African-American Salons Deal with Cultural Shifts

3/3/2014, 10:16 a.m.
For well over a decade, Ronald Reid counted on the rush of customers for these special occasions, until, he said, ...

A larger black middle class, moving out to suburban areas, has shifted the demand for services that have thrived in urban settings, said Therese Flaherty, director of the Small Business Development Center at The Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania.

After he emigrated from Barbados two decades ago, Reid established Razzle Dazzle on Teaneck Road. He distinguished his salon by designing it to look like a spa, an open waiting room is set off from private booths for an attentive service experience, instead of a one-room storefront.

Now Razzle Dazzle's staff of eight stylists has dwindled to three part-timers. The corporate women who come in for weekly touch-ups and the teachers trying a new style for the start of the school year are rarer sights. Reid says he is counting the days before he's out of business and replaced by a Dominican salon. He has seen at least six black-owned salons along Teaneck and Queen Anne roads between Route 4 and Cedar Lane close their doors.

Dominican-run salons have been competition with black stylists since the 1990s. Elsa's Beauty Salon, located just up the road from Razzle Dazzle, used to be a black hair salon 20 years ago, said the owner's niece, Mary Martinez, who is a stylist at Elsa's.

Elsa Garcia emigrated from the Dominican Republic seeking the same economic opportunities as black salon owners. Because of the variety of hair types and textures back home, doing African-American hair didn't require an adjustment, her niece said.

The hair care products used in Dominican salons are typically less expensive than in black salons, which some suggest is why they can charge less than half of what black stylists charge.

"You're born with a comb in your hand in the DR,'' said Martinez. "And we're here to work. We get you in and out. That's the reason why we're so popular.''

(Black stylists have long criticized the "Dominican blowout,'' saying that technique, in which stylists use a round brush and blow dryer to smooth out naturally kinky hair, giving it the look of hot-comb straightening, causes breakage and other damage to natural hair.)

Hackensack resident Heather Wimbush, a nurse who is African-American, says she visits a Dominican salon in Teaneck as many as four times a month, at $25 per visit for a wash, set and styling. Seeing it as an affordable way to pamper herself in her downtime, Wimbush isn't conflicted about avoiding more-expensive black salons.

"I would like to go to a black salon, and in the past I have tried to support their business,'' she said. "I found that when I would go in I was spending so much money, almost as much as three visits to a Dominican salon.

"For somebody that is dependent on getting their hair done in a salon, you have to weigh the cost,'' Wimbush added.

The success of Dominican salons, Flaherty said, could be related to the owners' realization that catering to just one community isn't a long-term business strategy.

"Generally, minority businesses that are focusing on serving the whole community, rather than those that are just serving their own, are going to be able to compete in the broader community,'' Flaherty said.

That's what Angie Phipps, an independent stylist in Hackensack, has done. She closed her shop years ago and sought more skills to service a diverse and more-exclusive clientele in a private studio. She also rents a salon chair at Moxie Lux, a multi-ethnic beauty parlor in the Riverside Square mall.

"I am a master stylist and I do almost everything,'' said Phipps, who added that she has styled celebrities. "The key to helping your clients' hair grow is not skimping on the products. I'm not trying to cut costs in products. My prices are higher than they've ever been because people know I'm going to do them right. And I know my worth.''