Major Women: Dr. Jennifer Plotnick
We’re the type of people who, after an incredible meal at a restaurant or a weekend stay at a boutique hotel, immediately want to tell our closest friends about it. But we never — ever! — thought we would have the same impulse to share after a visit to the dentist. That all changed with one appointment at Grand Street Dental in Williamsburg, Brooklyn.
Dr. Jennifer Plotnick and her team at Grand Street Dental have turned dentistry into a lifestyle brand, complete with a white-washed, art and plant filled office, a chic Instagram account and a hip, all female staff. You can read more (and you should!) about the millennial-friendly office in the pages of New York Magazine and Forbes.
Beyond the succulent-lined windows and the Netflix on-demand, we were struck by the meticulously designed customer experience at Grand Street Dental. From the moment you first walk in — when you fill out a gender-neutral sign-up sheet — to your time spent in the butter-soft leather dentist chair, you are made to feel at ease, at home. There is a sense of true hospitality here: warmth, thoughtfulness and comfort. (Not a feeling that we remember from the dentists of our childhood!) We sat down with founder, dentist Dr. Plotnick, to chat about her industry-defying approach to Grand Street Dental.
How would you describe Grand Street Dental in three words?
Inviting, personalized, sophisticated.
In one word?
When we visited Grand Street Dental last week for the first time we were struck by the carefully designed experience. It felt more like a high-end restaurant than a doctor’s office. Do you think of yourself as being in the business of hospitality even though you are not operating a “hospitality business?”
I think about that a lot actually, all the time. It’s funny because part of my training for my staff is all about that. I have all of them shadow me for a month and they watch me speak to patients, my verbiage, my hand signals and my body language — the way that I think makes the patient feel more comfortable and more at ease in an otherwise uncomfortable situation is so important. Hospitality can mean so many different things in so many different professions. When it comes to the medical field — and it’s funny because hospital is in the word hospitality — most people don’t have those kind of experiences in medical offices. In answer to your question, when I was building out the space, I wanted it to be an inspiring space that I would be in love with. I wanted to create a space that I loved showing up to every morning and spending all my time in. I was hoping my extra inspiration would help my clients connect with their health in a similarly inspiring fashion. Hopefully making something as mundane and painful as dentistry feel a little bit more beautiful and exciting. It was very intentional how I designed the space and I knew that it would give a feeling of comfort. As soon as you walk into a space you’re going to feel a certain way, and that feeling is going to carry through the entire experience.
How would you define the word “hospitality?”
If we’re speaking directly about dentistry, the way I would define hospitality is treating our patients like people and welcoming them to a family that we’ve created. Being very clear and understanding about their care, not letting anything be confusing even if it is what we’re going to be doing or even just their payments and insurance. Our office and my staff has been very heavily trained; they go above and beyond to make sure that you understand your benefits clearly. They’ve done all the work on their part to make it as seamless for you as possible.
What brands/companies are you inspired by?
I have a lot of friends who are business owners in the area. My friend Sarah owns Modo Yoga, a really great little yoga studio on Metropolitan. I love Sprout Home that’s right next store to me. People who are paving a path as a small business which I really think this world needs more of. More young dentists need to get out there and start their own offices and not fall into a conglomerate of commercial dentistry or City MD or all these big companies who are pushing away small business owners. Because what we’ve realized is, that is not what people want. People don’t want banks owning their doctors offices. They don’t want places that are impersonalized. And that is why our office took off so fast. People realized this what they want: a doctor who knows my name, is going to be there the next time I come back.
It’s clear that you have put careful efforts into your brand — you’ve successfully turned a dental practice into a lifestyle company. How intentional was that? Would you say that you had a “strategy” in place?
It was very intentional. I don’t have a design background but I definitely am a design-y person and my husband is a photographer. It was very intentional to use relatable elements that we all embrace now like social media, environment, experience — to weave that into dentistry. It took me two years to find my space because I was looking incessantly for a space that was ground level in retail, because I knew how important being ground level would be for the story I was telling. Because when you’re ground level you’re a part of a community, you know your neighbors, and you’re a little bit more fixed. I wanted to find a space that had a lot of light because light would feel more inviting and more homey. Before I opened and during construction I worked with an architect who has nothing to do with medicine because we wanted to make a space that didn’t feel like a doctors office. My husband and I worked on our initial branding which was a large group of objects that we twisted and shaped into smiles to show people off the bat that we are not what you consider a dentist to be. We printed that out and put them all over the windows during construction to let people know that we were coming. Using Instagram, for me was kind of a game changer. I don’t think doctors or dentists readily use social media to interact with their patients. Most people go to the dentist once or twice a year and that’s it, but Instagram enables me to stay in touch with my patients all year round. I’ll do a post and get four messages for patients which is so nice to hear because all the sudden it changes the relationship so much.
