“It was like a big party”: What it’s like for a hair salon owner to reopen her business

“It was like a big party”: What it’s like for a hair salon owner to reopen her business

Michele Bonnick is a veteran hair stylist and the owner of Amani Hair Studio in Davisville. After over a year and a half of shutdowns and reopenings, Bonnick is thrilled to finally welcome her clients back to the salon—hopefully for good this time. Here, she tells Toronto Life about the emotional roller coaster of being a small business owner during the pandemic and how she prepared for reopening this summer.

As told to Haley Steinberg

“I’ve been working as a hairstylist for almost 30 years. After jumping around between Atlanta, New York and Vancouver, I opened Amani Hair Studio, near Yonge and Eglinton, in 2000. We serve clients from many cultural backgrounds with different hair textures, with a focus on organic treatments and repairing damaged hair. The salon has been around for a long time, and we’ve built up a loyal base of regulars. A girlfriend of mine is a dietician, and before the pandemic we used to run monthly classes out of the salon once a month on topics like health and wellness, hair care and aromatherapy. It was beautiful—women would cry, there was a lot of hugging. It was a really supportive environment.

“When Covid first hit, as a small business owner, I didn’t know what to think. I had no idea how long we’d be shut down. To stay afloat, I opened up an online store selling all the products we carry in the salon. Some of the work I do, like keratin treatments, require hard-to-find products, so I added those products to the online store so my clients could carry out the treatments at home.

“When hair salons got the green light to reopen last summer, my staff and I were thrilled. It was like, Okay, we’re back. We bought an air purifier, set up dividers between wash stations, ordered tons of masks and gloves and sanitized thoroughly. Our automatic sanitizer dispenser cost $200 to refill every time, and we went through the stuff like crazy. In total, we spent a couple thousand dollars. But it was worth it. We were booked solid for July and August, seeing around five clients every day. For a while, things felt normal again. So when the government announced another lockdown in the fall, I was distraught.

“The second time around, I saw the lockdown as an opportunity to finish off some business projects, like updating Amani’s website. I researched new products I could carry. I took classes on alopecia, and I started offering a service where clients who had alopecia could drop off their wigs in the mailbox, I would wash and style them, and the clients would pick them up. I also started doing Zoom consultations on healthy hair care with new clients, both local and farther afield. I even met with a group of women in England. Some of my local consultations turned into future appointments.

“Like many salon owners in the city, I had clients reaching out for under-the-table appointments. But that sort of thing didn’t really work for my clientele—it’s rare that all somebody wants is a haircut. My clients with textured hair are going to want a relaxer because their hair is breaking off, or they’re going to want me to style their hair. The process is too long and involved to be done without all the amenities of a full-service salon.

“I was fully ready to reopen the salon in April. We had all our appointments lined up and our Covid protocols in place. When the government announced that we wouldn’t be able to open at all, it was a huge blow. I had to reschedule more than 100 appointments. It was depressing, because my clients were so upset and disappointed. It’s difficult to have this prime real estate right on Yonge Street and not be able to do anything with it. By summer 2021, we had over 200 people on our wait list.

“When we heard about the reopening at the end of June, we scrambled to get ready in time. You’d think the government could have chosen a better date. It was ridiculous to open for one day before the Canada Day long weekend, but we wanted to take full advantage of the time. That week, we had tons of deliveries coming in—it seemed like everything was arriving at the same time. We spent about $7,500 on new products. I was paying $200 a month for debit machines, but I realized, ‘Oh, god, there’s all this money going out, but nothing is coming in.’ There was all this pressure, like, ‘Okay, we need to figure this out quick, quick, quick!’ I’m taking payment by e-transfer for now.

“We started with the appointments that we’d already had to rebook, and added people from the wait list whenever we could. When we opened our doors, I felt free for the first time in a year. The camaraderie and excitement was instant—one client came in screaming, ‘I can’t believe you’re finally open!’ It was so hard to restrain myself from hugging everyone who walked through the door. I’m a total extrovert and I love being around people. It was difficult to go so long without seeing my regular clients. I’m used to seeing them every six months, and I always remember where we left off and we pick up the conversation. Even though a little more time had passed, that’s just what we did. On the second day we were open, one client came in with champagne. Another brought chocolates and a third showed up with a box of beef patties. It was like a big party, everyone coming in with gifts.

“We’re currently doing about five appointments a day, with one stylist and one client in the salon at a time. Everybody wants everything because they haven’t been to the salon in such a long time—cut, colour, treatments—so each appointment takes at least a couple of hours. We’ve added Sunday and Monday appointments to get through the wait list, so we’re working seven days a week. I’m booked solid into the fall.

“After going so long without doing hair, I’m so excited to try out all my new products—I even bought this beautiful steam machine that stimulates hair growth. It feels incredible to see people come in with dry, frizzy hair and leave with shiny, healthy hair.

“We’re more than just a salon—we’re a hub in the community. We encourage and empower women to embrace their beauty, and educate them about healthy hair care, whether through diet and nutrition or specific products and treatments. I always preach, ‘Don’t fight with your natural hair; work with it.’ That creates a real level of trust. My regulars come in and say, ‘We’re home at last! It feels so good to be here.’ After being closed for so long, you really feel the love in the building, even at our limited capacity. It feels like my life is starting up again.”