Business Monday

Hurricane Irma soaked a lot of rugs. This family-run business makes them beautiful again

Paul Kondralian, left, and Terry Kondralian run Hilliard Rug Cleaners and Gables Oriental Rugs, which perform remediation work on carpets. A four-step process is used to clean the rugs, which can vary greatly in make and quality — from contemporary coverings to cherished family heirlooms.
Paul Kondralian, left, and Terry Kondralian run Hilliard Rug Cleaners and Gables Oriental Rugs, which perform remediation work on carpets. A four-step process is used to clean the rugs, which can vary greatly in make and quality — from contemporary coverings to cherished family heirlooms. For The Miami Herald

Dozens of oriental rugs lay in the grass, drying in the sun, in a yard next to a cottage in the Coral Way neighborhood of Miami.

There’s a lush silk and wool, pile weave rug from Tibet in a geometric pattern of crimson, gold and chestnut. A pair of flat-weave rugs — made in Bulgaria, but purchased in Istanbul — are draped over a white lattice fence, their large floral patterns characterized by soft pink and burgundy roses with flourishes of turquoise, gold and chocolate. There’s a folkloric flat weave from the Afghan mountains, a Persian rug from Iran with a delicate slit weave detail, a long tapestry from eastern Turkey, a trio of Turkish wool rugs made of horse and goat hair.

Basking in the sun midday, they’ve reached the fourth and final step in the hand cleaning process that Hilliard Rug Cleaners has perfected on this site in the Coral Way neighborhood since the 1930s.

The business, in a residential zone, was grandfathered into local zoning ordinances as the neighborhood came up around its humble facilities. In December 1997, Terry Kondralian acquired the company from his old friend Joe Hilliard who he’d known since his days selling rugs at Burdines at Dadeland Mall in the 1980s. Today, Hilliard is a family affair run by Kondralian with his wife Rose and son Paul as well as their 11-year-old Sheltie Zeus who they call their mascot.

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Zeus, a Sheltie who is the mascot for Hilliard Rug Cleaners. Alexia Fodere For The Miami Herald

“We’re like the three Musketeers. Terry sells, Paul washes and I fix,” Rose Kondralian says of their business model.

The family also owns Gables Oriental Rugs on Sunset Drive in South Miami, founded in 1992, where they sell and appraise a wide variety of hand-woven and contemporary rugs and provide restoration services. Between the two businesses, about 80 percent of their combined revenues come from Hilliard’s rug cleaning services, which are performed by hand, usually over a three-week period; a tight knot of loyal clients depend on it. Clients have the option to drop off their rugs for cleaning at either business location and the Kondralians also provide drop-off and pick-up services at their clients’ homes.

In the 20 years since Terry Kondralian took over Hilliard, he has affixed a numeric tag, starting with one and rising consecutively, to every rug that comes through his door. Today, he’s on number 22,032. Hilliard sees an average of 80 to 100 rugs per month and roughly 1,000 per year. While cleaning rates are best appraised in person on a case by case basis, an average wool rug is typically $3 to $4 per square-foot with rates slightly higher for silk or particularly soiled rugs. They service and clean all varieties of area rugs, from handmade silk and wool oriental rugs to European tapestries dating back to the 16th century, as well as contemporary rugs made of synthetic fibers like viscose.

In general, Kondralian advises that area rugs be professionally cleaned every five years to maintain hygiene and keep fibers soft. They estimate that 75 percent of Hilliard’s cleanup jobs are related to pet accidents, and they also address water damage, mold and stains from food and wine.

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Paul Kondralian, left, and Terry Kondralian work on carpets in South Miami on Nov 8. Alexia Fodere For The Miami Herald

In the weeks since Hurricane Irma barreled across South Florida, leaving homes in some Miami neighborhoods flooded and without power for weeks, Hilliard’s business spiked tenfold, bringing 1,000 rugs to their door.

“Irma brought with her unbearable heat and high humidity,” Kondralian says. “That complicates more than making things just wet. Water with heat and humidity breeds mold. Usually mold is black or white. Irma’s water was so contaminated, it was almost like acid,” he said, talking about the standing rainwater that eventually combined with the heat and humidity. “I’d never seen anything like it before. This mold was yellow, pink, green, fuchsia.”

Despite increased demand and a more complicated cleaning process, they’ve still managed to stay on top of the work with an estimated turnaround of four to five weeks as opposed to their usual three. “We never turn anyone away,” Kondralian says. “We always communicate with our customers if there’s going to be a delay.”

Donna Ingram of Homestead who owns Doug Ingram Nursery is a longtime client and owns 20 oriental rugs. She wanted to bring them in for a routine cleaning after Irma and learned she wasn’t the only one.

“After the storm, [Rose] said, ‘Donna, we are so busy, you’re going to have to wait a month before we can clean your rugs.’ I guess everybody in Dade County must have called them afterwards for damage of their rugs,” Ingram says. “That says a lot for your business. When people are calling you like that, when their yard is destroyed, but they’re more worried about their rugs.”

