True to its name, this Santa Barbara, Calif.-based salon features underwater decor, natural nails, and a boutique filled to the brim with hydrating products. The Cordova family works together to keep its seaside clients taken care of.
The 1,900-sq.-ft. salon, situated in Santa Barbara, Calif., features a nail bar for manicures, various pedicure stations, and an esthetician’s room. Its interior decor is meant to make customers feel as if they are lounging beneath the ocean waves
Aqua Nail Bar & Boutique, designed to look like an underwater relaxation resort, is going on its seventh year of business. With its professional staff, high-end decor, and luxury spa vibe, it’s hard to believe the salon is actually a small, family-run operation.
After Karina Cordova graduated as a nail technician, her father Arturo Cordova, owner of Arturo’s Family Haircutting, encouraged her to create her own business. And when a space opened up next door to Arturo’s barbershop, the Cordova family decided to make a bold move.
“My parents came from Mexico and they’ve always had a strong business sense,” says Claudia Cordova-Papa, Karina’s sister and the manager of Aqua. “As a family, we really wanted to instill that in my little sister and that was the motivation for opening our salon.”
Arturo is the legal owner, Cynthia Hecox, Karina’s other sister, acts as a health consultant, while Cordova-Papa manages Aqua. “We took over the managerial side so Karina could focus on nails. It’s hard to handle both,” says Cordova-Papa.
Cordova-Papa was a natural choice within the family as she holds a degree in business and has an eye for fashion. She played a large role in developing Aqua’s distinctive concept, vision, and menu, and acts as owner in her father’s place.
Since pedicures are Aqua’s forte, the salon has three separate pedicure alcoves, each seating up to three or four clients at a time.
AN AQUATIC CONCEPT
Being inside Aqua is an experience in and of itself, according to Cordova-Papa. Its interior is meant to make customers feel as if they are lounging beneath the ocean waves. Blue walls and aquamarine, white, and turquoise tiles evoke liquescence, while circular mirrors and swirl-patterned pillows resemble bubbles. There are also scattered vases that look like seashells and seaweed-inspired plants and curtains. The overall design features little embellishment or detailing, just clean contours and color cohesion.
The chic simplicity of Aqua’s decor is something Cordova-Papa learned abroad. “I lived in Italy for 11 years and worked with fabric designers,” she says. “They are very visual people. Everything has to look pretty and have good presentation. I wanted my salon to be like what I saw in Italy — clean lines and aesthetically pleasing without being too gaudy.”
Cordova-Papa did most of the shopping herself, but hired a handful of furniture, lighting and color consultants, one of whom worked on her father’s barber shop next door. “I orchestrated a whole team to help me solidify Aqua’s concept, from the fixtures down to the furniture,” says Cordova-Papa.
BACK TO THE BASICS
After becoming disenchanted with acrylics and gels during the salon’s soft opening in 2006, Cordova-Papa decided to scrap them from Aqua’s menu entirely. “The smells were so overwhelming that I said natural nails only,” says Cordova-Papa.
Luckily, Aqua’s growing client base took a liking to the change. The salon is nestled in between a retirement community and a residential neighborhood in Santa Barbara. Both areas have high income levels and make up the majority of Aqua’s clientele. The salon also receives a chunk of its business from tourists. Since downtown Santa Barbara is only 10 minutes away, the salon also gets referrals from local hotels and other businesses.
“We looked at Santa Barbara and the area Aqua is in and said, ‘Wow, we could really create a niche market here,’” says Cordova-Papa. “At the time, we were one of the first to offer only natural nail services, and people were attracted to that.”
Most Aqua frequenters receive basic manis and pedis, though the demand for recently offered gel-polish services increases daily. Shellac, French manicures, and nail art are also available.
Many of Aqua’s treatments fittingly focus on hydration. Cordova-Papa says she and her sister decided that paraffin treatments must be mandatory after any glycolic peel in order to prevent dryness. And Aqua’s most popular service is the Aqua Signature Pure Fiji Pedi, which includes a signature aqua soak (as do all other Aqua pedis), cuticle care, callus buffing, hydrating coconut Fiji scrub, a four-minute calf/leg massage, warm towels, and polish for $36.
In addition to jewelry, shoes, skin care products, hair products, miscellaneous gifts, and makeup, everything used in Aqua’s nail treatments is available in the salon’s vast retail boutique. Such brands include OPI, Butter London, Essie, CND, Fiji, and Trind.
Pink pillows and curtains add a splash of color to this sea-themed pedicure alcove.
Aqua has made sanitation a vital priority, and the salon’s online reviews — on such sites as Yelp — can attest to that. “Honestly, I think what sets this salon apart from others for our customers is the fact that we’re just super clean,” says Cordova-Papa. “Everyone points it out.” And because of Aqua’s natural nails focus, the unpolluted space is free of bad odors too — an apt quality for a sea-themed salon.
There is, however, a secret to its success. “We follow state board rules very, very closely,” says Cordova-Papa. “Even to the point where it’s ridiculous because we take it so seriously.”
Cordova-Papa frequently consults her sister Cynthia Hecox, a nurse, to make sure the salon’s health and sanitation standards are up to par. After running into issues with the state board after integrating an autoclave machine into their cleaning routine, Cordova-Papa and Hecox have done everything they can to master the salon requirements for the state of California. Hecox comes in every so often to teach cleaning protocol to new employees and brush up on health code with the veterans.
During the summer months, one of the busiest seasons for nail salons across the board, Aqua hires extra hands to help out. They mostly do maintenance work, clean tools, and make sure the salon stays efficient amidst the busyness.
“In the summer, you can literally triple your income,” says Cordova-Papa. “It’s been a challenge to understand our business and be flexible enough to make the appropriate changes to go from winter to summer each year, and vice versa.”
The waxing room is rented out by an esthetician, who keeps her services competitively priced, therefore attracting a younger crowd from the local Santa Barbara universities.
KEEPING IT FRESH
Cordova-Papa makes it a point to keep things fresh at Aqua. She’s interested in new products and technologies and tries to integrate them into Aqua’s menu as they come out.
“My employees recognize that I invest in my salon quite a bit,” says Cordova-Papa. “If there’s a new technology, like the LED lights from OPI, I’m going to get it and be the first to offer it. I’m always going to have new things to keep my employees busy.” In addition to gels, she also plans to offer a variety of Dashing Diva nail decals — in popular tones like neon — by the summer.
Due to Aqua’s location, it innately attracts a slew of professionals — countless doctors and lawyers — as well as mothers. But one way the salon’s client base is diversified is through its waxing services, which bring in a younger crowd from the nearby universities. Aqua’s waxing room is booth rental; therefore, the esthetician can chose to leave her services competitively priced. Waxing clients will occasionally splurge on higher-end nail services. Overall, 85% of Aqua’s business comes from nail services, 10% comes from retail, and about 5% is from waxing.
Salon Name: Aqua Nail Bar & Boutique
Location: Santa Barbara, Calif.
Owner: Arturo Cordova
(Manager: Claudia Cordova-Papa)
Square Footage: 1,900
Opened: October 2006
Number of Nail Techs/Total Staff: 14/21
Specialties: Natural nails, gel-polish,
Aqua Signature Pure Fiji Pedi