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Queens barbershop owners adapt to serve community during COVID-19 pandemic

Luis Concha, co-owner of Well Kept Barbershop in Astoria. (Angélica Acevedo/QNS)

Well Kept Barbershop’s co-owners Luis Concha and Ruben Molina breathed a sigh of relief when they found out they could reopen their Astoria shop, almost three months after COVID-19 hit the city.

The two Queens natives decided to close up their sleek shop, located at 30-11 32nd St., as soon as Mayor Bill de Blasio announced schools would close, indefinitely, starting March 16.

Gov. Andrew Cuomo didn’t mandate barbershops and other businesses to close until March 22 as part of the New York PAUSE program — but Concha, 29, and Molina, 33, are both fathers and husbands.

“I remember telling my guys, ‘If they close the schools, we’re going to close the shop,’ because most of us here are fathers,” Concha recalled. “Obviously coming to work was going to be tough when kids are home from school. And if they close the schools it means it’s gotten out of hand or there’s something to worry about.”

Angélica Acevedo/QNS

 

Concha, who is of Colombian descent, born and raised in Jackson Heights, said they thought the lockdown would only last two weeks anyway.

But as two weeks became months of staying home, doing their part to slow the spread of the virus by keeping the shop closed and taking care of their families, bills began to pile up.

“I was scared,” Concha said, adding that in March they began to apply for several federal, state and city programs to aid small businesses.

Angélica Acevedo/QNS

 

They didn’t qualify for the Paycheck Protection Program, and didn’t hear back from most of their applications, but they were able to secure a small grant from the Small Business Administration (SBA). That grant covered their bills through April and May.

Then came June, and they were back to square one, with no funds to pay that month’s bill as the state remained on lockdown. Luckily, they received another SBA loan in mid-June that allowed them to pay some of those bills, while negotiating with their landlord.

“That loan saved the shop,” Molina said.

Well Kept Barbershop first opened up in 2018, and have since gained a sustainable following thanks to their combination of skilled barbers and top-notch customer service.

On both their Google and GenBook pages, they’ve maintained a five-star rating.

 
 
 
 
 
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Good Morning ☀️🌞 @wellkeptbarbershop we take the health and safety of our staff and clients very seriously. That is why we hired @riosinteriorscorp to properly clean and disinfect the entire barbershop. . . This is a just one step we took in order to reopen safely! Can you spot another step we took in order to ensure a safe reopening ⁉️ . . We’ve also completely renovated the waiting area and parts of the loft area. Can you spot some of the changes⁉️ . . We can’t wait till we can open our doors and provide you all with the #staywellkept service you’ve all grown to love! We miss you guys, and we’ll be back soon! . . #Astoria #astoriapark #astoriaqueens #astoriabarbershop #barbershopconnect #hypebeast #summerstyle #nycsummer #nyc #queensnyc #qgtm #galaxyofqueens #jacksonheights #sunnyside #woodside #londislandcity #staywellkept #wellkeptbarbershop #shopsmallastoria

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Concha and Molina became partners after years of following each other’s work on social media and developing a real life friendship.

While they both take clients, Concha takes care of the administrative aspect of the business and Molina, who is also of Colombian descent and grew up in Jackson Heights, takes care of the shop’s look.

Both are award-winning barbers with substantial followers on Instagram.

“The community has really embraced us,” Concha said, speaking of their clientele and fellow business owners.

Even before they were given the OK from the state to reopen at the end of June, Molina began re-designing their space to comply with social distancing guidelines and procuring personal protective equipment.

When you enter the shop while wearing your mask, Jennifer Gualotuna, Molina’s wife, greets you and asks to take your temperature with a no-contact thermometer. Gualotuna sits at a front desk, which wasn’t there before COVID-19, with hand sanitizer (that smells uncommonly great) and extra masks.

Gualotuna explained that she decided to help out at the shop once they reopened, given that her own family business has been out of work since March.

Jennifer Gualotuna takes a break from working at the front desk to FaceTime her 2-year-old son. (Angélica Acevedo/QNS)

 

“I’m here to support them,” she said. “Right now, nobody has enough, we’re all trying to pay debts and we understand it’s a huge toll.”

On the shop’s second level, plexiglass sheets, with their bow-tie logo on each sheet, separates the barbers’ chairs and stations while they wear their masks and face shields — although Concha admitted the face shield isn’t all that comfortable and has a bit of a glare.

They ensure the barber chair, clippers and other tools are sanitized between each client. They also installed two air purifiers to filter the air all day.

Ruben Molina, co-owner of Well Kept Barbershop in Astoria. (Angélica Acevedo/QNS)

 

The state guidelines require shops to maintain 50 percent capacity, which means instead of having eight barbers like they used to, Well Kept has four barbers a day.

They can’t offer beard grooming or anything related to people’s faces, meaning their earning potential per customer is cut down by $15 to $20.

Regardless, they said the first few weeks were the busiest they’ve ever been, and have kept busy since.

Angélica Acevedo/QNS

 

There have been some clients who don’t want to wear masks, but they comply when the barbers explain they don’t want to get fined.

The state can fine and even shut them down if they don’t comply with COVID-19 guidelines. They’re also all mandated to take COVID tests every two weeks.

But the fear of having to close again if COVID-19 flares up remains.

Concha, who has two kids, recalled having to apply for unemployment, which he received almost seven weeks after he applied in April. Being that they’re self-employed, he received the minimum benefit payment. In addition to that, his wife lost her job after being furloughed.

“I started to tap into my savings,” he said. “And when that stimulus check came in April, it was gone as soon as it did. It wasn’t enough.”

Molina was able to take some house calls by setting up a makeshift station in his backyard in Jackson Heights. Although it was tough, Molina chose to look at the bright side.

“The silver lining was spending time with my son and my family,” Molina said.

Keeping their business alive is their top priority, though, so they’re meticulously following COVID guidelines.

“For us, this isn’t a job. This is what we do. This is our lives,” Concha said. “When you come here, you ground yourself in that station for 10 hours a day, and you know you’re going to see 10 different clients and be in contact with lots of people, but these are the people who make your life go by. People come see you to look good, to feel good.”

Angélica Acevedo/QNS

 

Before the pandemic hit, Concha and Molina always looked for ways to give back to the community. In the past two years, they’ve hosted Christmas toy drives to take to the Variety Boys and Girls Club.

When they first opened, they had a back-to-school special offering kids a free haircut. On their one-year anniversary of opening, they had a celebration with a DJ, food and purchased 50 bookbags with school supplies to give to the kids walking by the shop.

“It was a big event. We had about 10 bags left over and were hoping to do it again this year,” Concha said. “The only thing I’m worried about now is if we can actually do it.”

The business owners are hoping for the best and paying attention to the news every day. In the meantime, loyal clients keep coming back.

Fernando Colato, 22, has been getting his hair cut by Molina since he was 16 years old. He drove all the way from Long Island to get his first hair cut in three months a few weeks after they reopened.

Colato, an essential worker who commutes to Manhattan, recalled a bad hair cut experience in which a barber cut his hair line too far back. He said he left the shop in the middle of the cut and was walking home, trying to fight back tears. But on the way he ran into Molina, who offered to fix him up.

“I look up to him as a man and as a person,” Colato said. “I’m excited to be back. This is like my second home.”

Angélica Acevedo/QNS

This story first appeared on our sister publication qns.com.

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