Terry Kondralian was born in Aleppo, Syria, of Armenian descent and immigrated to the United States in 1970 by way of Jerusalem to study theology at New York University. His parents were in the oriental rug business, which is where his love of textile arts originated.

“It goes back to North Africa and the Middle East, Mesopotamia, the cradle of civilization and culture. There’s 3,000 years of history. One lifetime is not enough to learn the entire trade,” says Kondralian, 67, who speaks with measured elegance.

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Paul Kondralian works on a carpet at Hilliard Rug Cleaners in South Miami. Alexia Fodere For The Miami Herald

He provides a condensed history of the art form — which unspools through ancient folkloric weaving centers in Iran, Turkey and India to the western hemisphere with European tapestries and English brocade through the 17th century. His scholarship in both theology and textiles weave together a beautifully wrought passion for antiquities. He cites Abraham, the Old Testament patriarch, as a model for the righteous businessman who possesses integrity and trustworthiness.

While other cleaning services could be in and out of your home in half an hour, Kondralian says, “what we do is niche. It’s not high-tech. It’s low-tech. Ninety percent of the rugs we clean are handmade. It’s a dying art form and we treat them like the works of art that they are.”

Baker’s Rug Services in Kendall offers similar hand-cleaning services, and Kondralian views that company as a friend rather than a competitor. “We all work together,” he says. “I love and respect them. There’s enough work to go around for all of us.”

Hilliard’s four-step cleaning process begins with “badgering” the rug atop an elevated iron grid to beat out dust and dirt embedded in the fibers. This is done with a motorized machine called the Badger. “In the old country, it would be done manually with a flat shovel or paddle,” Kondralian says.

Next, the rug is moved to a flat surface — in this case, the property’s driveway — where it goes through a custom pre-wash treatment, saturating the rug on both sides repeatedly with three different solutions: anti-oil to remove grease, oil, fat and gum; detergent to wash the fibers; and a vinegar rinse to disinfect the rug and kill any residual soap grease. Each solution is rinsed thoroughly using a custom-made 1 1/4-inch hose and PVC pipe tee-head with six jet sprayers, for 18 gallons of pressure per minute.

Then, the rug is washed with a floor buffer and one of eight plastic brushes, selected based on how abrasively the rug should be treated. The rug is finished with a fabric softener and a “liquid sour” solution that seals in softness and neutralizes alkalinity, removing any sticky film or residue from the rug’s fibers. Once all of the solutions are rinsed from the rug, it’s squeegeed dry, taking care to keep the pile smooth. Before the rugs are transferred to the lawn, they’re vacuumed dry with the pile facing down, removing about 80 percent of the water.

The languorous hours spent under the sun are an essential part of the rug-cleaning process — and the lengthiest. “It’s a combination of nature and man,” Kondralian says.

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Terry Kondralian performs post-storm remediation work on rugs on Nov. 8. Alexia Fodere For The Miami Herald

The sun’s heat and ultraviolet rays activate the wool’s naturally occurring lanolin, making the fibers more soft and lustrous. This process allows the rug to dry evenly and removes any browning as the sun heats the fibers from above and the grass absorbs the water from below. Kondralian even sees an organic connection between the wool and the grass. “Sheep eat grass, so the wool is also made from grass,” he says.

In the evening, the rugs are transferred to drying racks inside a temperature-controlled storage space that can house 25 to 30 rugs.

This drying process, alternating between the lawn and the storage space, takes about a week for the wet rugs to become “bone-dry,” as Kondralian puts it. Of course, as many things do in South Florida, it all depends on the weather. “Humidity is our enemy,” he says.

And what about Miami’s notorious subtropical downpours? From hurricanes to afternoon cloudbursts, Kondralian says, “We know how to run fast. Sometimes life gets very complicated in paradise.”

Hilliard Rug Cleaners and Gables Oriental Rugs

Management: Terry Kondralian, president; Paul Kondralian, vice president; Rose Kondralian, treasurer and secretary.

Type of business: Hilliard Rug Cleaners provides customized hand cleaning services to all varieties of area rugs, from antique orientals to contemporary. Gables Oriental Rugs sells, appraises and restores both antique and contemporary rugs.

When established: Hilliard Rug Cleaners was founded in the 1930s. Gables Oriental Rugs was founded in 1992.

Volume: Between the Kondralians’ two businesses, 80 percent of their combined revenues come from Hilliard Rug Cleaners where they clean an average of 1,000 rugs annually at a starting rate of $3 to $4 per square-foot.

Contact information: Hilliard Rug Cleaners: 3165 SW 16th Terrace; 305-446-6361; Gables Oriental Rugs: 5863 Sunset Dr.; 305-662-1846. Web address: http://www.hilliardrugco.com

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