CARMEL – Minh Le remembers seeing clients gather in her reception area, sit down, choose a hard candy, leaf through a magazine, discuss. The wait was friendly inside his nail salon, Top Nails, founded by his father Charlie Le in 1991, and passed down to him 10 years later. The Le family actually own three salons on the peninsula – in Carmel, Monterey, and Sand City – which means personalized manicures, pedicures, and other grooming services are what keeps his whole family going.
Yet a year ago, Le and his family were forced to close their living rooms because the world was being 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 team of nine and my family, as well as my professional and personal responsibilities. I knew there was nothing we could do but wait and see what was going to happen.
Initially, the shelter-in-place order was for two weeks. No one imagined it would extend to three months.
When closing, some customers cut their nails short. Others deposited them as they grew, ending, after three months, with a burst of color framing a natural nail. Some have tried grooming themselves, learning that most home jobs don’t look as polished or last as long as a professional manicure.
Le took the time to update his living room. Imagining that his clients would feel more comfortable in a new space, he and his brother-in-law Kevin Pham introduced new paint colors under a stenciled pattern he applied himself and added moldings for create paneling and frames. He also studied pandemic protocols and transformed the venue with handcrafted wooden frames supporting plexiglass barriers to stand between each station and between the client and the manicurist.
“We also went online and trained all of our staff through the Barbicide COVID-19 certification course,” Le said, “which was necessary to stay open. Everyone had to study pandemic protocols and then take an online test. Once we passed the test, we received a certificate. It wasn’t just for the living room; it was for everyone who works here.
Each staff member’s certificate is displayed on the back wall of the salon.
When her salon reopened in June, Le opened the door and instructed each customer to use hand sanitizer and have their temperature taken before taking a seat. Everyone wore masks, which salon workers typically do to avoid inhaling product fumes and nail dust.
The process was clean, organized, efficient. And it lasted five weeks.
“At the end of July, we were told we could stay open,” Le said, “as long as we were working outside. This has allowed us to continue serving our customers, but only four at a time instead of our usual eight to ten customers inside. “
Every morning, the staff moved their manicure stations to the parking lots adjacent to the sidewalk outside the salon. To protect customers from traffic in the car parks, they have erected a shed canvas above their workspace. They could only accept cash. And every night, they took down their makeshift outdoor living room and put it inside.
It worked pretty 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 learned we could come back inside to take care of our clients,” Le said. “Even then, not everyone came back for the service. It went on for four weeks and then we were completely shut down once again.
Four weeks later, Governor Newsom reopened the hair and nail salons, with the order that each continue to follow pandemic protocols, including adequate ventilation, disinfection tools and stations, wearing of masks, hand sanitizer and social distancing.
“Of course, we were very concerned about the safety of our customers,” Le said, “but our staff were equally afraid of being COVID. We have been very careful on behalf of everyone. “
A year after the advent of COVID-19, Top Nails is open, but it’s not business as usual. In 2020, a schedule that typically served 30 or more clients per day fell to zero for two extended periods. Every time the salon was given the green light to reopen, Le saw customer numbers drop by 50%, let alone as his salon served customers outside.
“It’s stressful to close a business and then fluctuate between open and close, inside or out,” Le said. “It’s hard not to have enough income to cover rent, bills and paychecks. Our staff has gone from nine to six – all with their own responsibilities. But we hang in there and we’re happy to be open.
Le is convinced that if he had not received government loans, he and his family would not have been able to keep their living rooms open.
“I think we survived because of government support,” he said, “and thanks to our loyal customers who kept coming when they could. Manicures and pedicures aren’t just about style; they also promote health. They provide a deep clean, remove dead skin cells, help prevent fungal infections, and help keep nails strong and healthy. “
Nail care also promotes well-being through relaxing treatments and the ability to feel pampered, Le says. Which can be a really good thing, especially during a pandemic.