The Gap could have a new neighbor in the next few years, and it’ll be one you’d never expect: a high-end preschool. Colorado-based Crème de la Crème owns and operates early childhood learning centers and plans to roll out 10 to 12 new locations each year, so one could be coming to a retail center near you.

Crème has stolen the spotlight in the early education industry for its signature facility: each one consists of a 21,000-square-foot freestanding building, specifically designed to accommodate a unique curriculum. Crème offers developmentally appropriate and carefully tailored 30-minute classes in music, math, computers, art, foreign languages, and more—parents can also sign their children up for extra activities such as on-site Tae Kwon Do, tennis, or dance lessons. The interior of the building is designed like a miniature Victorian village: each subject is taught in its own room along a Main Street central hallway underneath a skylight ceiling.

“It would be impossible to deliver our benefits and concept in a traditional childcare facility. Our buildings are crucial to our success and competitive advantage, so we can’t compromise on the design,” said Bruce Karpas, chairman and CEO.

That design has earned Crème a lot of attention, in the last decade or so. Originally only in Houston and Atlanta, there are now 20 schools open in eight states, with the capacity to serve about 6,000 children. Karpas said there is a ready demand for Crème’s services: parents today want a childcare service that will make the most of their children’s formative years. For Crème, there is also a great opportunity to take advantage of conveniently located retail or lifestyle centers.

So far, Crème hasn’t had any trouble finding supportive locations to build new schools. Any community looking to attract young, affluent families would want to bring in an early education program widely acclaimed as the best. These schools are a huge boon to retail developers as well, since they can generate traffic from almost 600 parents who need to drop off and pick their children each day.

Careful preparation

Crème is in the process of initiating an aggressive growth plan, after years of preparing its financial and operational capabilities. “We’ve been very careful to make sure we are prepared to roll out that many schools at once. We’ve perfected the concept, and now we’re ready to bring it to a larger population,” said Pete Lungo, COO.

Lungo had nearly 20 years of experience in retail operations when he joined the Crème team in 2005 and has updated the company’s corporate infrastructure to handle the addition of up to 12 stores each year. He said while individual schools operate on a day-to-day business independently, the headquarters in Colorado handles all the financial reporting and accounting, and it needed a revamped operating system to prepare for growth. Now that everything is online and running smoothly, Lungo said Crème is ready to roll and can at this point handle the anticipated growth in schools across the country. 

Lungo described the process of establishing a new school as a completely local endeavor. While the corporate office communicates regularly with each school’s management team once the school is running, that team has the authority to run that school according to the needs and demand of the market it’s in.

“Once our processes and procedures are in place, they have the freedom to manage how they see fit,” he said, adding handling that growth will be much easier with the right people in place from the start.

Career pipeline

Another step Crème has taken to prepare for the upcoming period of growth is to foster a development pipeline for its staff. Crème trains each teacher in the company’s curriculum and emphasizes the importance of hiring only those who share the company’s philosophy of experiential education and respect for children.

Karpas added that Crème is the best place for an early childhood educator to work not only because of its curriculum but also because of its opportunities for career development. He said at a typical childcare facility, assistant teachers become full-time teachers, who in turn compete for one management position. At Crème, full-time teachers have the opportunity to become lead teachers with more responsibility and to specialize as enrichment teachers of a specific subject. From there, each Crème school has four management positions its teachers can aspire to: three directors and an executive director.

“Our goal has been to develop a training program to groom internal candidates for promotion in the new schools we will open,” said Karpas. “We’ve taken time to get the talent we already have ready for advancement because we want to continue to grow with the people who have already made us so successful.”

While Crème does and will continue to bring in new hires, especially as the company expands into new markets, it has always emphasized promoting from within. Providing opportunities to grow and develop professionally helps the company retain the best teachers available, Karpas said.

“People in this industry know who we are; we’ve attracted plenty of candidates just through word of mouth,” he said. While each school will continue to handle hiring individually, that is only because the company has spent so long refining its exacting standards. “When you call yourself an early learning center of excellence, you’ve got to support that.”