This past October, Carolina Contreras, the woman behind one of the first natural hair salons in the Dominican Republic, opened the doors of her second Miss Rizos salon in Washing Heights. After years of experiencing success from her original location, which opened it’s doors in 2014, demand for Contreras opening one in NYC continued to increase. In fact, appointments at the new salon were booked in advance for months before doors were officially opened. In was the first salon of it’s kind in the Heights and women — Afro-Latinas especially — were excited. But like many salon owners, Contreras had to close her salon doors as a result of the COVID19 pandemic, something no one in the industry was prepared for.
Before the coronavirus, the salon and barbershop industry was practically recession-proof. The salon industry has always been able to thrive even during difficult economic times. We saw that with the 2008 recession, according to Census data, the number of beauty salons that opened jumped by 14.4 % nationwide in 2009. Victoria Sherrow’s Encyclopedia of Hair: A Cultural History notes that even during the Great Depression, women were still regularly going to beauty salons and parlors, “American women spent $6 million on hair care services in 1936. More schools to train cosmetologists opened around the country during the 1930s and 1940s.”
But COVID19 has presented a new set of challenges that the salon industry has never quite experienced. With salons being forced to stay closed, there’s no real way for them to generate any kind of real revenue. Many salons were not only forced to shut down but also found themselves having to lay off their workers, allowing them to file for unemployment benefits. But just because the salons are closed doesn’t mean their owners aren’t still struggling with expenses — most notably rent. But Contreras who has had her salons closed since March 14, is staying optimistic and trying to bring awareness to folks on the kind of support salons need to survive right now. Some of the things she’s doing is offering virtual consultations for clients (including those who are currently transitioning to natural hair) and for women in the beauty biz who need advice on growing their businesses. She’s also still selling products on her website including hair products and merch, and she’s making sure that she’s constantly checking in with her staff.
“I talk to both of my administrators in DR and here pretty much every single day. I talk to the whole team about once a week to each team member individually. And as a group — DR/NY — we do come together every two to three weeks and we connect. We do yoga classes, we do nutrition classes, we’ve literally been connected on Zoom every single week since this whole thing went down,” Contreras tells me. “In terms of my role as a CEO, it just intensified. As CEO, I raise funds, I direct business growth and so right now I’ve had to switch gears in terms of postponing certain things we had scheduled to do and refocus it on surviving. But my role hasn’t changed. I’m still fundraising. I’m still planning and strategizing, just now more than ever.”
One of the things that have helped the Miss Rizos salon is the fact that a majority of their clients who had salons booked haven’t asked for their deposit backs with the hope of maintaining their appointments once salon doors reopen. It’s one way that’s helped the salon sustain itself. Also, making appointments now — even if it means having it rescheduled in upcoming months — is something that can also help them significantly. It also works to the advantage of the client because they’ll be the first folks seen once they open back up.
“It’s actually a good idea for people to schedule now because those will be the priority appointments. When we reopen we will contact every single person to see when they can come, so our priority will be the people who are booked, and then we will open the books,” she says. “We wouldn’t open the books immediately for the general public. We will focus on the people who had already had their appointments scheduled.”
Dominican salon owner and curly hair expert, Ona Diaz-Santin, like Contreras has also been looking for innovative ways to sustain her 5 Salon Spa in Fort Lee, New Jersey which closed its doors on March 18th.
“My main concern is re-opening. That’s been a major concern,” she says. “Being able to get through this crisis and staying in communication. My team and their finances were also a major major concern. I was heartbroken because at the end of the day it’s not just about me. It’s about the 18 people that are under my roof. Fortunately, they were all able to collect unemployment, that’s something we discussed collectively… so right now it’s just trying to connect with other hairdresser friends and trying to brainstorm together.”
Diaz has been fortunate with a landlord who has been very graceful regarding the rent but she’s also been working her butt off coming up with creative ways to still sustain the salon on time for reopening. One of those things has been color curbside pickups.
Curbside pickups, as long as social distancing is happening, actually are legal and don’t break any of the social distance pandemic guidelines that have been set in place. It’s a safe way for salons to still generate income versus taking the risk of doing house calls, which would still require stylists to be in close proximity to their clients.
“If you need color formulation instead of going and ruining your hair with box color and having us fix it when we do come back, I would much rather prefer at a lower cost, guiding you through the formulation,” she says. “We made it so simple that the only thing the client has to do is take the color and mix it with the catalyst. That’s it! Mix it and apply it and go from there. When I tell you we made it easy — we made it easy. We also curated a how-to-video that we send directly to our client’s phone.”
