Shannon Dunlap didn’t have a nail tech license. Scratch that. Shannon Dunlap doesn’t have a nail tech license. Still, that didn’t stop the former elementary school teacher and her husband Darin from opening up Soak Nail Spa and Lounge in Reno, Nev., and turning it into a successful business.

Media outlets can testify that within two years of opening, Soak has become a city favorite. It won Reno Magazine’s Best Pedicure two years in a row and also took home a Best of Reno in the cocktail category, for its signature Pink Drink. In addition, Dunlap and the salon have been featured on a local TV show and in national publications.

The Business Plan

Opening the salon the way they wanted it, however, wasn’t easy. Dunlap stresses that the decision was no spontaneous thing. “It was very methodical and well thought out,” she says. She, and her husband who holds an MBA, drafted a detailed business plan. Dunlap says the accountants and attorneys they interviewed didn’t support the idea, citing her lack of experience and the abundance of spas in Reno. Yet they forged on, envisioning the business falling between a nail salon and a day spa, she says, but without the day spa prices.

Complicating things further was their pursuit of a liquor license and finding a building in a zone that would allow alcohol service. The entire process, from business plan to opening, took two years.

What they have now, however, is a testament to their hard work and perseverance. Soak Nail Spa and Lounge is located in a two-story Victorian-era house in the old Italian district of the city. The ground floor has two open rooms for 12 pedicure stations, with Italian leather recliners and silver bowls instead of spa chairs. All services are done in the reclining chairs. Floral murals are painted on the walls, giving the salon a clean, fresh feel. In the back is the kitchen as well as a “VIP lounge” for gel services and private pedicures. Upstairs are waxing and massage rooms.

Bottoms Up!

While select salons serve complimentary drinks, the Dunlaps knew from the beginning they wanted the full benefits of a liquor license. This turned out to be more difficult than they had imagined, as there were zoning restrictions, a full kitchen to be built, health codes, and background checks.

Since the liquor license was so hard to attain, Dunlap is marketing the nail spa’s drinks as much as she can. The “lounge” part gets its own business, and the standard, deluxe, and seasonal pedicures come with complimentary drinks. The rotating seasonal pedicure for the early summer treat was the Mya Papaya. Named after Dunlap’s daughter, the service consists of a pineapple and papaya soak, pineapple exfoliation scrub, a leg mask with shea butter and papaya applied with silk brushes, massage, and a pineapple drop cocktail.

Soak’s award-winning Pink Drink is a sweet and sour vodka-based cocktail with orange, passionfruit and grapefruit. The Pink Drink is paired with a pink grapefruit pedicure.

Dunlap’s advice for those thinking about a liquor license is to approach with caution. “Our focus here is two-fold. It’s really nails and cocktails,” she says. “I wouldn’t throw the cocktail on top of an existing salon. It’s just not that easy to do. You have to be very careful with the liability.”

Social Networking

Online social networking has become a necessity for many businesses, and Dunlap takes virtual marketing seriously. Professional photos of the salon are on the website, and Dunlap has started Soak pages with Twitter, Myspace, and Facebook. “We’re really trying to utilize those tools for connecting with our customers,” says Dunlap. Clients post photos and words of appreciation on the Myspace and Facebook pages, helping spread word-of-mouth popularity for those on the fence about coming in. With over 100 friends on Myspace and more than 400 fans on Facebook, Dunlap is able to easily keep in contact with clients.

Status updates on Facebook, as well as Twitter tweets, alert followers and fans to cancellations, specials, and new services. Dunlap sometimes throws in a free cocktail offer for clients who call to pick up cancelled appointment times. On Facebook, she updates staff and event photos, helping familiarize clients with the Soak staff. She promptly responds to client inquiries about pricing, times, requests for rainchecks, and special arrangements. All this contributes to an open forum that connects clients to the salon.

In addition, Dunlap lists local businesses that her clients might be interested in on the Soak website. She suggests a neighboring cooking school for catering for events that take place at the salon, and does cross-marketing with the school’s owner. They refer customers back and forth and sometimes run ads together in local magazines. “We try and advertise the fact that we’re both here and that we both offer a unique experience in Reno,” she says.

Reno’s annual Superhero Pub Crawl in the summer had the city’s residents dressed up in their best superhero outfits — and Dunlap made sure Soak was there in the mix. “Our girls were dressed up in superhero capes. I made them all out of shower curtains,” she says. “We sent out a Facebook status update and a Tweet that anyone dressed in a superhero costume could come in and get their polish changed for free to match their superhero outfit, or have a free drink.” The hour-long special deal brought in more than 20 superheroes to the salon.

So far, as a nail spa owner without a nail tech license, Dunlap seems to be doing pretty well, generally keeping Soak too busy for walk-ins. Husband Darin is the CFO and handles the financial aspects of the business, and she leaves the technical stuff up to the pros (her nail techs). Dunlap says the division in responsibility works out well. “The amount of time I spend marketing the business — it’s a lot. And so I focus on that, and I leave the skill work to the people with talent.” she says.


Quick Look

Salon Name: Soak Nail Spa and Lounge
Location: Reno, Nev.
Owner: Shannon and Darin Dunlap
Square Footage: 1,600
Opened: 2007
Number of Nail Techs/Total Staff: 15/17
Specialties: Nails and cocktails
Compensation: Salary and health benefits

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