By Madison Fisler Lewis
Dec. 9, 2014. Haircut 101 has been a Boone institution for decades, known as one of the best places to get a cut, color or new style downtown. Catering to students, locals and some tourists, the downtown salon has built a solid clientele over the years who have come to expect nothing but the best. But 25 years ago, Haircut 101 was just a dream in the mind of owner John Mena, a creative artist and stylist by way of Florida who fell in love with the High Country charm.
His hair-love-affair began young and partially by accident.
“I had an uncle who was a hairstylist in California,” Mena said. “I went and visited him in the third grade on a trip to Alaska. I was just stunned by all of the beautiful women and the mini skirts and being half Italian and half Puerto Rican, it hit me then that it would be a great business. That was third grade, so that was my thinking then. After I got out of high school, I tinkered around with it, but I pursued a career in commercial art and built furniture with my family. I almost cut my finger off on a table saw one day, and I decided I need a career change. I signed up for cosmetology school after that and have been doing it ever since.”
Mena graduated from cosmetology school in 1984, and went on to work at many salons over the years, along the way starting a family that gave him his wonderful son. But how did he end up in the High Country?
“I traveled a lot after graduation,” Mena said.
“I worked in Myrtle Beach, Daytona Beach, Virginia Beach and West Palm Beach in Florida. I got tired of one place and went to another. I ended up here when I was 29. I came up here with Nelson Garcia, I worked with him as an employee, and we opened up a salon at Tynecastle that lasted for two seasons. The company I worked for had a falling out and they dissolved the partnership, but I stayed here and opened up my own space.”
But the fateful decision to stay in the High Country after years of working in some of the style hot spots would seem crazy to even the most courageous entrepreneurs.
“I didn’t even want to move up here really,” said Mena of his first encounter with Boone. “I figured opening up a salon up here was crazy. I moved up here, met the people, and just fell in love with the area, and the people and the climate. In February of 1988, I came up here for a week to check out the area and I met some fabulous people that I am still friends with today.”
After that pivotal week in 1988, Mena knew that the High Country was where he wanted to be. And so, 25 years ago, he opened up his own salon and began building the legacy that is Haircut 101.
“I opened Haircut 101 25 years ago,” Mena said. “I opened for business Dec. 21, 1989 and I started construction that August. When I opened up this salon I was on my own. I borrowed $40,000 from my grandfather and I opened up a salon in what used to be ‘Who Cut Your Hair.’ I had one assistant back then, and she is still a stylist in Banner Elk today.”
Mena’s roaming days were over and he has remained in the High Country ever since. Though times have changed in the decades since he first started out, the things that Mena loves about his job never have.
“I love the friendship in this community,” Mena said. “People are very friendly, people wave and talk to you. I like using my hands and I like creating. I love being able to make people happy, making them feel good about themselves. Hairstylists are a lot like psychologists, but we make you look good too. Hair is one of the few things that you can change about yourself on a regular basis that isn’t too cost prohibitive. It makes people feel good, it is what you want to portray and present to the world.”
After a few years in his original location, Mena moved his business into its current location on Depot Street.
“We started here in 1996,” Mena said. “At the time, I was looking for a second location and we were outgrowing our current location. I loved being downtown on Depot Street, but I was looking for another location to hire more stylists. Then, this place became available. It used to be a Honda motorcycle shop, and they moved out in the summer of 1996, and we started construction after that. My first day open here was Nov. 1, 1991 and I have gone on to buy this building. Now I own it with some partners.”
The current building has had a few modifications to be sure. Back then, “green technology” was almost unheard of, but Mena took it upon himself to minimize his impact that the salon would have on the environment.
“We wanted to minimize our impact by renovating older buildings, repurposing them was what we called it then,” Mena said. “We put in skylights to decrease the amount of lights we would need. Skylights also make you feel much better, sunlight is always better. We put a Styrofoam roof on it to give us maximum insulation, and today my electric bills are usually only about $250.”
And Mena is continuing his green initiatives to this day.
“We are also putting in a plant-based water filtration system that is going to sit on top of the shampoo bowls and will take shampoo water from there and filter it. The plants will take impurities out of the water used to flush our toilets with before it goes into the town water system. This was done by one of the girls that worked for us who is now teaching as ASU, and this was her thesis project that she got an EPA grant for. This is just one of the things we can incorporate.”
But this success story didn’t come without its share of challenges. Being a small business isn’t easy for anyone, but this salon has survived many bumps in the road.
“The economy is the biggest challenge I think,” Mena sad. “We are very well isolated in Boone because we have a constant influx of money from students. We don’t have an industrial base, we have students and we have tourists and the locals that provide services and goods for them. Our biggest challenge has definitely been the economy. It is better now, but 2008 was one of the worst years we have ever had. The only sure thing you can count on in business is change. You have to change the way you do business, reinvent, reinvest and relaunch from time to time. We are constantly changing and evolving and it is imperative that businesses do that.”
And despite the challenging economy, Haircut 101 has experienced impressively low turnover rates for stylists. Many of the spectacular stylists that currently work at the salon have been working there for years.
“No, we don’t have high turnover here, and I’m happy to say that,” Mena said. “What keeps stylists here, I think, is the education, the ability to work with each other and work as a team together on projects, on problems. Everybody here feels free to communicate with each other on different things, whether it is a color formulation or how we are presenting things. I have a very, very strong and talented group of women that allow me to work with them.”
But clients would agree that there is just something about Haircut 101 that keeps them coming back year after year.
“There are a lot of hair salons out there,” Mena said. “What I try to get across is that I don’t care what anyone else is doing. I want us to be the best that we can be. I want us to be educated and honest with our clientele on what their expectations are and what we can deliver. We are also really good at marketing. You’ve got to keep your name out there, and you also have to give back to the community. We give back with what we can.”
Through the years, Mena and the entire Haircut 101 staff have been dedicated to numerous nonprofit causes and helping the community which has helped the salon grow.
“All of my staff is totally behind anything we can do to help provide services to the needy in our community,” Mena said. “We live in a community that is 57 percent below the poverty line. It is imperative that we all give back. If we all give back just a little bit, we can make a big difference. OASIS is one of the biggest ones that we help. We love to do fundraising events for them. We have a fashion show every year, the next one is scheduled for February, and we will be working with Anna Banana’s to put on a show at The Local. We need to support each other and support small businesses in town because those profits stay in our community. You may save a dollar or two going to a nationwide merchant, but you will have more money staying in our community if you stick with a local business. That is what I love, this community bands together for the common good.”
And as for his success, Mena only counts himself as successful if those around him are as well.
“To me, it is only success if people around you are successful also,” Mena said. “Helping people to create their own success and giving them the tools to buy cars, homes, support their families – that is success to me. You want to give employees the tools to better themselves and create an environment for success for everyone. Haircut 101 is not just me. It is everyone who works here, and who has ever worked here. A lot of my former employees have gone on to open up their own salons, and to me, that is success.”
Haircut 101 is located at 174 S. Depot St. in downtown Boone. For more information, or to make an appointment, call 828-262-3324 or visit www.Haircut101.com.
Photos by Ken Ketchie