Vietnamese Nail Businesses Prosper in Florida

March 16, 2006

Vietnamese Nail Businesses Prosper in Florida


Nguoi Viet, News Report, Dzung Do, Translated by Van Dang, Mar 15, 2006

FLORIDA – A special point about Ft. Lauderdale in particular and Southern Florida in general was that the weather was warm like summer, although it was winter. It was the reason why many tourists came to the Southern Florida to enjoy summer weather and keep away from winter from mountainous states.

These tourists were called “snowbirds.” Besides, most of the tourists were seniors, or retired, or very rich, (some people had a house in cold region and another house in South Florida) and couldn’t suffer the cold weather.

During the time to be “snowbirds” in South Florida, these tourists not only lived and enjoyed beautiful beaches with clear water, but also beautified themselves. One of the things to make one beautiful was nail, especially among the females.

It was the time that nail salons in the region were busiest.

I flew in from California and called Macollvie Jean-Francois of The Sun-Sentinel. We both got in a car and drove to visit a nail salon that Macollvie had made an appointment before. It was the First Nails in the neighboring Dania Beach city. The owner of the nail salon was a young Vietnamese lady named Brenda. Brenda is an eldest in a family of four sisters. Currently, each sister owns a nail salon. First Nails locates in a luxury business center with different stores of various services. The business center is belonging to Publix Super Markets.

Publix Super Markets has a chain stores, having its headquarter in Lakeland, a city in the center of the State of Florida. Publix Super Markets was established 75 years ago and is seen almost everywhere in 5 states: Alabama, Florida, Georgia, South Carolina and Tennessee with nearly 900 supermarkets and 135,000 employees. Gross income of 2004 of Publix was almost 19 billion dollars and Publix is currently a strong competitor to Wal-Mart.

Like any other business center, Publix never allows two stores selling the same products or providing the same services in their center. With a large supermarket system, Publix occupies a large part in good business area, normally at the big intersection, in the five above states and is the place that customers who buy and need a service usually go. Therefore, if you are able to open a nail salon in Publix Business area, it is already a commercial success.

However, it is not easy to open a nail salon in Publix Super Markets. Mr. Kevin Nguyen, owner of Nail Jazz, in Estero city, said: “Publix almost didn’t rent a single space to a nail salon owner. They usually allowed big nail chains that had many salons, such as Lee Nails or Regal Nails, to rent a space because these chains have good credit. If you want to have nail salon in Publix Business Center, you should go through these “Labour Agents”, it means you have to pay them some money to buy back their business.”

Returning to First Nails, we were warmly welcomed by the owner, although she was busy doing a full set for one of her “favorite” clients. We observed that she was doing and talking with the client at the same time, she also assigned technicians, and she also had an earphone connected to a landline to answer incoming calls from clients. Brenda is competent in both English and Vietnamese.

Brenda has totally 6 technicians in her salon, in addition to herself and her 16 year-old daughter, who only comes to help her mother 2 day-weekend. There are altogether eight manicure tables and four pedicure spas. Brenda said that in order to practice nail in Florida, a nail technician has to get the state certificate. If the technician was trained in another state, he/she needs to enroll in additional 250 hours, pay $12 dollars and must pass an exam of the state to gain the certificate. Besides, the certificate holders have to extend their certificate every year, and have to pay $35 dollars each time.

About her story of being the owner of First Nails, Brenda said: “I came here by boat, and resided in United States for 20 years now. At arrival, I lived in Richmond, VA, and get my hairdresser certificate there. Sometime later, I moved to Denver, CO, and convert the hairdresser certificate to a nail certificate. Having been there for a while, I couldn’t stand the cold weather, especially in winter. One day, my younger sister, Lisa, visited me and invited me to Florida on a visit. When arriving in Ft. Lauderdale, I felt such a warm weather and liked it. Therefore, I arranged to move to Florida. I continued working as a nail technician and saved some money. Then, I bought back Fancy Nails in Lauderdale Lakes and worked with Lisa there. Eight years after that, I transferred the salon to Lisa who would take care of the business, and bought First Nails salon two years ago. The rent for First Nails is $2,500 dollars per month.”

