As soon as new clients walk into Gentlemen Cuts, it’s clear that the locally owned barbershop on Payne Avenue in St. Paul is a perfect reflection of the tight-knit eastside community in which it operates. “One of our barbers is outside right now having a cookout in the parking lot to promote himself and the shop,” said Terrell Smith, the owner of Gentlemen Cuts. “That’s just something that we do.”
There are two primary business models when running a salon: hire a team of employees that you have on a payroll or rent spaces to independent contractors. Terrell chose to bring people in as contractors. “The barbers we have here are seasoned veterans. I’ve been in the game for 17 years. We work with a team of people who are really familiar with the industry,” he explains.
Working with independent contractors rather than employees on a payroll is financially beneficial for Terrell, but it also helps the barbers at Gentlemen Cuts make more money. “As barbers, we’re often paid directly in cash,” he explained. Sometimes, we use apps to take payments by credit card. If they were employees on payroll, we’d have to pay them about $15 an hour. As independent contractors, they can make up to $60 an hour depending on the haircut.”
This system helps barbers market their own business independently while operating within a community that reflects them as individuals and feels authentic. “The independence part plays a big role,” Terrell said. “I’m not their boss, I just provide a space for them. We’re all like family around here.” Terrell’s business partner, Mz. Nita, has known Terrell for almost 20 years, and when she started working with him at Gentlemen Cuts, she immediately felt right at home. “I’ve been doing hair since I was 13, and Terrell asked me to come on board. I came in to see what the business was like, and I’ve been here ever since.”
Gentlemen Cuts clients come for their hair but stay for the sense of community that Terrell and his team have worked so hard to build. Payne Avenue is a bustling street and multicultural hub. “We get clients that don’t even want haircuts, but they stop in just to converse with all of us,” he said. “It’s such a fun time being in the shop — we’re all a little older, so we play R&B music and people love that.” For so many of Terrell’s clients, it’s not just about a haircut: “We are considered therapists, mentors, counselors and leaders in people's lives. When you can’t go to anyone else, you can come talk to your local barber.”
Their commitment to people in their community doesn’t stop with customers that come through their doors. “We just received a contract with the juvenile detention center in Hastings, Minnesota,” Terrell said. “We’re going out to cut hair for kids who made some mistakes to give them some hope. Just because they made a mistake doesn’t mean they shouldn’t get to look good.”
All that community-building over the years didn’t go unnoticed. The Gentlemen Cuts team gained local fame after features in Twin Cities Business magazine and the Pioneer Press. “We’ve had a lot of exposure over the years, and a lot of people come to us asking for special cuts,” Terrel explains. “We’re getting a lot more clients now with the exposure, but I’ve also got people whose hair I’ve been cutting for ten years.” The enduring growth of Gentlemen Cuts is proof that putting community at the center of your business model is as good for the neighborhoods as it is for business.
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