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He’s Cleaning Up in Walk-In Dental Office

Associated Press

At first glance, it looks more like an art gallery than a dentist’s office.

Colorful abstract paintings hang on the walls, bronze and marble sculptures line the front window and plants sprout in every corner.

The effect is deliberate.

Dr. Ronald Konopaski says he got the inspiration for a walk-in, storefront dental office with a pleasant atmosphere after he “got tired of people saying they hate the dentist.”

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Designed to accommodate busy professionals and folks who’d rather pay taxes than “open wide,” Smile America originally catered mainly to walk-in clients.

5,000 Clients

But today, after hundreds of first-timers liked what they tried, the client list approaches 5,000 names and 90% of appointments are scheduled in advance--although often only one day in advance.

Inside, soft jazz plays. Patients are offered a free glass of wine to relax, and nitrous oxide--"laughing gas"--is available for an extra charge. A standard cleaning runs $44, and a full range of services is offered. Gift certificates are available and popular, according to administrative manager Jeff Bachman.

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For almost eight years, everyone from tourists to attorneys in nearby skyscrapers have turned to the friendly approach of “Dr. K,” as Konopaski is called by most clients.

“It’s kind of like polishing your shoes--only it’s your teeth,” said Larry Heckaman, who first came to the clinic two years ago.

Low-Profile Office

Nestled between towers of steel and glass in the heart of the city’s financial district, Smile America Inc. is housed in a low-profile, spacious office. Cable cars pass by outside as thousands of high-powered attorneys, stockbrokers and other downtown office workers crowd the sidewalks, bustling from one appointment to the next.

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“Have clean teeth in 30 minutes” proclaims a wooden sidewalk sign.

“I come here even though my girlfriend’s brother-in-law is a dentist and I could get it for free,” said attorney David Sergi, who first tried the office four months ago on a co-worker’s recommendation.

For Jamie O’Donnell, the decision took more out of her.

“I’ve been trying to work up my nerve to go to the dentist for three years,” O’Donnell said before her first cleaning appointment.

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As she turned the corner down the hall, she whispered a warning to Dr. Steve Bumgarner, who shares the office with Konopaski: “I feel sorry for you. I am terrified of dentists.”

Half an hour later, Bumgarner emerged looking a little weary, but O’Donnell was beaming.

“I’m going to come back and probably let them pull my wisdom teeth,” she exclaimed. “It didn’t hurt at all. I don’t know why, but it didn’t hurt!”

Indeed, the office is so service-oriented, it’s hard to come up with a request the staff hasn’t already thought of.

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Christopher Short finished a long session during which three fillings were replaced and said, “Headphones would be the only other thing I’d ask for.”

Without missing a beat, Bachman said, “We’ve got them.” Then he added, almost apologetically, that Short might want to bring his own tapes. “We just have a limited selection.”

Konopaski, 55, got the idea for Smile America during a sleepless night in 1978. Although he envisioned it as a franchise and still hopes one day to expand, that plan was thwarted by some franchise dentistry that gave it a “bad rap,” he said.

Franchises Illegal

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Franchised dentistry is now illegal in California.

In the meantime, Konopaski has his hands full with the booming practice.

The busiest times are the end of the year, when patients are eager to use up their dental insurance, and the day before a three-day weekend.

“They’ll be screaming, ‘I have to get my teeth cleaned! I’m going to see my mother!’ ” Bachman says.

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