Manuel’s hairstyling struggles without Manuel
1333 Dundas St. West, Toronto
1 full-time, 1 part-time
Men of any age
In Toronto’s Little Portugal, Manuel Gomes was a legend.
For 15 years, Gomes ran his walk-in only barbershop — Manuel’s Hairstyling — amongst the Portuguese bakeries and butcher shops that dot Dundas Street West.
On many days, the shop was vibrant with animate Portuguese old-timers and young men arguing about footy scores or debating politics — a lively bunch pulled in by Gomes’ innate ability to wax intellectual and share insight about virtually anything. It was more than a barbershop, it was a clubhouse of sorts.
“There wasn’t a day where he would walk in and have nothing to do,” says Anna Fournier, his daughter and the shop’s current owner.
But last Christmas eve, after a six-year battle with cancer, Gomes died suddenly of a heart attack. That left Fournier without her father, and the barbershop without its barber.
“He left this legacy behind that I have to live up to, and it’s hard,” says Fournier.
In her father’s absence, Fournier, who lives two and a half hours away in Parry Sound, is stuck with a grinding commute to manage the weekly operations of the business — which employs one part-time and one full time female barber — and to make up for the missing set of scissors and straight blades.
Still, without the environment created by her father, Manuel’s has lost 10 per cent of its clientele — some as a result of the lack of male barbers but others, regulars from the Portuguese community, who stopped coming after Manuel died.
Fournier knows she can’t replace her dad’s legacy and doesn’t intend to, but she’s worried if she doesn’t find a male barber with some sort of quirky vibe she’ll lose even more customers.
It was always Gomes’ intention to pass the business down to his daughter. He’d had experience running barbershops and hair salons, owning several in Toronto, Portugal and London since emigrating from Portugal as a young man. This particular shop was a hobby, something to work on until he was ready to retire, says Fournier.
But she had different plans.
“I was almost at the point of signing lease papers for a salon of my own in Parry Sound when I got the call he had cancer,” says Fournier. She wanted to be available while he worked through chemotherapy, so she put her own shop on hold and began to drive to Toronto on weekends to help run the business.
The irony, says Fournier, is that her dad was thinking about retirement shortly before he died.
She admits the past year has been tough, and she’s thought about selling the business, but those remaining regulars remind her of how happy it would make Manuel to know that his daughter has kept the shop going.
“If I sell it, I almost feel like I’m letting him down, but at the same time it’s very difficult doing this back and forth,” says Fournier.
Moving is out of the question because she doesn’t want to uproot her teenaged kids. And she needs to physically be at the store part of the week because the staff is difficult to manage from a distance, and sometime unreliable — not coming in on time or leaving early. So, she stays with her mum in Cambridge and works at Manuel’s from Thursday to Saturday.
But that hasn’t stopped sales from slipping.
Gomes brought in a lot of business: 12 customers on slow days and 25 on a good one. At $15 a haircut, that’s between $180 and $375 in revenue. On a busy Saturday when all three ladies are working, they have 65 customers collectively. A slow weekday might see only five customers.
Walk-ins are put off by the all-female staff, she says.
“I don’t think it matters we have a barber pole in the window and put up signs saying we do hot towel shaves. When they walk by and see three women they kind of give us a double take and walk across the road to another barber,” she says.
Jeff Noble, a certified management consultant who advises entrepreneurs and family businesses on succession planning for BDO’s SuccessCare program, admits Fournier’s human resource challenges are compounded by the fact that Manuel’s is a staple of the neighbourhood.
“The capital and actual business has been transferred but things like social capital — his position in the community and relationships with his customers as well as organizational wisdom — take longer to transition,” he says. “That’s part of the struggle: How does she replicate those things?”
The good news, says Noble, is that Fornier has an understanding of the technical side of the business, and is also intimately involved with how her father ran the shop.
“She has choices. She can find a way to continue the legacy, which is going to carry with it a lot of HR issues, or sell the place,” he says. “And the way it is now, it’d be hard to sell, because there isn’t a guy working in there.”
In the meantime, Fournier hopes to wait it out for the next few years while her kids finish high school, and then she’ll think about setting up a permanent base in Toronto.
She says she’s not specifically looking for a barber who speaks Portuguese, because gentrification is pushing a lot of the older families out of the area and the traditional butchers and bakeries are being replaced with swanky coffee shops and hipster bars.
But Manuel’s needs another, well, Manuel-type character.
“I’d like to hire a male barber because it’s lacking that male presence in there,” says Fournier “You know, that loud arguing about hockey and football scores. We’re kind of missing that.”