I use Instagram stories to let them know a little bit more about my personal life so it doesn’t feel like a stranger is taking care of you.
It’s my way to show people I’m human, I’m like you, you can get in touch with me, here’s another way to get in touch with me. That was very intentional. My husband and I put together a Spotify playlist channel. Eight hour playlists curated for the space. When I was designing the space I chose lighting that had zero fluorescents, trying to replicate natural sunlight. I literally sat down and laid down in every chair and looked to see what patients would see at every angle. There was a lot of thought going into the feel of the space. It didn’t come from the fact that I wanted this to be a brand, I wanted it to be awesome and inspiring and fun. I wanted it to be different and game changing.
Is there a good example of an unusual decision you made for the company based on your approach to branding? For example, we noticed that you ask new patients to identify their gender or if they are gender neutral in the signup sheet. What are other places you have put extra effort to welcome customers and do things the “Grand Street Dental way?”
Yes, there are. A lot has to do with how I designed the office. Not having overhead lighting, investing in super plush leather chairs, having custom cabinetry that didn’t feel medical, the high ceilings. But other things are just about what people wear. What Kris and Melody wear at the front sends out a laid back vibe to the office. I want my staff to feel like them and not feel like they have to be a certain way to appease a crowd. I want our patients to fit in with us, I don’t want to fit in with our patients.
Has the effort you put into building a brand improved the health of the business? How so?
Incredibly. We were fully booked since the first week. We’ve been open now for a year and half. You know, I set a target for myself. I was working at another dental office for eight years as my old doctors associate. I was his right hand woman. When I decided to start my own office we said I would be with him three days a week and I would work at my office three days a week. As soon as we started we were fully booked. Within three weeks I went full time and I thought I was going to be at his office for a year. We started off as four people. One year later we were twelve.
How have health care realities that are out of your control — such as dealing with insurance — impacted your approach to the brand?
I created my own marketing effort, a retail space, good branding, Facebook advertising. I get my own patients through the door who come to me and say, I have Aetna do you take that? And I say, well, we’ll check if your insurance will cover you here. And most of the time I tell them, you’re insurance will cover 100% of this visit. And that’s the last thing insurance wants. They don’t want you to go to an office that they have to pay more for.
How does your approach to the brand impact how you hire employees?
My hiring process is slow and very painful. Nobody just gets in and it’s not because I want this to be a niche thing. It’s because I really examine people and their personalities and look for kindness, honesty and patience. Everyone has to have a certain base line of intelligence, a self starter can do attitude. But I am very — and I know this sounds cheesy — in tune with energy. And I think people are too. When people walk into my space they always say, it’s so evident that your staff is so happy. For me, I want to make sure that everyone is a piece of the puzzle, a part of it and important. I make everyone shadow for at least a month watching everything we’re doing, almost like a restaurant. Watching body language, how we bring a patient back, how we stand next to them when we walk, how we take their jackets and bags and hang it up for them. Where the chair is positioned when the patient is leaving. There are a lot of things that go into the details. And that’s something that is not even recognized when everything goes smoothe but that makes the hiring process really difficult. Some people won’t be open to that. And those people won’t be able to accomplish it.
In the beginning it was even tougher because I’m also trying to prove to people, hey I want you to be part of something and these are my rules. Now we’ve established ourselves a little bit more in the dental world and people kind of know us. There’s a sense of, I want to be part of that, I respect what you’re doing and you seem to understand hospitality for this experience. So if you’re telling me I should talk to a patient this way or say their name this way then I’m going to do that.
Someone taught me a long time ago that everyone’s favorite word is their own name. I teach my staff to not use the word she him her you.
It’s always “Alison is interested in doing a whitening, can you get Alison on the schedule for next week?”
What can we expect from you and Grand Street Dental next? How will you scale and remain true to who you are?
A lot of people have approached me about building a new office and that’s not something I think I am ready or want to do. I am creating a product line right now that I think is going to be really interesting. My husband and I work on everything together; we’re both fully invested in the business. We’re working on a line of products — a line of toothpastes — that are kind of groundbreaking in the space. Maybe the addition of a couple more staff to help us out. Maybe a couple more vacations for me, I don’t know. Continuinating to be innovative and progress in our ever changing world. I also can’t stop buying technology for the office.
All photos by Kent Plotnick