LOVE AT FIRST CRACKLE
Self-proclaimed “serial entrepreneurs,” Maria and Jason Darling embraced the quirky, unique, and welcoming vibe of Austin, Texas, when they opened Cute Nail Studio last March. The recently-married-couple-slash-business-partners actually met through nails while laying out by a city pool on a hot summer day.
“I complimented the green and black polish he was wearing — Katy Perry’s Crackle, which was really popular at the time,” Maria says. “He had all the products with him so he offered to do my nails, and the rest is history.”
On their second date, the two discussed a business opportunity — children’s yoga. The idea didn’t pan out, but the couple realized they shared a passion for starting niche businesses. Now, in addition to Cute, the Darlings own two other ventures: Sirenalia, which sells “mermaid experiences” as well as the realistic silicon mermaid tails themselves, and Lolliphile, which retails lollipops with novelty flavors like Sriracha and Absinthe. Although one could very well describe them as business minded, “you wouldn’t think that by looking at us,” Maria says. (The two flaunt colored hair, tattoos, funky wardrobes, and hippie-esque tendencies.)
Neither Maria nor Jason is actually a nail tech, but they appreciate the artistry that goes into a set, and view techs as they would highly esteemed tattoo artists — they even offer artist residencies to out-of-state techs. In addition to a competitive pay structure, Maria says they offer flexibility with child care needs and breaks, free snacks in the fridge, and most importantly, free continuing education and talent sharing days among the techs.
“Everyone always says they want to do something new, but I feel like we really did,” Jason says. “We’re not a luxury spa; we’re focused on the aspect of working and growing with our nail artists.”
Cute is best known for its four-hour “Set of Claws” service, which gets clients four hours in front of the nail artist of their choice “to craft the mind-blowing nails your dreams are made of.”
“We want to treat the techs as artists, because they’re making these tiny paintings on each nail,” Maria says. “It’s been hard to find people who are passionate about making beautiful art, and who are also aligned with our core values.”
A SAFE SPACE
Everyone who enters the salon is encouraged to be whoever they want to be, and staff is trained to be sensitive, understanding, and always ask clients their preferred gender pronouns. A lot of the staff identifies as queer, and Cute has a substantial number of transgender clients.
The entire salon exterior is rainbow colored, a nod to the LGBTQ community, and also an undeniably great backdrop for Instagram photos. Maria says the salon’s decor is an expression of Jason, who doesn’t conform to gender norms with his bright pink hair and colorful clothing.
“Maria tries to make it about me, but I always say that, at best, I’m the enthusiastic mascot, and she is the actual boss and brains of the operation,” Jason says. “If she wasn’t here, this wouldn’t exist.”