Gigantic steel skyscrapers and a gray cityscape covered with ice and snow — as the third largest city in America and one of the coldest, Chicago doesn’t exactly conjure up leisurely, sunny images of housewives with strollers walking in the park. But that’s exactly what Mickie Lee says life is like as owner of Paint Nail Boutique in the Lincoln Park district of the Windy City.
"You get the feeling of suburban, family-oriented people around here," she says. "It’s a real, warm feeling. The business owners are all friendly to each other."
How opportune then for someone such as Lee, who came to the salon business from the small Chicago suburb of Western Springs, Ill., population 12,500, to be situated at such a glorious hub of calm within a bustling city of close to 3 million people.
Amidst shops, restaurants, schools, health clubs, traffic, DePaul University, churches, office buildings and Wrigley Field, home to the Chicago Cubs, Paint has managed to find serenity.
SERVICE, SERVICE, SERVICE Prior to her current career in the nail industry, Lee owned a Chinese food carryout business with her then husband in Western Springs. The restaurant refined her business savvy and provided ample training grounds for her current venture.
"First and foremost, it taught me the importance of service," she says. "In that small area, everybody knew everybody and they appreciated us being there because we did a lot of charity work in that town. People like to go where they know your name."
The practice of community service was then transferred from restaurant to salon after Lee and co-owner Debbie Kim purchased Paint from a previous owner in November 2006. Whereas the restaurant had fed townspeople at the county fair and at the police and fire departments every year, the salon has benefited numerous local charities including Namaste Charter School and the Make-A-Wish Foundation.
Contributions have included gift cards that can be redeemed for services as well as in-house charity parties where 10% of profit goes directly to the specified charity. It was perhaps these acts of charity that in turn helped Lee eventually win over some of the salon’s clientele who were not too happy with the previous owners’ departure.
"A lot of regulars gave us a try, but I felt from the clientele that they didn’t like the change of ownership," Lee says. "Some people don’t like change and I understand. I try to be as friendly as possible."
The salon was eventually able to overcome this slightly bumpy transition, but has faced a number of other challenges this past year. Lee attributes a 20% decrease in sales from the previous year to the current slowed state of the economy. Local construction on the city’s subway system has further exacerbated this situation.
Though the salon previously benefited from a great deal of foot traffic coming from a subway stop located on the same side of the street, that stop was closed down last year and reopened on the opposite side of the street this March.
CITY CLIENTELE Despite any challenges, Paint has managed to maintain a steady current of clientele. Lee says the standard manicure and pedicure are the most popular treatments during the year, except during the harsh, dry Chicago winters when the spa manicure dominates sales for its moisturizing effects.
Working women in their 20s, who compose most of the salon’s clientele, enjoy the salon’s simple selection of standard nail services in addition to waxing and hair styling.
Favorite nail polish shades tend to veer toward the darker and neutral hues for a mature, sophisticated feel that these professionals appreciate. The new La Collection De France from OPI, for example, is a major hit.
The salon’s young clientele also favor lady-friendly pop chanteuses like Feist and Duffy, who are often heard on the stereo and during salon parties that accommodate six to 12 girlfriends. Parties have also doubled into work functions for lawyers and office clerks. Dinner can be brought in from the restaurant across the street and eaten during the services.
Lee and Kim have also begun brainstorming other ideas for the future. Among them is Friday Night Ladies’ Night when complimentary sparkling wine would be served.
Men, on the other hand, are a whole different challenge.
"We’re thinking Monday night football," Lee laughs, "but we don’t have a TV."
Salon name: Paint Nail Boutique
Owners: Mickie Lee and Debbie Kim
Square Footage: 2,300
Years of ownership: 2
Number of Nail Techs/Employees: 11/13
Specialties: natural nails, facials, waxing
Compensation: Salary and commission
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