Justin Mitchell and Karina Restrepo are working to revolutionize the nail industry. The owners of Philadelphia’s Tierra Mia Organic Nail Spa bill their salon as “the nation’s first truly organic nail spa.” Built from recycled and sustainable materials, their salon uses water-based polishes with a unique, patented application technique that Mitchell says lasts longer than water-based polishes ever have before.
From Idea to Inception
Architect and designer Mitchell and his fiancée, nail technician Restrepo, wanted to open a salon that was fully organic, all the way from construction to the services offered. They also wanted to create a unique space.
“We realized we needed to create something that was more quasi-exotic,” says Mitchell. Restrepo, an accomplished nail technician with editorial manicure and pedicure awards under her belt, brought to the salon the beauty techniques of her native Colombia, using natural ingredients like saltwater, coconut, and clay. They settled on the name Tierra Mia, Spanish for “My Land,” and began creating services to fit the theme.
The couple found an available location on the first floor of their building, in the affluent residential area around Rittenhouse Square. Getting permits to open in a residential area took eight months, and working weekends and nights, Mitchell and Restrepo began construction of the entire space.
“Walking down the street, you would never really find us,” says Mitchell of their residential location. “Anybody who knows about us is part of an inside community who has been referred to us.” Mitchell worked on creating a buzz about the salon by sending out press releases, meeting PR professionals, and contacting local magazines.
Wanting to create a “community hub,” Mitchell and Restrepo then worked on referrals and retention instead of walk-in business. Mitchell estimates nearly 90% of those who come in make a second appointment, and most of them had been referred by a friend.
The Perspective of a Designer
“I wanted to get away from the idea of mass production and move toward something that was more of an escape or retreat,” Mitchell says of the salon design. Following the organic concept with sustainable construction, he chose American Clay natural plaster for walls and used zero-toxic paints. Flooring is made from post-consumer wood waste, and Kirei Board, an environmentally friendly substitute for wood made of reclaimed natural fibers, was used for surfacing materials.
In order to promote the intimacy of each service, they’ve kept the salon small. From the entrance, a narrow hallway opens up into the main room, which holds two manicure tables. A middle room houses one pedicure chair, and a third room in the back is reserved for reflexology sessions and soy-based hair removal.
In terms of color, Mitchell chose a palette of soothing earth tones. “Each room has on average four different colors that are very subtly different,” he says. “You don’t notice at first, but it creates a certain complexity of space.”
Alongside a wall lined with water-based polishes are about 15 of Restrepo’s own bottles of custom polish. Restrepo mixes her own custom colors and sends them to a manufacturer for reproduction. “She only makes a few bottles of each one,” says Mitchell. “As soon as that one runs out, clients don’t know if she’ll make a new color that’s similar or not.” The constant change of colors keeps things exciting.
Intent on using water-based polish, Mitchell and Restrepo worked together on an application process that would result in longer-lasting manicures and pedicures. “We patented the process of our application for water-based nail polishes,” says Mitchell, who adds that this proprietary polish application method will last up to six weeks for pedicures and, on average, four to 10 days for manicures.
In addition, the Tierra Mia service menu is on a constant rotation, with services ready to be phased out and new ones added in. According to Mitchell, this creates an entirely new experience for clients who routinely come in for the same services. To connect the salon further with Restrepo’s Colombian-influenced beauty techniques, many services have Spanish names. The most popular service is the Magdalena, named after the principal river of Colombia.
Mitchell says the state of the economy when they first opened in summer 2009 only made them aim higher. “We need to be that much better, and more creative and unique in the marketplace, in order to work,” he says.
Salon name: Tierra Mia Organic Nail Spa
Owners: Karina Restrepo and Justin Mitchell
Square Footage: 1,100
Date opened: 2009
Number of Nail Techs/Total Staff: 4/11
Specialties: organic manicures and pedicures, reflexology, soy-based hair removal