April 30, 2012 | last updated June 4, 2012 12:07 pm
FOCUS ON BARBERSHOPS

Battle of the business models | Or is classic barbershop offering speed, price better?

PHOTOS/PABLO ROBLES
PHOTOS/PABLO ROBLES
Sebastian Mazzarella says he wants to deliver a classic barbershop experience to his diverse downtown clientele.
Ed Naulucci (right) enjoys a beer with his friend John Cieslewski while waiting to get a shave at Kennedy’s.

For generations of men, the monthly trek to the barber shop has ranged from a simple cost of doing business to an enjoyable diversion while accomplishing a required task. In the supercharged marketing atmosphere of the 21st Century, there are new options that stretch the spectrum. On one polar extreme, we have a four-month-old franchise operation in West Hartford that makes grooming a more frequent routine and adds the atmosphere of a men's club, all for a price. At the other extreme is a new owner trying to convince his clients that he's going to maintain the classic simplicity of his downtown Hartford shop. Together, Kennedy's All-American Barber Club and the Constitution Plaza Barber Shop offer men a clear choice. Which approach is right for you? Take the Hartford Business Journal poll online at HartfordBusiness.com

From the time he clipped his first lock of hair at the age of 14, Sebastian Mazzarella knew that being a barber was his destiny. Now 21, Mazzarella is set to follow in his father's footsteps and purchase his own barbershop — Constitution Plaza Barber Shop in downtown Hartford.

Mazzarella is purchasing the business from 96-year-old owner Sal Frasca. The sale was expected to be completed by the end of April, Mazzarella said.

He reassures long-time customers of Constitution Plaza, which has been in operation downtown since 1962, that they aren't losing their barber to a hair stylist.

"It was the perfect opportunity for myself," Mazzarella said. "I hope to bring the barbershop back to where it used to be, to build it up to be the place to go for a haircut downtown."

Mazzarella's father, also named Sebastian, came to Hartford from Floridia, Sicily, at the age of 13 and opened his first barbershop in Hartford at the age of 22. Today, he operates Perfect Look Salon on Trumbull Street in Hartford. Mazzarella's sister graduated from cosmetology school, as did Mazzarella, so hair and the Mazzarella family definitely fit well together.

"I'm a barber-stylist," Mazzarella said, who pointed out that he is trained to do cuts ranging from the classics like a flattop to the modern faux hawk. "We're not one of those barbershops where we're going to offer you all these [additional services]. You're going to come in, get a good haircut at a good price."

Mazzarella said that he plans on maintaining the "classic" feel of the shop and the services it offers.

"This is an old-school barbershop," he said. "I had a customer come in [one day] who's been coming here for 42 years. This is definitely the classic barbershop."

From its iconic barbershop pole out front, to the six 1962 client chairs, to the black-and-white paint scheme and tiling (Mazzarella recently updated the painting and removed a wall), to the Rat Pack, Frank Sinatra, and Paul Newman pictures on the wall, the shop maintains the feel that so many associate with the traditional barbershop. Even the 1930-era cash register points to history.

Mazzarella does not stray far from the Kinsley Street shop's roots in terms of service, either, offering patrons a $15 haircut, a straight-edge shave, a shampoo, or coloring. And that's about it.

"Now when you go to school, you go to beauty school," he said. "There is no barber school… it's hard to get barber training, like how to use a straight edge. They don't teach that in beauty school. Most people who go to school come out and have a year of experience. Me, I've got seven years of experience [of classic barber training]."

Mazzarella has one other barber on staff, 72-year-old Joe Lisi, who has been with Constitution Plaza for many years, he said, and ironically enough, grew up in Augusta, Sicily, about 20 minutes from Mazzarella's father.

Mazzarella said his goal is to expand its customer base and bring in a younger generation of patrons. Now, the mix includes many long-time customers and downtown business people.

"Being young, I think that gives me an advantage," the 2011 graduate of the Di Capelli School of Cosmetology said. "For me, being in the business means you need to stay up on what's new… you have to be learning.

"What's important to me is the [customer] gets what they want," he added. "They may say they want short, but what's short to one person is not short to another. That's why I'd rather cut it a little longer and then go back to get it the right length."

Mazzarella believes he's the right person to carry on the barber tradition. "Some of the older [customers] are a bit skeptical coming in here with a young kid [cutting their hair]," he said. "But, if you give them a good haircut, and the person likes you, people will come back."

A new breed of barbershops is popping up around the country targeting businessmen seeking the benefits of a private club along with an array of grooming options.

Franchisee stores that operate as clubs, such as a Kennedy's All-American Barber Club that opened about four months ago in Blue Back Square in West Hartford, are part of this new breed, offering more than just a cut and shave to the men of all ages.

Kennedy's, which also has Connecticut locations in Ridgefield, Darien, Greenwich, Westport and Stamford, is an "upscale, award-winning, franchised barbershop — a concept designed to treat gentlemen to an enjoyable grooming experience and provide the grooming products they need to look and feel their best," according to its website.

"It's a family-friendly place," said Marisa Caisse, manager of the West Hartford location. "It's a place where we want men to be able to bring their sons and have a bonding experience."

According to Caisse, Kennedy's specializes in all the basics of any barbershop — classic haircuts, straight edge razor shaves, beard and mustache trimming, wash and hot towels. But the shop goes beyond the basics to include services typically only seen in salons, such as facials, manicures and pedicures, waxing, massages, even shoe-shines.

"Men feel comfortable coming to an all-male barbershop [for a facial] rather than going to a salon," Caisse said. "Almost all of our customers come in multiple times a month."

Because of the frequency of visits — some customers come in twice a week, Caisse said — Kennedy's offers memberships that offer the most value. An entry-level membership, the Basic Gentlemen, starts at $65 per month for unlimited "signature haircuts." Additional memberships rise in price from $110 per month for the Pursuit of Happiness package to the Liberty package, at $195 per month. There is also a Reserved Main & Wall Club package, at $395 per month, which offers access to the "members lounge" for after-hours business and private meetings, as well as member status in the business concierge service and business network. This includes "reserved priority" for special events such as the wine and cigar club, charity poker tournaments, and custom tailoring events.

All the packages include unlimited haircuts. The Pursuit of Happiness package adds monthly straight razor shaves and unlimited haircuts for "young gentlemen" under the age of 13. The Liberty package adds a weekly choice of mini-facial, facial waxing, or "sport" manicure as well as a shoe shine. For teenagers, aged 13 to 17, there is a Young Gentleman package for $30 per month that includes unlimited haircuts.

According to Caisse, the business is not just a barbershop, but rather a chance for men to be part of something larger. The typical client is a businessman, Caisse pointed out, but the demographic is not necessary skewed older.

"We get a lot of guys in the younger crowd, 27 to 35," she said, adding that there is no contract to sign and special discounts available to first responders, military, and town of West Hartford employees.

The West Hartford location, owned by Jerrod Manfro, employs five. It offers a pool table, poker table, free Wi-Fi for members, and a refreshment center in the "members lounge." The lounge is available to all members at any time, regardless of whether they are receiving services that day or not.

"It's a relaxing time," said Caisse. "We have men who come in and do business here. They'll come with a client, do business [and get a haircut or shave as part of the experience]. Members can bring their laptops and use the free Wi-Fi. We have members who come here and do their work rather than going to the office."

Members can also bring friends along, she said, adding to the experience.

But with all the added services and experiences, Caisse said Kennedy's remains a barbershop at its core. "We consider ourselves a traditional barbershop because we do the straight razor shave, and that's a big deal to people."

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