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June 23, 2004

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Palo Alto Online

Publication Date: Wednesday, June 23, 2004

Foam improvement Foam improvement (June 23, 2004)

House of Foam weathers changes to downtown Palo Alto

by Terry Tang

ASA, pediatric patients at Stanford and the U.S. Olympic luge team have all benefited from Bob Tallman's services. Despite the impressive clientele, however, lame jokes and snickers by outsiders are common enough to qualify as an occupational hazard.

"We get people that have been driving by here for years and years and they giggle," Tallman said. "But they come in and go, 'I can't believe I'm in here.'"

Standing at the corner of Hamilton Avenue and High Street, the House of Foam mystifies tourists and many Palo Alto residents. Sounding more like an amusement park attraction, most don't realize that Tillman's shop has successfully sold foam for more than five decades, outlasting innumerable downtown businesses that have fallen by the wayside.

Anyone watching Tallman in his swivel chair, rolling between the phone and his computer, can see that foam is serious business.

Upholstery fabrics and foam sheets consume half of the store's 1900-square-feet. Foam neck rolls, back rolls and cylindrical pillows line the shelves. In one corner, customers can peruse a dozen fabric books for ideas on altering chairs and cushions. They can try out a dense foam mattress lying in another corner. At the same time, a foam Snoopy ruminating atop his foam dog house charmingly epitomizes Tallman's sense of fun.

Offering foam in various types and shapes, Tallman orders all his materials from two major suppliers. In an expansive back room, he can cut foam pieces to fit. By the square foot or sheet, the price increases with the thickness level.

Whether looking for a foot-rest or planning an art project, people stop at the House of Foam for a number of reasons. He estimates that on average, at least 90 people visit his store every week.

"The majority of our customers are people off the street," Tallman said. "Word of mouth is our best advertisement."

Typically, the House of Foam sees more foot traffic between May and December. Summer usually means repairing outdoor furniture and winter finds people sprucing up their homes for the holidays. Without fail, though, every Halloween brings the more amusing and off-beat requests.

"People have amazing ideas," Tallman said. "A little foam, a little spray paint and people can do anything with their imagination."

One Halloween, Tallman recounts, someone used foam to construct a costume of San Francisco's TransAmerica Pyramid. Another time, a woman asked for a foam piece that would encircle her waist. She wore a lamp shade on her head and masqueraded as a "one night stand."

The novelty of being a strictly-foam establishment doesn't hurt either. Tallman never tires at watching reactions to his shop.

"People stop by and say 'Would you mind if I took a picture in here? I've never seen a place like this before,'" Tallman said.

With customers coming from as far as Monterey, the North Bay and East Bay, Tallman believes his business is the only one in the Peninsula specializing in foam. He recalls two similar businesses in San Jose and South City a few years ago but has no idea why their doors closed.

"Both places were in business for a while," he said. "The owners may have retired. I'm not sure."

The San Mateo native also isn't exactly sure how House of Foam has survived for so many years. Upon graduating high school, he never even imagined running his own business. After four years in the service as a helicopter mechanic, he drove a street sweeper. Then, in 1975, an earlier owner of the store decided to sell his business. Tallman's father, a close pal of the owner, said his son would gladly take over.

Intrigued by the challenge of profiting from foam, Tallman ownership three years later. He spent six months training alongside his predecessor in the fundamentals of foam. He studied the various types of foam available, the art of cutting and pricing. Most importantly, he learned to always take care of the customer.

"I've only had one complaint in 26 years. It was resolved immediately through the Better Business Bureau," Tallman said. "But, it was one of those things that could've been resolved if they had just talked to me."

Like any retail operation, the House of Foam faces periods of doubt. Tallman has seen his business decrease somewhat over the last 10 years. A decade ago, he considered expanding and adding another shop. Then, the recession and dot-com bust came. For now, he's satisfied that his sole store is faring decently. While he won't go into numbers, Tallman assures that the House of Foam earns enough that "I pay the bills."

It also helps to have family support. Although Tallman plays the roles of cashier, salesman and foam cutter six days a week, his sister-in-law keeps his accounting books. And wife Cathy does some sewing along with the three seamstresses on staff. Tallman also recruited his sister and two teenage sons to help keep house.

Over the years, the House of Foam has won some big-name patrons. About four times per year, the Lucile Packard Children's Hospital purchases foam for special wheelchairs meant for children with physical deformities. Every year, Tallman ships foam to Lake Placid where it adds a lightweight bottom to the U.S. luge team's sleds. Lockheed Martin and NASA order materials annually for tasks such as testing sound absorption.

"They don't always tell me the applications," Tallman said of NASA.

A daily routine that consists of Styrofoam and Ethafoam may not thrill most people. But, for Tallman, who sports a "MRFOAM" license plate on his Dodge Caravan, the House of Foam is a sanctuary.

"I enjoy making people happy," he said. "It's always nice to see a smile when they walk out of here. We treat everyone that comes in here the same no matter what they buy."

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