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How one chain of nail salons hung on –

Silicon Valley


CARMEL — Minh Le remembers seeing clients gather in his reception area, take a seat, choose a hard candy, flip through a magazine, chat. The waiting was convivial inside his nail salon Top Nails

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established by his father, Charlie Le, in 1991, and passed on to him 10 years later. The Le family actually owns three salons on the Peninsula — in Carmel, Monterey, and Sand City — which means custom manicures, pedicures and other grooming treatments are what sustain his whole family.

Yet, one year ago, Le and his family were required to shutter their salons, as the world was told to shelter in place.

“One day, we were working, and the next day, we were closed,” said Le, whose wife, Hanni Luu, works with him. “I thought about my staff of nine people and my family, and my professional and personal responsibilities. I knew there was nothing we could do but wait and see what would happen.”

Hanni Luu and Minh Le

In the beginning, the shelter-in-place order was for two weeks. No one imagined it would extend to three months.

During the closure, some clients cut their fingernails short. Others filed them as they grew, ending, after three months, with a sliver of color framing a natural nail. Some tried to groom their own nails, learning that most home jobs don’t look as neat or last as long as a professional manicure.

Le took the time to update his salon. Imagining his clients would feel more comfortable in a fresh space, he and his brother-in-law Kevin Pham introduced new paint colors beneath a stenciled pattern he applied, himself, and added crown molding to create wainscoting and frame art. He also researched pandemic protocols and transformed the place with hand-built wood frames supporting plexiglass barriers to stand between each station and between client and manicurist.

“We also went online and got all our staff trained through the Barbicide COVID-19 certification course,” said Le, “which was necessary to stay open. Everyone had to study the pandemic protocols and then take an online test. Once we passed the test, we were issued a certificate. It wasn’t just for the salon; it was for every person who works here.”

Each staff member’s certificate is posted on the back wall of the salon.

When his salon reopened in June, Le propped open the door and requested each client use hand sanitizer and have their temperature taken before taking their seat. Everyone wore masks, something salon workers commonly do to avoid inhaling product fumes and nail dust.

The process was clean, it was organized, it was efficient. And it lasted five weeks.

Following pandemic protocols, Top Nails salons transformed with hand-built wood frames supporting Plexiglas barriers to stand between each station and between client and manicurist. (Photo courtesy of Minh Le)

“By the end of July, we were told we could stay open,” said Le, “as long as we worked outside. This enabled us to continue serving customers, but only four at a time instead of our usual eight to 10 customers, inside.”

Every morning, staff moved their manicure stations into the parking places adjacent to the sidewalk outside the salon. To shield clients from parking lot traffic, they erected a canvas lean-to over their workspace. They could accept only cash. And every evening, they dismantled their makeshift outdoor salon and stored it inside.

It actually worked fairly well. But not all clients felt comfortable escaping the shelter of their home or sitting outside for a manicure. Top Nails was in business, but barely.

“Five weeks later, we got the news we could come back inside to care for our customers,” said Le. “Even then, not everybody came back for service. That lasted four weeks, and then we were shut down completely, once again.”

Four weeks later, Gov. Newsom reopened hair and nail salons, with the edict that each continue to follow pandemic protocols, including proper ventilation, sanitizing tools and stations, mask-wearing, hand sanitizer, and social distancing.

“Of course, we have been very concerned for the safety of our customers,” said Le, “but our staff was just as scared of getting COVID. We’ve been very careful on behalf of everyone.”

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A year after the advent of COVID-19, Top Nails is open, but it’s not business as usual. During 2020, a schedule that typically served 30 or more clients a day, dropped to zero for two extended periods. Each time the salon was given the green light to reopen, Le saw client numbers drop by 50%, even lower while his salon served clients outside.

“It’s stressful to close a business and then fluctuate between being open and closed, inside or outside,” said Le. “It’s hard to not have enough income to cover rent and bills and paychecks. Our staff dropped from nine to six — all people with their own responsibilities. But, we’re hanging in there, and we’re happy to be open.”

When Governor Newsom reopened hair and nail salons, he did it with the edict that each continue to follow pandemic protocols, including proper ventilation, sanitizing tools and stations, mask-wearing, hand sanitizer, and social distancing. (Minh Le)

Le feels certain that had he not received government loans, he and his family would not have been able to keep their salons open.

“I think we have survived because of government support,” he said, “and because of our loyal customers who have continued to come when they could. Manicures and pedicures are not just about style; they promote health, as well. They provide a deep clean, remove dead skin cells, help avoid fungal infection, and help keep nails strong and healthy.”

Nail treatments also promote wellbeing through relaxing treatments and the opportunity to feel pampered, says Le. Which can be a really good thing, particularly during a pandemic.


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