The video literally shows clients how to apply the color — step-by-step. It’s pretty fool-proof and allows Diaz to generate enough income to be able to have the salon survive. In terms of what else is needed right now, Diaz highly suggests that salon owners continue to look into small business loans and grants that can help with both rent and payroll expenses when salons re-open. GoFundMe pages are something else she’s looked into.
“I saw that so many of these chefs are working together to try to save all these staple restaurants and I think what hit me was that at the end of the day we have to work together because if we don’t work together it’s not going to happen and that’s basically what we’ve been doing,” she says. “Anyone who wants to reach out to me and talk to me and pick my brain, I am always open and ready for the conversation because it’s protecting me as well. I am doing conference calls and whoever is in the beauty industry that deals with beauty whether it be lashes, brows, hair — I don’t care. If you are affected please reach out to me and we’ll get you connected. If you need resources, let’s share resources. However, we can promote each other — let’s do it.”
Even smaller salons like the Dominican salons, that don’t work by appointments and have seen success in NYC for decades, are deeply struggling. Carol Urena and her mother Clara Urena own Punta Cana Salon on Cortelyou Road in Ditmas Park, Brooklyn, and have taken a serious hit since closing their doors in March.
“We closed the salon in mid-March and have been closed ever since. It has completely affected our business financially since we are a very hands-on business. If we are not open, we are not making any money,” she says. “Since we have had no income, we have not been able to pay the rent. Luckily, our landlord has been very understanding of that and has agreed to wait for when we are able to pay it. He is not expecting a lump sum once we return.”
Fortunately, because of her graceful landlord, Urena isn’t too concerned about not being able to reopen but she is concerned about how the business will look like when she does reopen her doors, as well as keeping the health and safety of her clients top priority. She’s already strategizing how reopening will look like.
“My biggest concern is getting things ready and making sure that the clients feel safe when they come back. I have an aunt who reopened up her salon in the Dominican Republic and on the first day she only had four people come in,” she says. “People are still scared so it’s my priority to make them feel comfortable and safe… even still, I think the numbers for many salons are going to go down despite the sanitary steps they’re taking.”
In fact, Urena who comes from a family of Dominican salon owners and is well-connected in that community both in DR and in NYC, fears that the Dominican salon industry is going to suffer significantly.
“I absolutely think a lot of Dominican salons will close. A lot of old school salons work by walk-in and not by appointments. Clients are going to have a hard time adjusting to all of these changes that are going to occur when we open,” she says. “Also, prices have to go up because we have to stock up on cleaning supplies, gloves, and aprons have to be discarded after every client. There are going to be a lot of changes and some people are not going to be comfortable with them. For instance, clients will have to come on their own so this poses a problem for moms that don’t have anyone to leave their kids with.”
With states like Georgia who have already opened the doors of many of their salons, Contreras who has chosen to remain optimistic despite the roadblocks, is also executing a plan for re-opening. “We have a plan for rescheduling so that we can have more hours of the day to offer our clients but also to space out our appointments. We have a whole protocol that we plan to put in place in terms of not being able to bring someone with you to the salon and just coming by yourself,” she says. “We’ve talked to our landlord and there might be an extra space he might offer us to hold the waiting room so that people waiting for their appointments can wait there. So we’re creating a ton of different things in terms of how we will manage but things won’t be the same for sure. In terms of when NYC opens up, we’ve decided we will stay closed one or two weeks after that just to sort of see what’s going on and not just go right back out when everyone goes back out. Just in case something happens. That’s another reason why it’s so important for me to continue seeking out funding and grants and everything and that’s because I have to make sure that we’re able to really be able to ride this thing out and keep our team and clients as a priority and to prioritize their health. It’s just a matter of waiting and being able to best use this time.”
Salon owners and hair pros are really trying to remain optimistic during these difficult times but are also being realistic about the fact that business might be slow the first couple of weeks or even months after re-opening just because people really are scared and health needs to be prioritized. But once salons open, if salons really do take the necessary health precautions things could start to shift. If folks were still going to the salon not having money during the Great Depression, folks — especially those who are still employed — will find ways to get their hair done. It’s hard to imagine they won’t. If you’re worried about your local or favorite salon not surviving this pandemic, contact the salon owner and ask how you can help whether it’s booking an appointment in advance, donating towards their GoFundMe page, or actually paying for virtual hair consultations if they are offering that.
No matter the circumstances, the salon industry isn’t giving up and we shouldn’t give up on them. Our hairstylists, for us Latinas especially, aren’t just our stylists they are our girlfriends, our homegirls, and our family. Loyalty is crucial for their survival.