Roller-coaster COVID ride follows hair salon launch

Owners sign lease in March, then pandemic shuts down their industry

Happy Birthday Salon founders at work: Karl Brown (front), Katie Johnson (middle) and Tara Chow (far end) |  Chung Chow

After navigating Vancouver’s pricey commercial leasing market for a year and a half, Karl Brown and his business partners were convinced they’d found the perfect location to open their dream salon just north of 15th Avenue on Granville Street.

“We finally signed the lease in March,” said Brown, who was determined to launch his first business after 16 years of styling hair. “And then sort of everything shut down around us, and we found ourselves out of jobs and not really sure what was going to happen with our salon space that we’ve been working towards for so long.”

Brown and business partners Katie Johnston and Tara Chow had been working together in the beauty industry for years by this point. The trio felt the shorthand between them would be enough to ease the stress of operating a business.

The pandemic threw those plans to the wind.

“It was a roller coaster – up and down day to day,” Brown said. “We had to figure it out and learn to roll with the punches.”

The bank assured the entrepreneurs their loan was secure, and the stylists then went back to the landlord to renegotiate terms of the lease.

At the outset of the pandemic, beauty salons were among the first to face restrictions amid concerns over workers and clients being in close contact with each other.

Those restrictions eventually eased as the spring rolled through and by late October, Happy Birthday Salon was able to open its doors to clients, albeit in a world in which physical distancing, temperature checks and personal protective equipment were the new norm.

And while the salon had been built out with six chairs, it’s currently operating at half-capacity with Brown, Johnston and Chow each keeping a chair between them to maintain distance in the workplace before a vaccine is widely distributed.

Happy Birthday’s concrete flooring, light colours and uncluttered esthetic perhaps lend themselves to the pandemic’s spartan reality.

Brown said the response from clients – some of whom required “COVID corrections” following at-home haircuts and dying during the pandemic – has been positive.

“We were looking to create a space that was very inclusive, very inviting, very warm. And it was always our goal to make people feel special and feel good,” he said.

Brown said the last 10 months has instilled the importance of community in the way he and co-founders think about their own business.

They’re now partnering with other local businesses to sell made-in-B.C. items at Happy Birthday, such as Homecoming Candles Inc. products as well as Beaton Linen Ltd. apparel.

The Happy Birthday owners are also selling their own tote bags to customers, with 100% of proceeds going to the I Dream Library charity.

“Obviously when you’re a business owner there’s always sort of that little bit of stress and anxiety in the back of your mind like, ‘Will things work out, will they go OK or won’t they?’” Brown said. 

“But so far, so good. We’re just trying to take it day by day, and not stress about things beyond our control and deal with problems as they arrive … There’s tons of stuff we’d love to do in there, but we also know with it being such an uncertain time we have to sort of make sure we play things a little safe.” •