While we were visiting First Nails, all technicians had their own clients, including Brenda, and at least 4 other clients were waiting. All of the clients were Caucasian. The salon was in a very busy atmosphere. However, Brenda told us: “Because today is weekend, so there are many clients. In this business, one day is different from another. However, on the average, we can live on it. In addition, with such weather in Florida, people can work in nail business year round.”

But Brenda also added: “Some recent years, it is a little bit difficult because many people are opening nail salons. Vietnamese owns 70% nail salons in this area. Some salons lower their prices. Besides, salons serving black American have low prices that drive the prices in the whole area lower. Last Hurricane Wilma also forced me to close my salon for a few days because of power outrage in the whole city; it has affected my income a little.”

However, when being asked whether First Nails lowered the price like others to keep the clientele, Brenda said: “No, we retained the same prices since our opening. The way to keep clientele of First Nails is not by cheap prices, but the way of service, to use good chemicals, and the cleanness of the salon. Besides, we have some special clients, who know us for a long time. These clients are usually very fastidious, but we tried the best of our ability to please them and keep them with us. Normally, I take these clients myself, because I know for sure what they want. Moreover, I am the owner, so I must please the clients. Technicians only work for the money, the salon is not theirs, so they don’t have to worry much.”

However, it is not easy at all to assign and to find technicians. Brenda said: “I must treat my technicians very well, otherwise, they will go away. Nail technicians in this area have high value. Sometimes, I have to give up my own clients to the technicians so that they can earn more for a living. We take turn to work with clients, unless some special clients who request me to serve them personally.”

The owner of First Nails added: “You can see there, I am working as a technician and at the same time, watching out to see if technicians have finished with clients. If one of them is almost finishing with a client, I must have another client ready for her. Sometimes, clients are not pleased, and complain, I must try to say something to please the clients without disappointing my technicians. Once the clients left, I would then truly talk to the technicians.”

The special point at First Nails was that we did not see male technicians. Explaining for this, Brenda said: “It is the Caucasian location here, it is uncomfortable for men, especially to do pedicure when the ladies and misses are wearing short skirts. The same to foot massage. Clients who want a pedicure like only female technicians. If we hire a male technician for only manicure, we waste one table. Moreover, in the tourism area, the profit is mainly in pedicure, because clients usually wear slippers, they want to show off their feet. Therefore, pedicure made more profit. And, it is better to hire female technicians.”

Chemicals used in the salon are also an important issue to keep the clients with us. Brenda told us: “I use only brand name chemicals, the good one, in the salons. Clients here are very well aware, they know what is good and what is not. We can’t fake them. Moreover, if we use poor quality products, there will be reaction on the skin or on the nail of the clients. When they know, they will not come again.”

Cleanness of the salon is not a less important factor. Brenda said: “I hire a janitor, who comes to clean by the end of the day. In fact, the owner and technicians can do this, but by the end of the day, we are all tired, can’t do much and may not clean it thoroughly. I’d rather spend a little more money, but it is more effective. I also prohibit technicians to eat in the salon. We eat only in the dinning room at the back. Besides, my salon rarely has children because the majority of clients are senior, or rich, they have few children or rarely take their children along. Therefore, when clients see a clean salon, not messy, they step in right away.”

To verify what the owner told me, I walked up to the end of the salon. On the left side is a clean and newly looked sink, with a mirror above on the wall. Besides, I also saw a fake flowers vase that looks so real, and made the area clean and beautiful. I saw a client there, Lorrick Hayward, who lives in Hollywood City, just finished washing her hands and was cleaning up the sink! I asked why. Ms. Hayward told me: “Seeing such a clean sink, after using it, I clean it right away. I don’t want to make it dirty!”

Clients come to First Nails also because of other reasons. A “favorite” client of the salon, Tara Tuttle, resident of Dania Beach city, said: “For me, First Nails is very convenient, I can come at any time. I like this salon and am ready to wait three hours to get my nails done. Even First Nails move to other location in the area, I will also come. Whenever I have problems with my nails, I only need to call Brenda and I have never been refused. I also recommended some friends here, too.”

