Photos by Karen Haberberg
The story goes something like this: Two moms cram their
double-wide strollers into a freight elevator on their way to a mommy & me
music class. Sizing up each other’s cargo, they strike up a conversation.
“Hi, I’m Alison.”
“Hi, I’m Allison.”
“I’m from Jersey.”
“Really? I’m from Jersey.”
For most, this might be nothing more than the cliché
meet-cute of a beautiful (if potentially confusing) friendship. For Allison
Schlanger and Alison Qualter Berna, it was the opening scene of an equally
bright business partnership. Along with their respective husbands, Craig
Schlanger and Bobby Berna, the moms would soon become Co-Founders of apple
seeds, an all-in-one play space in Manhattan’s
Flatiron District bringing birthday parties, varied classes and even kiddie
haircuts to the five-and-under set.
At the time of their chance meeting back in 2005, the two
sets of parents bonded over raising twins as the entrepreneurial stars aligned:
Allison had just left her career as an executive producer at MTV; Alison was struggling
with how to transition from her position at UNICEF into something that would
mesh with motherhood and keep her mind active; Craig was considering his next
move from Wall Street as a trader, while Bobby had already established a résumé
as a business development executive working with start-ups.
Meanwhile, in the city blocks surrounding Madison Square Park
where the Schlangers and the Bernas lived, changes were afoot. “Even though all
these families had moved in, the neighborhood hadn’t caught up and was still
very commercial and business-oriented,” explains Allison—hence the freight
elevator setting during that initial introduction.
So, the foursome took matters into their own hands. And nine
months after their first official business meeting —where a bottle of red wine
helped get the creative juices flowing—apple seeds was born.
The buzz was immediate. The team sold memberships based on
solely design sketches to parents in the nearby Madison Square Park
area. “We had several hundred members before we opened on March 1, 2007,” says Alison. Her husband, Bobby,
adds: “I think early on we knew we were on to something.”
Just like the couples’ two sets of twins—Sam and Ari
Schlanger, and Madeleine and Sydney Berna—now age seven, apple seeds has been
growing. With licensed partnerships now in Dubai,
Mexico City and Mumbai,
the facility’s carefully documented curriculum and design features have been
packaged and implemented across the globe. Closer to home, there are now apple
seeds-branded playgrounds in several residential buildings sprouting up around Manhattan—with
signature NYC-themed interactive stations, like a grocer’s deli next to Central
“From a business perspective, apple seeds was designed with
the intent to scale it,” says Craig, when talking about the company’s
impressive growth. And while the business’ popularity has been gathering steam
with licensing deals, the team has notably waited to open a new space in
Manhattan under their own management—until now, with their new full-service
venue on the Upper West Side.
“People were asking us when we first opened, ‘When are you
gonna move Uptown?’ and it always felt premature,” says Allison. Though friends
and brokers were constantly pitching the team retail space leads, the team felt
like they weren’t quite ready in terms of experience and timing. “[Now,] we’re
confident exporting this to the Upper West Side or to Dubai,”
With their long-time staff and meticulously developed
programming ready to go, the final puzzle piece proved difficult to fit:
finding the perfect place. “You really have to find the right space at the
right price and that’s hard to do. It took years,” says Craig.
What cinched the deal for the Upper West Side?
“The location,” he responds succinctly. “And the ground-floor access,” Alison
chimes in, speaking to the frustration of any caregiver who has arrived late to
their toddler’s art class thanks to a filled-to-capacity elevator.
Located on West End Avenue
between 69th and 70th Streets, smack in the heart of a neighborhood teeming
with residential properties packed with young families, the newest apple seeds feels
very much like the original. That is no mistake; the team is betting on
parents’ universal desire for a safe, clean, fun place to take their kids.
Explains Allison, “We always say we built apple seeds to be your basement, your
backyard, your own personal park.” Alison finishes her co-founder’s thought: “I
think people appreciate that wherever they are.”
From its play-based curriculum to its ever-popular birthday
party themes, what members know and love about the Flatiron location can now be
found Uptown as well, right down to the playground’s big yellow taxi. “That
playground is the exact same whether you’re in One
Columbus Circle, here in the Flatiron or in Dubai,”
says Alison. Even the non-toxic cleaning products have been reordered for the
The only change that comes with expansion, perhaps, is the
team’s renewed dedication to their classes, from art and yoga, to science and
soccer. “The bigger we get the deeper we’ve gone with the curriculum,” declares
Allison. Though an eventual apple seeds school might be a dream-come-true for
some, Alison reminds preschool-happy families: “We always knew we weren’t a
school and we never call ourselves a school. However, we recognize the huge
responsibility when you have a child at a key learning age in your environment
45 minutes every week.”
Classes, instead, emphasize confidence-building and
play-based socialization like songs for seeds, a music program developed
in-house by Ray Andersen. Known to apple seeds enthusiasts as mr. RAY,
Andersen wrote all the music and lyrics for songs for seeds. Incorporating an
original soundtrack performed by a live band with a game show-esque spinning
wheel, the class is their standout offering—and headed for the Upper
West Side too.
While the opening of their new location may be the latest
addition to the apple seeds family, it is not the only one. Befitting of their
parallel beginnings, both Alison and Allison each welcomed a third child with
the same synchronicity with which their friendship began. Born just two months
apart, Alison’s Jack and Allison’s Dov, are currently deep in the throes of
toddlerhood. Translation: these mompreneurs are sitting in on classes not as
owner-observers, but as pleased participants all over again.
“I have a new fire in my belly about apple seeds,” Allison
says beaming. “apple seeds is part of both of our families, it really is like
another child. We work as a family here.”
Thormahlen writes about fashion, family and travel from NYC.
To read more about apple seeds’ beginnings check
out “Double the Fun.”