Detroit barber business weathers COVID-19 with community approach

Like most entrepreneurs, Dante Williams has felt the pain of the COVID-19 pandemic. Having weathered the shut downs and socially distanced re-openings of his business, Cutz Lounge The Grooming Shop, in Detroit’s Minock Park, he feels lucky to have survived.

Williams has four barbers working part-time in the usually full eight-chair shop, which he opened in 2015 with a cafe, and plush seating for clients to hang out. Once business return to capacity, he plans to restart their live jazz nights and open mic events, along with some bigger plans for the space. 

“We don’t just cut hair,” says Williams, who never intended Cutz to be a one-stop-shop. His vision was always to create a kind of a gentleman’s club, but even more important: a gathering space and community resource like barber shops used to be.

Williams, who is also president of the Grand River Business Association, sees his role as a “community liaison.” As he says on his website, Cutz is about connecting and partnering with others not only to impact the city but “bridge the gap between the young, old, white, black, the financially-challenged, and those who are well off.”

A licensed instructor, Williams is also a mentor. “My goal was to franchise with barbers who get a three-year apprenticeship through the shop then open their own Cutz with their own personality,” he says. With a decor of jazz photos, salvaged cabinetry and china for an “old but modern feel,” Williams says: “My vibe is jazz. Laid back.”

Cutz makes up just part the the 4,000-square-foot building, a former carpet store, which Williams just purchased on a land contract last month. He designed the space to house other entrepreneurs as an incubator. Now subletting space to a photographer and a graphic designer, he says benefits go both ways. “They pay something but it helps them get on their feet and we share referrals.”

Cutz also has rooms for community gatherings and other events. And he’s planning to build a kitchen so he can host pop-up restaurants “to help chefs get to market.”

Williams, who lives with his wife and five daughters, ages 5 to 19, in Rosedale Park, credits much of his success to the support and training he got through ProsperUS Detroit, a neighborhood based program that helps entrepreneurs get started in local neighborhoods. “They literally helped me write a business plan and gave me financial counseling.” 

They also gave him a $20,000 loan which he used to do the build-out. Though he worked with a number of start up programs in Detroit, he says they were the main catalyst. "They got me to this point where I have ownership.”

His “mentor,” ProsperUs trainer Laura Sigmon, recalls Williams as “unique” — he had a real estate license so was able to negotiate his own lease and was already pulling together capital when they met. What most struck her during the 12 weeks of training was his tenacity . "He actually listened,” says Sigmon. 

It was Sigmon’s suggestion to lease space to local businesses. “It’s a push-pull strategy where you can all feed from one another,” she says. She also encouraged him to create Cutz in his own style. And, for him to be able to charge a higher price for hair cuts, she told him he needed to offer more, like the coffee and tea services: “Make them feel it’s an experience.”

“He’s polished and professional," says Sigmon. "More finessed. He exudes that.”

Williams charges $30 for cut and beard trim, $25 for seniors and $20 for kids. “I’m probably only about $5 to $7 more than most places,” he says. 

It’s worth it to Keishia Burgess, whose husband Marque and son Kaden, 7, are clients of Williams. “He’s very personable with my son,” she says, noting that Kaden just started speech therapy when they met Dante. “He was self-conscious about talking and he’s always talked to Dante. [Dante] is very mindful.”

Meanwhile, Burgess appreciates the amenities, like watching a movie while she waits and having a tidy bathroom. “I can’t believe how clean they keep [it] with all the men there,” she says with a laugh. 

While the worst of COVID-19 seems to be over, it nearly cost Williams his business.

“It hit him hard as it did most retailers," says Sigmon. "But when you get a hair cut it’s especially tough. They are breathing on you.” She told him to “negotiate everything,” from getting a break on loans to paying interest only, and gave him a list of funding sources he could tap. He  managed to secure an $8,000 grant through Tech Town and a federal CARES Act loan. 

One source was a lifeline, he says, referring to a $10,000 grant from Local Initiatives Support Corporation (LISC) that came through during the spring shut down. He had a break paying his monthly rent from March through May 2020, but it was all due by June.

“We’d gotten to a point where money was running out. We had about $500 in the bank,” he says. “We were pretty much scratching the barrel.”

Williams raised some funds on his own, emailing everyone in his database to offer pre-paid hair cuts. “There was a very good response,” he says. “The community stepped up.” He was even able to give his barbers, who were unable to work, as small stipend. 

More recently, he’s given out masks to the community and talks to clients about concerns they have with the vaccine. “There’s a lot mistrust in the community because of what has happened in the past,” says Williams, referring to how African Americans have been taken advantage of over the years by the medical community, citing the ethically unjustified Tuskegee Study, in which Black men were denied promised treatment.

“It’s a big decision,” he says. Meanwhile, he’s willing to help bridge those trust issues. “We would try to at least be a facility to allow people to get vaccinated [...] But people need to be educated. They were taken advantage of at one time because they were not as educated.”

Looking toward spring Williams says his goal is to start hosting community hair cuts. "Something to boost morale," he says. "We also plan on doing kids once they’re back in school.”

Growing up in Inkster, Williams was a school student himself when he started cutting hair around age 11, along with his older brother. They were taught by their father, who along with his 10 brothers, had earned an income working out of their family’s garage.

By high school, Williams and his brother had about 120 clients a week — from neighbors to classmates to teachers — paying $5 a cut. They worked out of their basement. “Because we didn’t have a barber chair, we stacked four lawn chairs on top of each other so kids were high enough.” 

The skill gave him financial independence and he says it kept him out of trouble. “Inkster wasn’t a safe location. We had our run ins with gang members,” he says. “Being a barber helped me stay away from everything else.” 

He recalls a time one of his teachers called his father, after assuming Williams was dealing drugs because of a gold chain he’d bought himself. “My dad got upset with the teacher because he knew I came home to cut hair everyday after school," he says. "It taught me how I could use this as a respectable career moving forward.”

Not that Williams was sure it was his path. After high school he kept up the craft and eventually went to cosmetology school to learn to work with all hair types all the while working at salons and barbershops in Inkster. By the early 2000s, married and starting a family, Williams got his real estate license, thinking that would be a more consistent career. But that was too much to juggle while still cutting hair and raising his kids while his wife, Rachelle, was also working full time. In 2004 he bought Cutz Lounge in Inkster and decided to move it to Detroit and make it "more his own".

Williams found the support in Detroit that was missing in Inkster, he says. “This location is more compassionately different for me. It allows me to give entrepreneurs an opportunity to own their own shop.”

Asked where he sees himself in 10 years, Williams hopes to have a franchise while reaping profits from a prototype he’s been working on for the barber industry the past four years. “It will change how we work,” he says. “It will save us more time and make us more money. I’ve been doing this all my life. So how do I make my job easier?”

As for his legacy, does he see any of his girls getting involved? They’ve shown no interest — so far, he says. “I’m not saying pick up the clippers. My goal is to get them into things that they want to do to keep the business going and growing. We still need accountants, lawyers, those who can manage a place or be a director of franchisees if we start that.”

Either way, it seems Williams is in it for the long haul. “I was so intrigued by the craft, not even understanding it was a craft. It was fun. I was able to kind of be artistic. I fell in love with it,” he says looking back. “I’ve always tried to do other things. It always brings me right back here.”

This is part of a series supported by LISC Detroit that chronicles Detroit small businesses’ journey in response to the COVID-19 pandemic.
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