About the language issue, Ms. Hayward had a rather generous opinion: “If technicians can’t speak English, it is really not a problem, I will find a way to make them understand me. For me, better service is more important. But I would prefer if they had both, good service and English. If they speak Vietnamese in front of me, look at me and laugh with each other, then I think may be they are talking about me. I will feel very uncomfortable!”

Some people think that the Vietnamese are controlling nail business in the United States. In a country that has lots of opportunities and the economic is considered to be important in human’s life, it is easy to understand. Vietnamese know their strong points, together with their ability and hard-working nature, they chose a business that only few other ethnicities can do.

Macy Moore, a client of First Nails who currently lives in Hollywood, does not believe: “I think that Vietnamese have a secret about nail business. I have learned to be a nail technician too, and I can see that what they teach at school is different from what they do in reality.”

But Tuttle thought that: “Caucasian Americans can’t be technicians like a Vietnamese because they are lazy, because they can’t learn to do nail and because they have no patient with the drawings on the nails.”

A client whose name was not revealed objected: “I don’t think that Vietnamese govern the nail business. But if they do, it does not matter, because the American don’t want to compete. Each has their own opportunities.”

Leaving First Nails, we came to visit Fancy Nails, located in Lauderdale Lakes city, owned by Lisa, younger sister of Brenda. Like we have mentioned above, Brenda had opened this salon before, then she sold it to her younger sister.

Fancy Nails is totally different from First Nails. Clients here are mostly colored people and prices are cheaper. There are both male and female technicians in Fancy Nails. Fancy Nails is located in an average business center, not as upscale as Publix’s. Geographically, Fancy Nails is more inland, not like First Nails that locates near the beach. This demonstrated that, the location of the salons also let us know who are the clientele of the salon.

When we arrived, there were four colored clients sitting on pedicure spas. Among four pedicure technicians at the time, three were male. One of the three was Mr. Van Nguyen, 43 years old, who came from California to work here just a week ago. Mr. Van was a teacher of a primary school in Tra Vinh province and was Lisa’s third grade teacher. He had tried to go overseas by boat and lived in Galang Island Camp, Indonesia, for 5 years. After being returned to Vietnam, he was not allowed by the government to practice teaching anymore. To earn a living, he had to work everyday in the field. More than a year ago, he was sponsored by his brother to come to the United States and work as a worker in a production chain for an electronic company in California. After being laid off because the company had no more jobs, he has enrolled in a nail class in the ABC Beauty School in Westminster, California. While waiting for a new job, Lisa invited him to Florida visiting and invited him to work at Fancy Nails.

Being asked whether life in Florida is different from life in California or not, Mr. Van said: “There are a lot more fun to be in California. We can eat Vietnamese food anytime. Moreover, my parents are living there. I don’t plan to work for long in nail business. I also don’t plan to live in Florida for long. I did not even bring lots of clothes with me on this trip.”

However, Mr. Van told me: “It is fun to work in nail business, we meet and know many people, to learn how to speak English and serve clients. Especially, I feel very happy when clients come back and look for me to do their nails.”

Compared with his past life in Vietnam, Mr. Van said: “Here, we have our freedom, and it is easy to find a job. Lisa helps me a lot. Compared with the life in Vietnam, working in the field under the rain or the sun, life is much better here. The only thing is breathing chemicals, and sometimes, it is a concern. But anyone has to work to live. Whatever you do, you have to like it to do it.”

Another technician, Thach Pham, whose American name is Jason, 30 years old, has worked for Fancy Nails for 3 years. He told us about how he came in nail business as follows: “After leaving Vietnam, I arrived in Hawaii and lived there for five years. I came to Florida with my wife, Christine, and my seven-year-old daughter, Daniel, four years ago. I lived and worked in nail business for an older sister in Miami. At that time, I only worked part time and went to school for my GED (equivalent to high-school for adult). I have worked for Taco Bell’s, Mac Donald’s and dealing cards in the casino.”

