After seven years as a financial analyst, Elizabeth Morris traded sitting in a cubicle for experimenting with nail trends in her 1940s-inspired salon. The career shift has been a successful endeavor; since its opening in 2012, Morris says the salon has maintained 20% growth in gross revenue year over year.
Va-Va Varnish is not for those hesitant to experiment with their nails. The San Diego, Calif.-based salon is known for its cutting-edge manicures. Swarovski embellished accent nails, DC comic book characters, ombre manicures, or 3-D appliques are just a few of the featured styles on the salon’s Facebook page.
The salon is located in the historic Gaslamp Quarter of downtown San Diego. Morris explains the district attracts the “best of both worlds” by bringing in a mix of tourists and those who work in the area. When looking into locations for her salon, she saw an opportunity to capitalize on the untapped nail market in San Diego. “There aren’t as many nail salons as there are in Los Angeles or Orange County,” says Morris. “The people in downtown San Diego are probably the most receptive and adventurous.” This works out well for Morris, who specializes in services not found in every nail salon.
The nail menu can be broken down into four different treatment types: Short and Sweet, Not-So-Basic, Whole Shuh-Bang, and Va-Va Varnish. The salon’s pricing starts at $17 and goes up in increments of $10. The salon also offers gel-polish a la carte for $18 on top of any manicure. But the real calling card comes from the assortment of gel sculptured enhancements, nail art, and willingness to experiment to please the customer. “Ninety percent of my clients started out as pink-and-white clients. For them to see all the options available and nail art available has really let them try new things,” says Morris. “Now they bring colors to me and I will custom mix colors to create what they want.”
Morris provides training to each one of her new employees when first brought onto the Va-Va Varnish team. “As an educator I train all my employees, but I also make sure they attend at least one class per year and go to the local tradeshows to stay educated on the newest offerings in the industry.” Morris stays abreast with what’s going on in the industry by attending tradeshows, working as a professional educator for Akzéntz, and through her new podcast, “The Nail Hub.”
Morris describes her space as a “luxurious living room.” The antique furniture, ornate mirrors, and chandeliers fill the 1,600 sq. ft. space and amplify the 1919 building’s historic charm. Morris finds all of her furniture in consignment shops. Having inherited her mother’s interior decorating skills, she has had many of her couches and chairs reupholstered. “It’s the best because you can customize them however you want,” says Morris. “The best places to look are in little hole-in-the-wall places. I like to go to beachy towns to find furniture.”
Va-Va Varnish has also become a go-to spot for bridal parties or large group events. Morris recalls once going to get her nails done with a bachelorette party and the attendant uncomfortable craning of her neck to join in the conversation while sitting in the line of pedicure chairs. “It dawned on me to do a living room situation,” says Morris. “One of the best parts of our salon is that we can rearrange the layout to accommodate however many people come in for a party.” Although these groups only make up 10% to 20% of her business, Morris admits it’s a unique draw for prospective clients. Va-Va Varnish focuses its attention on nail care, but makeup services can be done for special occasions.
Va-Va Varnish has a variety of clients. A good number are in their late 30s and 40s, but Morris says she also sees college students and even San Diego Padres’ wives. One commonality between Va-Va Varnish’s clients is their desire for upscale service. “We are one of — if not the most — expensive nail salon in San Diego. Our nearest neighbor charges $11.95 for a full set of acrylic nails, whereas we charge $65+,” says Morris.
Salon Name: Va-Va Varnish
Location: San Diego, Calif.
Owner: Elizabeth Morris
Number of Nail Techs: 7
Specialties: Gel-polish and gel enhancements
Compensation Structure: Commission
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