It’s been nearly 24 years since twin brothers Damian and Jermaine Johnson launched No Grease, Inc., a hair care and personal care business. Since 1997, they’ve opened a string of barbershops across the Carolinas and Georgia.
On Jan. 10, they debuted their latest shop, Knights of the Razor, at SouthPark Mall. Getting there took a lot of patience as they battled the unknowns of the coronavirus pandemic.
QCity Metro spoke with Damian Johnson following the soft launch about the roller coaster ride of entrepreneurship amid Covid-19.
Answers were edited for brevity and clarity.
Talk about how you got to opening day for the SouthPark location.
We’ve been in a relationship with Simon Property (which owns SouthPark Mall, Concord Mills and Charlotte Premium Outlets) for 16 years. When we saw that there was a vacant space in SouthPark Mall, we inquired about it, and we began to negotiate the possibility of coming in. We acquired the space in late October.
[Note: The location formerly housed The Art of Shaving, a high-end retail store for men’s shaving and skin-care accessories.]
What has it been like opening a new location during the pandemic?
It was a lot of patience. Contractors are not necessarily working on the same type of time that they were before Covid. So you’re dealing with a lot of dates not being met. Materials not being delivered.
They’re short on help because it seems like everybody’s doing contract work all over the city, so there’s a shortage of contractors. That was a problem before Covid and it’s an even bigger problem now that we’re in Covid.
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We did miss a couple of dates. Actually, this project was supposed to have been completed right after Thanksgiving, the first of December. Unfortunately, we did end up missing the Christmas holiday.
The other shops are named No Grease with a nod to the location. Why a different name for this one?
SouthPark is a really prestigious area and market. We had been holding on to this brand for quite some time. We had it in our back pocket; we just didn’t know when we were going to present it or where we were going to present it. We thought SouthPark Mall would be the perfect place to start this brand.
From your perspective, what was the state of the hair care industry once the pandemic hit? What were you seeing from barbershops and salons, particularly the Black-owned ones, throughout the remainder of the year?
It was just a heavy, heavy hit for a lot of, particularly Black, barbershops and salons. Some of us just weren’t prepared for it. We didn’t have the business structure to even benefit from the resources that were out there. A lot of businesses closed.
By far, this is the biggest blow I’ve seen to the industry in my 30 years.
How was 2020 for No Grease? What were some of your highs and lows?
I’ll start with the lows. The low was that we were all in the face of the unknown. Being misinformed and unaware and the whole fear factor of what the pandemic was bringing into our country. The second low was that we were out of work for a little while. Again, we were in the unknown.
The high began when — because of the way that our business is structured — our barbers were able to get some type of aid during the pandemic. That was a good win for us. And then, since the market opened up, we’ve been able to keep all our doors open. We’ve had maybe one incident when a barber tested positive for Covid, but we’ve had no fatalities or anything like that.
We were able to maintain a very positive cash flow, for the most part, during the pandemic. We weren’t at 100% of what we normally do, but we still did pretty well considering all things.
Did you receive any Paycheck Protection Program loans or other government funding?
Yes, we got the PPP loan and the SBA [Small Business Administration] loans.
Can you talk about that experience and going through the process?
It was about getting all the information. We were prepared, from a paperwork standpoint, to get everything that they asked. So, it went pretty smoothly for us.
We ended up getting enough to get us through that rough patch for those two months [from March through May 2020] when we weren’t working at all. A little later, we were able to apply for the SBA loan that maintained us until we got a consistent cash flow that would get us through the year.
There were moments when we had to sit down with our accountants and make sure that everybody was crossing every “T” and dotting every “I.” But once we understood the process, it went smoothly from there.
[Note: Johnson didn’t recall the loan amounts, but a June 2020 story in Charlotte Business Journal reported that No Grease secured a PPP loan in the second round through Bank of America. The loan totaled close to $100,000, according to CBJ.]
A couple of years ago, No Grease launched franchising opportunities. How has that been impacted over the last several months?
Actually, we were able to open up two additional franchise locations. Because of the pandemic, the retail market has had to loosen up on certain things and our franchisees took full advantage of it. We were able to open up a franchise location in Concord, North Carolina, and Columbia, South Carolina.
How many locations do you have now?
We have 10 locations. Six corporate locations and four franchises.
What’s your 2021 outlook? What are you planning?
In 2021, we’re going to try to do, at the very least, five to seven locations — North Carolina, South Carolina and Georgia. We’re looking into the Virginia area.
We’re also working alongside Lucky Spot barbershop. With his [owner Shaun “Lucky” Corbett] growth and our growth, we’re going to try to corner the market.
Both of your brands are two of the more well-known barbering businesses in the Charlotte area. How did the collaboration happen between the two?
Shaun Corbett is a graduate of our barber school, so he’s like a son of No Grease. We’re very proud of what he’s been able to do. It was a natural fit for us to collaborate and work alongside him.
As he’s been expanding into the Walmart market, we’ve been right there by his side, supporting him through that process. We’re going to continue to build on that and try to see how many he can do throughout the country with Walmart locations.