Mr. Thach continued: “I worked in every possible job to pay for the expenses of the family. However, I don’t feel stable, I did not have a clear profession. By chance, three years ago I read an ad that Fancy Nails needed some technicians, and then I contacted them and was employed. Currently, my wage is only 8,50 dollars an hour plus tips. In total, I earn about 100 dollars a day. It is less compared with what I earned when I was working as a card dealer, but I feel comfortable now, and I can live on it.”

Mr. Thach added: “I am saving money and hope that one day, I will be the owner of a liquor store, or a gas station or a restaurant. At that time, my life will be better.”

Afternoon the next day, I drove by myself to Ft. Myers, the fourth biggest city in the Western Coast of Florida. Like many other coastal cities of Florida, Ft. Myers is a tourist city. Besides, neighboring to Ft. Myers are many tourist points and famous beaches: Captiva Island, Sanibel Island, Bonita Beach, Vanderbilt Beach.

The first person I met was Ms. Van Phung, who was the owner of Little Saigon Market and a real estate broker of the areas. Compared with Vietnamese markets in Southern California, Little Saigon Market is very small, only about 1,000 square feet. But it is the only market of Vietnamese in Ft. Myers. According to Ms. Van Phung, there are totally about 1,000 Vietnamese living in Ft. Myers and most of them are in nail business.

Ms. Van told us: “I came to America in 1995 and lived in Concord, CA for about five years. I went to work like everyone else. To 2000, it started to be difficult to work in California, my family and I moved to Ft. Myers to try. I noticed that Vietnamese here had to come up to Tampa to buy Vietnamese food. I, therefore, opened this market so that our people don’t have to go far.”

About the business of the supermarket, Ms. Van said: “Most customers are known in the local. They come mostly at weekend or holidays. There are only few coming on weekdays, because everyone goes to work. Therefore, I have another job as a real estate broker to make more money.”

After driving for a while I saw another Publix Super Markets in Estero, a small city next to Ft. Myers. I stopped by and saw Nail Jazz, which was spacious and pretty.

I was astonished when stepping into the salon and saw about ten manicure tables. At the end of the salon, there was a row of five modern and newly looked pedicure-spas. The owner of the salon was a young man, about 30 years old. He revealed that a pedicure-spa cost about $3,000 dollars. Beside the hot and cold water washing system for the feet, the chair is adjustable up and down, backwards or forwards, and is covered by a type of expensive leather. In addition, the chair has a massage system controlled by many buttons attached to another system on the side of the chair. I must admit that, when I tried that chair and pushed these buttons, I did not want to leave it. It is so comfy!

Mr. Kevin Nguyen, the owner of the salon, revealed: “Nail salons here are competing mostly in pedicure, because pedicure makes better money, is faster and easier job than the manicure. Therefore, salons that have “luxury” pedicure spas will attract clients, especially senior clients who like sitting in a chair that has massaging system.”

Ms. Joan Johnston, 72 years old, a client of the salon for three years now, said: “I feel very comfortable when sitting on this type of chair. I usually read magazine and sometimes, when I feel so “comfy” that I fall asleep on the chair. Once I am done, the technician does not mind to wake me up.”

At the moment, I counted about seven technicians and 10 clients in the salon. Not many clients, but the number of clients in and out was very steady. The special thing here was that many clients were senior and but many others were very young, about eighteen or twenty years old. According to Mr. Kevin Nguyen: “Young clients are students from the close by Florida Gulf Coast University. They don’t have income or don’t have high income, but we have special prices for them to promote the business, at the same time, we serve them, because if we don’t serve them, only rich people can come to our salon.”

I looked on the door and saw a pretty big board: “Yes, we have discount prices for students.”

The next day, Macollvie and I continued our working trip. This time, we chose a city in the North of Ft. Lauderdale, Delray Beach City. We again came into another Publix Super Markets. We chose Nail Fever, owned by a Vietnamese lady named Dung.

