‘Busier than ever’: How a Fort Wayne salon is surviving and thriving during COVID-19

As Indiana re-opens for business during the COVID-19 pandemic, business owners have found themselves navigating challenges that evolve week-by-week, and that’s if they’re lucky.

Across the U.S., COVID-19 has reportedly forced more than 100,000 small businesses to permanently close. One Fort Wayne salon is fortunate to have beat those statistics thanks to creative thinking, high demand, and thorough financial planning.

As one of the few full-time Certified Airbrush Makeup Artists in Fort Wayne, Hope Matchett, is the owner and founder of The Red Stiletto at 6171 Stoney Creek Dr.

Matchett grew the business out of her work as a freelance makeup artist for MAC cosmetics about 10 years ago. Since then, The Red Stiletto has evolved from an on-location hair and makeup team to a full-service, 10-employee salon that provides services for weddings, film/TV, advertisements, photo shoots, and more.

As the largest event hair and makeup styler in the tri-state area, The Red Stiletto was ready to take on 2020 as its “busiest year yet.” However, when all businesses were forced to close for seven weeks due to the stay-at-home order mandated by Gov. Eric Holcomb, things were unable to continue as planned.

Matchett found herself dealing with a trifecta of challenges: Managing her own stress as a small business owner, her team’s stress, and her clients’ stress about rescheduling appointments for long-awaited events.

“We work hard to build real relationships with our clients,” Matchett says. “Seeing them be forced to postpone such a big life event that they were looking forward to for months or even years, in some cases, was a heavy weight to carry for all involved.”

Even so, she knew health and safety had to come first. Her team was able to stay connected with each other during quarantine via Zoom meetings and get creative on social media to make the best of a bad situation. They kept clients’ spirits up by making funny makeover and informative videos for their followers.

“Finding new ways to touch the lives of our guests, and some new guests, via social media gave everyone the boost they needed to keep moving forward in an uncertain time,” Matchett says.

After a seven-week break from hair and makeup appointments, her clients were eager to get back into the salon chair. The long-awaited influx of business is helping Matchett with her annual projections.

“Since we’ve reopened in May, I can honestly say we’ve been busier than ever,” she says. “I actually think we will end up being even busier than initially planned this last half of the year.”

But managing a sudden flood of client appointments is no easy task either. Matchett estimates that within an eight-week period she’s rescheduled more than 43 event appointments and more than 100 salon appointments.

“It became like a giant game of Tetris,” she says.

Another challenge to reopening The Red Stiletto has been fine-tuning its operations. Sanitation has always been “too important” for Matchett’s salon, but taking appointments during a pandemic has required some additional modifications and manual labor for her team. Employees are wearing masks, offering five (instead of two) hand sanitizer stations, and not only disinfecting all of their tools and surfaces between guests (which they already did), but also disinfecting the entire setup, including chairs, mirrors, and touched surfaces.

Through it all, Matchett says she’s learned how dedicated her team is to their work. Most significantly, her business has emerged from the shutdown debt-free. She attributes this to effective financial planning before the pandemic even began.

“While being forced to shut down wasn’t one of our brightest moments, it definitely shed some light that financial preparedness is something I should be really proud of and grateful for,” she says.

Putting her associate’s degree in Business Management to work, Matchett is learning that small business owners have to wear “five hats” at once, so to speak: CEO, CFO, Director of Marketing (DOM), Director of Operations (DOO), and Support Staff.

While managing these roles is a constant juggle, cash flow and marketing are critical to keeping the doors open. To entrepreneurs who may feel defeated during COVID-19, Matchett advises them to keep their financials on priority.

“Financial planning is key,” she says. “Everyone says someday, someday, someday…. Someday is never coming. Someday is right now. Business is just math. You’re either profitable, or you’re not. And if you’re not, you have to find out what’s holding you back from being profitable and change it. You also just can’t think that you are profitable. You either are, or you aren’t. You need to know your monthly numbers all of the time.”

Despite financial preparedness and creative adapting, Matchett feels her small business was largely left to fend for itself when the pandemic hit Indiana. As a salon owner, she didn’t find resources or support to help her navigate these challenging times.

“I really think business owners were failed during this whole thing,” she says. “Hopefully, it was a good learning experience for everyone.”

One way she believes small businesses in Fort Wayne could be better supported in the future is by consumers and local leaders prioritizing shopping small.

“An important part of Fort Wayne, and really the Midwest in general, that could improve the health of all small businesses would be to place much less focus on chain corporations and companies and get back to the roots of what businesses were meant to be in the first place: Family-owned, zero corporate politics, and a place where you work to live and actually enjoy it,” she says.

In her travels, Matchett has been to other cities—Asheville, NC; Siesta Key, FL; and Nantucket, MA—where chains either aren’t allowed or aren’t widely supported. She feels that these cities have healthier climates for small business owners to weather storms.

“The community really sticks together, the businesses thrive, and it’s such a cool and unique atmosphere,” she says.

While the pandemic stirred up many unforeseen changes at The Red Stiletto this year, not all changes are bad, Matchett notes. There are some positive new business opportunities arising, too.

“Stay tuned for a big announcement later this year,” Matchett says.

In the meantime, as for brides and clients who may question going to a salon during COVID-19, Matchett reassures them to take their time, and do what feels right.

“There is no right or wrong way to do things,” she says. “We will be here for you when you are ready and, as always, your comfort and care will be at the front of our mind.”
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