around, looking at buildings, and writing down names.” She soon realized that she wasn’t going to find a building on her own. She called one of the names she had seen on a vacant building, connected with Bill Barish of the Commercial Property Network, and began to make progress. But even then it wasn’t easy to right a space that would work.
“She had to have 20-foot ceilings,” says Barish. “She had to have parking, and she had to be in a safe, well-lighted area where mothers would feel comfortable bringing their children.” She also needed a relatively small space — far less than the typical 40,000 to 50,000 square foot warehouse.
Many warehouses are far off the beaten track, are located at the end of long, somewhat forbidding dirt roads, or are in areas lacking in sidewalks and surrounded by heaps of scrap materials of one kind or another. Clearly, not any warehouse would do.
‘Bill went through all of his listings, and there were only a few that could have worked,” says Cavolo. The Commerce Way space looked almost perfect. It’s close to the commercial heart of Hamilton, a short drive from the stores, restaurants, and gyms on Quakerbridge Road, near the AMC Hamilton movies, and in the same general neighborhood as the Grounds for Sculpture. What’s more, it backs up to a nice-looking stand of trees and is across the street from a relatively new office complex, home to state workers and to K. Hovnanian offices. It has plenty of parking and its big windows let in lots of light.
Cavolo wanted the space, but not all of it. She needed 12,000 feet, the building was 15,000, and the owner was not willing to subdivide. But time went by, no one came forward to claim the whole space, and he relented and leased Cavolo just the space she needed. (The rest of the building is now occupied by S&R Engineering.)
Cavolo’s single-minded pursuit of space and a favorable zoning decision so that she could open a Pump It Up franchise was driven by a suggestion her then-six-year-old son made.
“We had just moved back from Arizona,” she recounts. The family, which includes her husband, Jim, a former New York City firefighter, and their nine-year-old twins, John and Caitlin, had come to central New Jersey because most of their family is here. “When we went to Arizona, we didn’t have children,” she says. “but when you have children you want to be near family.” The move was made for the children, but the pair were far from happy to trade Arizona for New Jersey.
“My kids were bummed out,” says Cavolo, “so I promised them that they could have a special treat. We would have their birthday party at Pump It Up.” She just assumed that there would be one nearby. There wasn’t. When she told the youngsters, they were disappointed — and also a bit desperate. “Why don’t you work for Pump It Up?” her son asked. “If you worked for them, there would have to be one here.”
It was six-year-old logic, but it was enough to make Cavolo take action, despite the fact that she knew absolutely nothing about real estate, franchises, or running a business of any kind.
A native of Brooklyn, Cavolo spent two years at Kingsborough Community College. “I had no idea what I wanted to do,” she says. After graduating she went to work for Jack LaLanne, managing facilities. She then managed a corporate fitness center for Tishman Properties. After she met her husband, who is now helping to get the new business off the ground, the couple moved to Arizona where Cavolo worked in the hotel industry.
“I never thought of going into business,” she says. “I’m not an entrepreneur. No one in my family is an entrepreneur. My dad worked for New York Telephone. My mom was a stay-at-home mom and a school bus driver. They earned a paycheck and went home.”
Forging ahead anyway, Cavolo called Pump It Up, whose headquarters is in Tempe, Arizona, to ask how to become a franchisee. She investigated the company, paid $35,000 for a franchise — an amount that has since gone up, and was on her way.
“We’re 100 percent financed by the SBA,” says Cavolo. “We got a loan for $500,000 before the economic decline. We got it based on our personal credit and also on the franchise’s track record. They had a very good record before the recession, but now 25 of their franchises have closed.”
The loan, however, came with an expiration date. “We were given six months to get a building permit,” says Cavolo. She signed for the space and got the permit just 10 days before the SBA commitment was due to expire. “I had stress like never before in my life,” she says.
Surprisingly, the job of turning a filthy warehouse into a bright, inviting, children’s play area was pretty much a snap compared with the zoning process and the hunt for space. And this despite the fact that “we had to put in HVAC and plumbing,” says Cavolo. “We had no bathrooms, they went to the other side when we subdivided. We had just an empty shell, and it was a mess.” She shows before photos where random beams are strewn across dirty floors. The transformation was a big job, but it went well.
The landlord referred a contractor, Bill Cohen and Associates, and he got the whole job done in 10 weeks. The fit out was relatively easy, says Cavolo, because the franchise supplied detailed templates covering everything from carpet to wall color to room configuration.
Visitors come in to a reception area that leads to two birthday party rooms. Down a long, colorful hall there are two enormous play spaces. Kids stow their shoes in cubbies at the door before heading to the mountainous, bouncy play structures. There are lots of bright yellow play vehicles for children too small to climb into the inflatables — state law requires that all bouncers be at least 34 inches tall. There are also neon-hued air hockey tables.
During one spring break morning dozens of children, toddlers through mid-grammar-school age kids were a blur of motion, climbing, sliding, riding, playing air hockey, and dashing from one activity to the next.
Free play periods like these, when anyone can use the facility for a small charge, are expected to be a relatively small part of the business, but it may be a larger business than Cavolo originally thought. “So many moms are asking for it,” she says. There is a session every Friday from 9:30 a.m. to 11 a.m. for pre-schoolers. There is also a Monday night session, 5:30 p.m. to 7 p.m. for families.
Most revenue, however, is expected to come from birthday parties. “Ninety percent,” says Cavolo. This is most fortunate in an economic downturn. “People are cutting down on anything that has a monthly fee,” she says. “I know that we are cutting down on karate for our own kids.” But she is confident that parents will budget for their children’s birthdays.
The price for a weekend party for 26 children is $320. But there is also a weekday option, for $255. The latter is proving to be very popular. “We’ve had 15 weekday parties in three weeks,”says Covalo.
Another subset of the group bounce experience is corporate training. Employees will bond and test their leadership skills on the inflatables. There will also be charity events, most notably for the Autism Society. “Once a month there will be a sensory night for kids with autism,” she says. “We’ve been getting a lot of inquiries.”
Cavolo has hired about 30 employees, most of them high school students. “We have to staff 8 to 10 employees per shift,” she says. Weekend days, filled with birthday parties, are long and call for more than one shift. She says that there were lots of applicants for the jobs.
With the hard work of getting her franchise open, Cavolo is girding herself for running it. She won’t even guess when she will reach break even. “For now, we’re just happy to cover expenses,” she says. “We have a big overhead, and big loan payments. We’re in this for the long haul. Ten years at least.”
The job is 24/7 at this point, Cavolo says. And it’s an adjustment. “My kids are used to having me around all of the time,” she says. “It’s hard for them.” But, of course, this is one job that comes with a huge consolation prize. “They love it here,” she says. “It’s like a big playground for them.”
Pump It Up, 8 Commerce Way, Hamilton 08691; 609-586-005577. Nancy Cavolo, owner. www.pumpitupparty.com