It was a most beautiful nail salon and best location that we have seen during this trip. Nail Fever is located at the corner of the street in the business center, the side and the front are made of glass, and therefore it is very visible for clients.

When we came in, the salon had no empty seat. All the five pedicure spas and eight manicure tables were occupied. Ms. Dung, was working on one of the clients said: “I have a salon in Atlanta, GA, it was a good business before, but recently it becomes more difficult, so I open one more salon here. Most clients here are tourists, not only from other states but also from many other countries as well. However, most of them are coming from cold states.”

Looking at the price list, we noticed that the pedicure price was rather high, 38 dollars, compared with other salon that we had been to. But prices for other services were the same. I raised a question: “So, perhaps technicians like pedicure better because they can make more money?” Ms. Dung told us: “It is true, but we take turn, one will work whenever his/her turn is, including me. We have a board, each person has a different shape magnet bar that sticks on the board, when a client comes, whoever has turn will do the job and switch his/her magnet bar to the end.”

“If it is like that, technicians will work fast to have their turn again” I asked. Ms. Dung responded: “It may happen in other salon, but not here. Here, the price is high, clients are all upscale, and they are very well aware. If we do a fast job, poor quality, they will know immediately. Moreover, before anyone starting to work here, I agreed with them that we must work properly to retain long-term clientele, so clients will come back. If we do the job carelessly, clients will not be back, or if they are back, they will ask for another technician. If it happens, the technician who did a bad job will be sitting and playing (doing nothing). If the situation is like that often, I will fire this technician because he/she occupies the table and does not bring any profit for the salon.”

After leaving Nail Fever, we went directly to a city in the South, Pompano Beach, and we stopped by Elegant Nails, also in another Publix Super Markets. The owner of Elegant Nails was a rather young woman, single, named Rose.

Different from the nail salons we have been to, both owner and technicians of this salon wore white uniform, very professional. However, Elegant Nails was a little smaller and most clients looked more “working class” than clients from other salons. We were not surprised when looking at the price list because the prices here were lower than prices in other salons.

Miss owner was working and welcoming us at the same time. During our conversation, her telephone on the table kept ringing. I noticed a special thing that in the conversations to any clients, she addressed everyone “honey” very lovingly and friendly. Perhaps, this is one of the tricks to keep clients with her? I don’t know. But I must say that it is very sweet the way Rose addressed clients.

Besides being a customer service and a technician herself, Miss Rose was the supervisor and interpreter for the technicians. Different from other salons, most technicians in Elegant Nails did not speak fluent English. Ms. Rose told us: “Most technicians of this salon are new to the business, newly arrived from Vietnam and some of them came to America when they were already seniors. They speak limited English, and I have to help a lot. Sometimes, I must stop my conversation on the telephone to ask what the client wants and tell the technician what the client wants to follow. It is very inconvenient, but it happens often and clients get used to it, and they sympathize with us. The important thing is to do good job, and it is not really a problem with some language difficulties.”

While on the plane to be back in California, I recalled the past working days. Thank you Pacific News Service, Nguoi Viet Daily News, The Sun-Sentinel and the newly acquainted friend, young journalist Macollvie Jean-Francois, who gave me an interesting opportunity to write a report about people from my own country. Especially, people who “beautify the snowbirds” who help me to know many things about a business that many people have only heard of but haven’t known clearly about.

I remember exactly what a client at First Nails told me: “Talking about sushi, we must mention to Japanese, talking about kim chi we can’t not mention Koreans, and talking about nail, people think right away of Vietnamese.”

I had a question for her: “Do you think that you may offend Vietnamese? Nail business is not a honorable profession in the society?”

She answered: “In America, every profession is honorable! If Vietnamese don’t do nail, who will beautify us? It is not true that everyone can do this job. You have to be very skillful and patient to do this! And I think Vietnamese have some secrets in nail business, because they do a more beautiful job than any other ethnicities that I know. Wherever there is a nail salon, there are Vietnamese. Could you show me any American Business Plaza without a Vietnamese nail salon?”

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