Boston-Based MiniLuxe Aims To Be 'Starbucks' Of Nail Salons

Boston-Based MiniLuxe Aims To Be 'Starbucks' Of Nail Salons

1:30am May 22, 2015

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We'll report next on a chain of nail salons that says it's trying to do business differently. It's a company based in Boston, and its story comes to us just as people are paying much more attention than normal to manicures. A New York Times story on nightmarish working conditions prompted New York's governor to demand changes. It's in this moment that the company called MiniLuxe is expanding with the goal of becoming the nation's biggest nail chain. Asma Khalid reports from member station WBUR in Boston.

ASMA KHALID, BYLINE: The story of MiniLuxe began when the boss at a local venture capital firm called Cue Ball gave his guys a challenge - find a fragmented industry to transform into the next Starbucks. One of the partners, John Hamel, noticed an opportunity.

JOHN HAMEL: One day, I was driving down the street in my hometown. And I looked to the left, and I saw a nail salon. I looked to the right, saw another nail salon. I did that about seven times in a row. And a light bulb went off, and I said, nail salons.

KHALID: Keep in mind, Hamel had never stepped foot inside a nail salon.

HAMEL: I remember walking in the first time and the smell that hit me.

KHALID: The firm realized the big problem was the lack of hygiene. And so MiniLuxe was born with a mission to be clean. The foot baths, for example, don't have jets because they could breed bacteria.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: It's all about high temperatures, high pressurization that allows...

KHALID: And every store has a clean lab where the tools are sterilized with hospital-grade equipment. The company also prides itself on paying people at or above minimum wage plus tips. Employees get paid time off, health benefits and a profit-sharing plan.

VIVAN ONG: I started off at MiniLuxe as a part-time nail technician while I was in college.

KHALID: Vivan Ong comes from a family of nail stylists. All seven of her aunts work in salons. But Ong says she does not want to go back to one of those corner shops.

ONG: I can't (laughter). I just feel like there's no work-life balance. People in this industry, I would say, work six or seven days a week, open to close. That's not the lifestyle that I want.

KHALID: She says MiniLuxe offers a safer environment - no artificial nails and no fumes. Industry research suggests customers want toxic-free options, and MiniLuxe is a salon that prides itself on using polishes with fewer toxins and polish removers that are diluted with non-acetone mixes. But Britanny Carter, an analyst with the research group IBISWord, is skeptical the company can become the next Starbucks.

BRITANNY CARTER: It's very easy for Starbucks to buy the same coffee beans, generate the same recipe and ensure consistency across all its locations. It is much harder for a nail salon to ensure that every technician is providing superior service across all their locations.

KHALID: And along Boston's chic shopping strip, women talk about the quality of service as the main reason they visit a certain salon. Molly Trisler is a 27-year-old grad student with coral nail polish on her fingers. I ask her how much she would pay for a pedicure.

MOLLY TRISLER: I'd say the highest would be, like, 30 for me.

KHALID: MiniLuxe charges $39. Trisler says she could consider that because she is concerned about the technicians' well-being.

TRISLER: 'Cause, I mean, you tip them. I don't know how many tips they would get in a day. I don't know what - they're, like, hourly wage or if they get a salary, so that'd be good to know that they were getting a good wage.

KHALID: The founders of MiniLuxe think there's demand for conscious consumers looking for a socially responsible mani-pedi. The company raised over $20 million in venture capital last fall, and it's opening a tenth location later this month with plans to double the total number of MiniLuxe salons within the year. For NPR News, I'm Asma Khalid in Boston. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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