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Behind the business: how Tennessee’s first blowout salon pivoted during the pandemic

Leslie Embry, founder and owner of The Blowout Co., opened her first salon in 2012 with the goal of making women feel pampered, confident, and beautiful. Eight years later, the blowout business expanded to four locations across Tennessee and has come to offer much more than just drying and styling hair. “When you come to our salons, we want you to have a luxury experience and walk out with that ‘day made’ feeling.”

We sat down with Embry to walk us through her business story, what has changed over the last eight years, and how they’ve adapted in a COVID world.

How did you get started in the beauty business?

Well to start, I was a high school teacher for 12 years, and I coached soccer, cheerleading, and lacrosse. I didn’t do anything to my hair or makeup. In 2009, the swine flu hit, and I’ll never forget, I was at a birthday party for another teacher, and we received a message from our headmaster stating there was a confirmed case of swine flu at the school, and so the CDC shut our school down for like 10 days. My colleague, whose birthday we were celebrating, had a weekend trip planned to Vegas—but since we now had off of work, she decided to turn her short trip into a weeklong vacation. And the last night she was there, she met the guy she ended up marrying. 

Fast forward a few years later to their wedding in California, and that’s where I had my first blowout. I was out for a run, and there was a cute little sign outside of a salon, and first, God really made me open the door, because I don’t think I get my hair cut even once a year. But I stuck my head in, and I was like, “What do you guys do?” And they said, “We just do blowouts.” And I was like, “What’s a blowout?” and they were like, “Oh, haha, you’re not from here,” to which I explained I was from Nashville, and we didn’t have anything like this. Out of sheer curiosity (and so I could look good for the wedding), I booked an appointment.

I remember I walked into that wedding feeling like I looked so pretty, and I thought to myself, everybody should get to feel like this. If somebody like me, a school teacher, will drop $35—that was the price at the time—then anybody would do it.

On the plane ride home, I told my husband that I was going to open a bar in Nashville because everyone deserves to feel like this. Luckily he was like, “Okay!” The wedding was in September, I told my boss I wasn’t going to come back, and then I signed my [salon] lease in December.

No one could believe what I was doing because it was so “not me”—not only that I was opening a business, but also in the beauty industry because I’m not one that spends a lot of time on that. But I did it, and we started turning a profit pretty quickly, so I opened a second location the following January.

What was it like to grow so quickly?

I probably opened my second one a little too soon, but it really taught me that I have to delegate. I needed to put systems and processes in place because I couldn’t be in both locations at once. And although it was probably a little premature to open a second location, in the long run, it helped me delegate. The first location, I was working as a receptionist every day. I can’t do hair, but I wanted to be there—it was my baby. But if you’re working in your business like that, you’re not working on your business. You’re not making it any better. Eventually when the second one opened, I had to delegate and set up managers. I set up what I should have done from the beginning, and now I have four locations! I was supposed to have five, but because of COVID, we had to delay. 

What has The Blowout Co. been doing to survive during the pandemic?

Nashville was hit by a tornado right before mandatory closures were announced due to COVID. One of my employees lost everything. Then we heard we had to shut down for two weeks, and I remember thinking to myself, how can we possibly survive those two weeks? But it continued, and we were closed for 72 days. Not only were we closed for 72 days, but our mayor still has us only able to operate at 50%. It has not been easy. 

One of my Nashville locations was almost only tourists, and they just disappeared. When we opened back up, they were gone. I very quickly realized if I wanted that location to stay open, I was going to have to change its business model.

We decided we had to become a full-service salon because there was just not the blowout business we needed to survive. Pre-pandemic, you couldn’t get an appointment for weeks, but we didn’t have events or parties or a reason for someone to come in from out of town and get their hair done. The little traction we had in the summer collapsed in July with the lockdown. We didn’t move into phase three until October 1. The room that used to be my office at the salon is now a spray tan room, and we’re going to start waxing. Adding services is what we have to do.

How did you communicate this huge change with new and existing clients?

It’s kind of hard because you feel like every day, you’re doing a hail mary. Like, hey we’re doing this or doing that. So we wanted to make sure we didn’t overwhelm them, but I think the goal is to communicate. 

There’s really been a lot of word of mouth through our clients who were already coming to us but can now come to us for a color or cut. We do a lot of email marketing with our clients. We’re fortunate enough to have a huge email database.

What do you attribute your quality reputation to?

I always try to put myself in the customer’s shoes, and what I tell my staff, especially when we were just doing blow outs—if somebody is upset, then something else is probably going on in their life, but they’re taking it out on you, and you don’t know what’s going on with them.

You always have to step back and go over the top with customer service because we don’t know what’s going on behind closed doors.

I really try to do things for them that I would want done for me. And we have little things, like if someone’s going to a funeral, we don’t charge them. We don’t advertise this, but if someone is upset, we’re going to try and help them feel good. I’ve lost both my parents. And what if I could have felt beautiful that day when I had to see the entire world—little things that you can do because we are there for their best days, their worst days, weddings, funerals. We get to see our clients more than other salons. Normally when you go to a salon for a regular cut and color, it’s every six weeks. But for us, we have some unlimited memberships, and people are in every other day, so we know everything about them. We watched their children grow up. We ask, “How was your daughter’s date last weekend?” because they had talked to us about that. It’s important that it feels like a family. 

My staff is a true family, and they always know what to do to make clients feel great. I try to be at every interview to see that it’s a good person first because we can train you to do hair, but we can’t train you to be a good person. I have interviewees do my hair which can definitely be nerve wracking—doing the boss’s hair—but I can then see how personable they are. We have really good retention. We haven’t hired a new stylist in about a year because people stay.

What’s your advice to business owners during the pandemic?

Don’t be scared to admit what you don’t know. I am in an industry where I didn’t know anything prior. My girls know more than I do about all this, and so I think it’s important to be humble. My job is to give them a place to do what they love and to make sure that they have clients and a beautiful salon that’s maintained with the supplies they need. If they’re going to do what they love, that’s what they need. I turn to them and never try to act like I don’t have questions. I have to look at everything from the business side, but I trust my staff and let them make mistakes so that they learn and grow. I’ve learned it’s important to work on your business and not in your business because if you can’t go out of town for 10 days, then you don’t have a business, you have a job. You have to build your business so that it can operate without you and so you can spend your time coming up with ideas, like spray tanning! 

Specific to the pandemic, I think business owners have been getting bogged down with sticking strictly to how they started. My business model was to be a blowout bar. I didn’t get into this to become a full-service salon—I got into it to be a blowout bar. But at the same time, there has to be a business in order for those girls to have a job. Don’t be scared to change your services if your business needs that to stay open. Get out of your own head that you have to be in a certain box. If you love your employees the way I love my employees, and they love being there, then you have to be willing and flexible to (and we hate the word) pivot. I’ve heard that word 1000x during the pandemic, but it’s true—you have to get out of your own way and say, if this is going to keep the business open, I’ll start selling hot dogs out of my salon if I need to. In the end, it matters that you employ the people that you love because that’s what fuels me.

If I have to shut down again, I don’t know what will happen. I do know, I’ll be okay. But I worry about my staff, and so my goal is to give them a place to do what they love. It’s hard to think about, but if I have 50 people that have jobs because of me, I have to do what I can to keep the doors open.

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