At Exquisite U hair salon in Arden Arcade, Stephanie Hunter Ray is doing business a little differently these days. Before the coronavirus, the salon she’s owned for 15 years on Fulton Avenue was packed with regular clients.
“We were a very busy, thriving salon, I have eight stylists, an assistant, a makeup artist; everyone was booked,” Hunter Ray said of her salon, which specializes in African-American hair. “We had our weekly clients who came in once a week, phones were ringing - we did not have a shortage of clientele here.”
But since the stay-at-home order shuttered her business two months ago, things are much quieter. These days, it’s just Hunter Ray and an assistant in the salon every few days, and the two put together kits for clients who now find themselves doing their own hair.
“I do what we call corona hair kits, so I will talk my clients through how to maintain their service and styles, and we do supply them with shampoo, conditioner, finishing aids for their hair, and we show them molding techniques on how to wrap their hair,” she said.
She’s bringing in about half the income she typically did before the closure, but she feels like she’s one of the lucky ones - in addition to hair kits, her salon also sells hair accessories and specialty products and she hopes that will keep her afloat.
But others aren’t so lucky. Barber Rob Brown owns Another Look hair salon in South Sacramento, and says without cutting hair, he has no money coming in.
“You know, it’s not easy to open up a salon and take your life savings and create your own business. I’ve been in business for 24 years and I think I’ve made a lot of good investments, and it’s really hurting myself and my family right now,” Brown said.
He says an added difficulty has been the inability to get federal assistance. He explains that like many salon owners, he uses a system of booth rentals - he rents out chairs to individuals who are paid separately and who aren’t employees - making his business ineligible for the federal Payroll Protection Program (PPP) loan.
“We don’t have employees, we have booth renters, but the way the majority of the bigger loans are structured, you have to have employees. None of us have that, we don’t qualify,” Brown said. “And I’d say 99% of all black owned salons are booth rental salons.”
Additionally, according to the Sacramento Black Chamber of Commerce, only 3% of African American-owned businesses received a PPP loan. Jay King of the California Black Chamber of Commerce said this is in part because the majority of African American business owners are sole proprietors - meaning they wouldn’t qualify for the program. He said the reasons for this go back generations, and getting smaller loans has meant that minority business owners have had to look to industries like personal care - where startup costs are typically lower.
“Most of them don’t have the systems and protocols in place to even build out into a full-fledged business, so of course, something like this, it’s almost like having the air choked out of your body,” King said. “People forget about the history of inequitable banking practices, when it comes to loans, even when we get a loan, our loans are so much smaller than everybody else’s.”
Brown agreed, and said that for him, becoming a barber was an easy way to get his foot in the door of the business world.
“The hair industry is one of the easiest entry-level business owner positions that we see in our community - you’ve gotta remember too, that most [African American] kids growing up, the hair salon or barbershop, that’s your first time seeing a black-owned business. It’s the first real tangible business that we can touch,” he said. “Growing up, when I went to the barbershop, I saw nice things, I saw professional people, it was the hub of the community and I said I want to own a business like that.”
And hair salons and barbershops aren’t the only minority-owned businesses feeling squeezed right now. Just last week, Governor Gavin Newsom commented that the state’s first coronavirus case originated from a nail salon - an industry dominated by Vietnamese Americans. Tam Nguyen, President of Advanced Beauty College cosmetology school in Southern California, said coronavirus closures have crippled the state’s largest Vietnamese community in the region, and that the governor’s comments didn’t help.
“I’ve been in the Vietnamese community here, in Orange County for most of my life, I’m 46. And I’ve never seen the Vietnamese community more hurt than now,” Nguyen said.
Statewide, advocacy groups predict that around 30% of barbershops and hair salons will close as a result of the coronavirus restrictions, and about 20% of nail salons will be lost as well. A recent report of unemployment in Los Angeles County shows that African Americans and Asian Americans are experiencing some of the highest rates of unemployment, as compared to their white counterparts. Governor Newsom’s phased reopening of the state currently places barbershops and hair and nail salons in the final stage (Phase 4) of businesses allowed to re-open. The state has just entered Phase 2, which allows “low-risk” retail stores to begin operating again.
A number of groups are lobbying the Governor’s office to either let salons open with safety protocols in place, or to create a specific loan program for minority-owned businesses. Rob Brown at Another Look Hair Salon says without either of these happening, he may have to take matters into his own hands.
“Either make a loan that’s specific to booth rentals or African American salons and barbershops, or let us come back to work,” Brown said. “I was telling someone the other day, I’ve got a few more weeks...and I’m going to have to go rogue and open up too.”
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