What started as a build-and-sell business venture for Orchard Nails salon owner Thomas Kent Irwin has transformed into a blossoming career. Ten years ago, he ran a dry cleaner with his partner in Corona, Calif. There was a nail salon next door, and Irwin noticed that despite its inferiority, customers would often eagerly form a line out the door, waiting for their turn to receive an hour or two of pampering.
Irwin had an idea. He and his partner would buy an available location, build a nail salon, and sell it for profit. But their timing was off; the subprime mortgage market crashed in 2007, taking many potential buyers with it. As it turned out, this was a blessing in disguise.
“We kind of had no choice but to open and run it. Now, we’re probably the busiest nail salon in the whole community,” Irwin says. “Over the years, it’s become a passion of mine, and I’ve really grown to love the industry.”
In the past decade, the salon has won numerous awards from the local media, and even been the set for a couple of reality TV shows.
Irwin credits their success to the salon’s dynamic. “The way I look at it, we’re all owners of the salon, not just me. We couldn’t do the job without the technician team, and they couldn’t handle the customers as efficiently without the front desk,” he says.
Irwin’s main role in the salon is what he terms the “customer service leader.” The techs often pick up on his personable and lively energy, but he also outwardly encourages techs to build relationships with clients, in addition to executing killer nails.
“I’m there to motivate the staff and remind them that there’s more to it than manicures and pedicures,” he says. “Our techs are interested in building their clientele and career, so when I give them feedback, they use it constructively.”
His coaching efforts have been successful, because most of his staff has been with Orchard since the beginning and are skilled in nail art and customer service.
Amid the many all-natural salons popping up in Southern California, Orchard Nails offers traditional services like acrylics. Although Irwin admits that the scent isn’t always appealing, the return rate of acrylic customers is. About 30% of Orchard’s customers ask for acrylic services and he sees that number increasing.
“People want coffin- and almond-shaped nails,” he says. “There’s always something sexy about having nails for women.”
Orchard also offers simpler natural and gel manicures as well as deluxe add-on services, like the O Therapy Session, which includes a 15-minute massage, hot oil bath, and moisture mask.
“We call it O Therapy because you literally come and unwind, so it’s like you went and saw your therapist for half the cost,” Irwin jokes.
But the salon isn’t always geared toward unwinding. The salon throws celebratory events for holidays, like Mother’s Day and Christmas, its two most profitable weekends of the year. For Christmas, every buyer of a $100 gift card is entered into a raffle for a year’s worth of free pedicures. For Mother’s Day, only upgraded services are available.
“We go all out. We have a gourmet dessert bar, we bring in live music, we hire a florist to put fresh flowers all over the salon, and our staff all wears matching outfits,” he says. “It’s become a tradition for a lot of people.”
During events like these, the salon is decorated to dazzle from floor-to-ceiling. But during an average day, the decor of the salon is centered on relaxation, says Irwin. There are tumble travertine stone countertops and dark gray floors. Despite customers’ praise of the current decor, he has plans to remodel the salon in the next six months to give it an updated, Spanish feel with Moroccan tiles.
“It’s going to look amazing,” Irwin says. “Clients always ask us, ‘Why are you going to remodel? It looks beautiful,’ but we want to stay on top of the trends.”
Now, Orchard is often caught turning away business a few days a week with a 94% appointment booking rate. “We have loyal, regular clients and they aren’t quick in-and-out types. They want to come, sit back, and relax,” he says.
Many clients used to live in upscale Orange County, Calif., and moved east to Corona because of its affordability, so Orchard’s clients are often used to a little luxury.
“We have a lot of families and churchgoers, and young people who are starting families, and there is a whole division of retirees,” Irwin says.
The salon’s proximity to Los Angeles has given the Orchard team glamorous opportunities to be on the Lifetime’s series “Raising Asia” as well as “Little Women: L.A.”
“Our staff loves it and they feel encouraged to do the best job they can. It’s a lot of work, but being on these shows promotes the salon and it’s fun to see yourself on TV, even if it’s for 10 seconds.”
Salon name: Orchard Nails
Location: Corona, Calif.
Owner: Thomas Kent Irwin
Square Footage: 1,400
Opened: October 2007
Number of nail techs/employees: 18/22
Specialties: Special events and customer service
Compensation structure: 60% commission
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