When a hip upstart was trying to sell people on a pitch, you used to hear things like, “It's not your grandfather's beer,” or “car,” or “razor,” or what have you. But for Jeff Laub, one of the owners of Blind Barber, pulling a page from the past was exactly the right plan.
“I was talking to my grandfather and I told him about my idea for a business, and he said 'Honestly, I loved my barbershop. It was where my buddies hung out, talked about girls, played cards, and drank some beers.' It was honestly like a light bulb moment.”
That seed of an idea became Blind Barber, the hybrid barbershop and speakeasy in the East Village of Manhattan that opened four years ago. Since then, Laub and his partners, Adam Kirsch and Josh Boyd, have expanded into two other shops in Los Angeles and Brooklyn, and have cultivated an exclusive line of grooming products.
Laub had grown up around salons, where his mother worked, and spent time working in them himself.
“I went to NYU and worked in a high-end salon uptown. I knew how to do that work, and it was something I was loosely interested in, but not to the degree it is now.”
The plan was to become a lawyer, he said, and he spent years working at a law firm. But within the first few months he realized it wasn't for him. “It freaked me out. I had been planning on being a lawyer. I was like, 'What am I going to do now?'”
He decided to enroll in cosmetology school at night while continuing at the law firm, because it was a field that he always found himself drawn to.
Once he conceptualized the idea of a combination barbershop and bar, he drew up a business plan, and started looking around for people who could help bring it to life. Having no experience in the worlds of hospitality and nightlife, he figured he'd need someone with that type of expertise to connect both parts of the business. In 2009, a mutual friend introduced him to Kirsch, who had been working at The Box in New York. Kirsch then got Boyd, the owner of a number of restaurants in the city, including Gallery Bar, to come on board. They opened the shop about a year later.
Kirsch hadn't planned to make it his career, either. At the time he was on the track for medical school. But throughout college he kept returning to hospitality.
“Jeff was very persistent and believed in the idea, and we believed in Jeff,” he says. “We knew how to operate a place and get a business running downtown.”
Loosely speaking, the three have broken down oversight of the different aspects of the business in their areas of expertise, but it's evolved somewhat, and the responsibilities blend together.
“It started out conceptually as a bar with a barber shop in front,” Laub says. “Then the barbershop took on its own persona, and became one of the best barbershops around, so then it became a barbershop with a bar behind it.”
“We have our strong suits and we work well together,” Kirsch says. “All these businesses really feed off each other. But even though we have three locations and a product line, with about 150 retail accounts all over the world, we still operate like a small business.”
That means employees who have been with the company for years, who may have started out as bartenders or shop keeps, have taken on more responsibility: “It's not just finding business minds, there's a feeling,” Kirsch says. “There's something special about what we create in the location, and what we present in our online presence.”
That special feeling can probably be best felt between 6 and 9pm, particularly in the East Village and LA locations, (the Brooklyn outpost is a cafe rather than a bar). “There's a sweet spot, when the bar is running, dimly lit, in back, hidden behind a sliding door, or a closet door, and the barber shop is typically in full swing, with people getting haircuts, buddies hanging out, drinking beers,” Laub says. “If someone comes in and needs a haircut, we sit them down in the chair, get them a glass of whiskey from out back, and for 30 minutes you can talk to the barber/therapists about whatever it is that’s troubling you.”
“It's not just about looking good,” Laub continues, “It's about feeling good. A haircut is only part of the transformation process. After the haircut, we casually slide the door open, and you can disappear for rest of the night into good tunes, cocktails, and a bunch of a good people hanging around the bar.”
Laub also acknowledges that salons and bars are usually two completely different animals. “I was coming from a salon background, where everything is scheduled in intervals, which allows you to think a little bit. But I always viewed the salon world as a feel-good business. After noticing Adam and Josh running the space, I realized that was key for the bar as well. You're going to have spilled drinks, broken glasses, and people being unhappy or upset, but the most important thing is to keep people feeling good.”
This comes easily to the co-founder: “I love meeting new people, making friends, and making people happy. There's a little selfish desire behind it, but I love making people feel good. That was the biggest surprise, having never run any business before by myself. It's not brain surgery—just be nice to people, and be proud of what you're putting out there.”
Kirsch says he didn't know how to run a barbershop when they first started, either. “If we didn't know how to handle something, we were always looking to improve, getting feedback from other people. We weren't afraid to make any mistakes. We always wanted to make sure that everyone, when they visited, felt handsome. Our tag line is 'Stay Handsome,' and it embodies feeling confident about yourself, and having a good day.”