Nailing It Down

What’s behind the Vietnamese takeover of the manicure industry?

By Frederick H. Lowe

Few customers seem to notice the small statue of Buddha near the entrance of Fashion Nails, a salon at 63 E. Madison. Every morning the shop’s Vietnamese owners and employees burn incense, offer the statue a few drops of tea, and pray that it brings lots of customers into the salon that day.

On a Friday morning things are fairly busy. Four manicurists, including owner Khoa Tran’s wife, Julie Vu, are working at white tables, filing and polishing the nails of customers. Two of the employees are wearing white surgical masks, which they say protect them from the fumes of the nail polish and nail-polish remover as well as from dust.

Tran and Vu opened the shop in November 1994. Just over a year later they opened a second one, at 212 S. Clark. In May 1997 they opened a third salon, in Evanston, and they’re now searching the Loop for a fourth location.

According to the trade publication Nails, nail-care businesses took in $6.3 billion in 1997. And Larry Gaynor, head of Nailco Salon Marketplace, a wholesale distributor that keeps statistics on the industry, says that Vietnamese own 30 to 40 percent of those businesses. “They are now a major force in the industry,” says Jim George, president of the World International Nail & Beauty Association in Anaheim.

At one time nail salons provided manicures and pedicures primarily to wealthy and middle-class white women, and appointments were almost always required. The Vietnamese owners have changed that. In the past few years in Chicago they have opened salons in numerous neighborhoods–on the south side as well as the north–offering their services to everyone, including men, teenagers, and minorities. Appointments are encouraged, but walk-ins aren’t turned away. And the prices are cheaper. A manicure at Vietnamese-owned salons averages $12, compared with $20 at Michigan Avenue spas.

George says that after the Vietnam war the federal government paid a Vietnamese woman, whose name he doesn’t remember, to enroll newly arrived Vietnamese refugees in manicure and pedicure schools in California. They didn’t need to speak much English to be able to do the work–or to start their own businesses.

Many of the Vietnamese who have opened salons here used to own and operate shops in Washington, D.C., or cities in North Carolina, Texas, and California, but many of those cities became saturated with salons, which drove down prices. In contrast, Chicago seemed like virgin territory. The number of Vietnamese shops here has exploded in the last five years. Tam Van Nguyen of the Vietnamese Association of Illinois says there are now 300 to 500 Vietnamese-owned nail salons in the Chicago area. That worries Van Vien, owner of Van’s School of Nail Technology, on West Leland. He thinks that within a few years Chicago will have one or two shops on each block in shopping districts, driving down profits here too.

It costs only $60,00 to $100,000 to open a store in a shopping mall, Nguyen says, and investors can recover their investment within a year. A salon on the street costs $20,000 to $40,000, and the owners can recover their investment in a mere six months. Business is so good that there are now three Vietnamese-owned companies in the area that supply equipment–manicure tables, chairs, nail polishes, posters–to the salons.

Christin Mai now has three Elegant Nails salons on the north side. They’re open 10 AM to 8 PM Monday through Saturday and 10 AM to 5 PM on Sunday. “We go all the time,” says Mai, who moved to Chicago from San Diego seven years ago. “If we don’t have customers, then we close early.”

The employees are often willing to work long hours because their families own the salons and they have a stake in the success of the business. When Tran and Vu opened their first Fashion Nails salon, they raised the $15,000 they needed from relatives; many of those relatives now work in one of their shops.

The employees can also make a lot of money–a manicurist can easily earn $500 to $700 a week with tips. That has led to a shortage of Vietnamese workers at other businesses in Chicago’s Vietnamese community. Nguyen says many grocery-store and restaurant owners are now hiring Hispanics because so many Vietnamese want to become manicurists. Sylvie Phan, who’s 24, quit her job as an accountant in Minneapolis, moved to Chicago, and enrolled in Van’s School of Nail Technology. “I wanted to do something for myself,” she says. “I want to become a good manicurist and eventually open my own business.”

Not everyone is happy about the salons. “Most of the customer complaints we receive concern Vietnamese-owned nail salons,” says Vi Nelson, spokesperson for the American Beauty Association, a trade association that represents many of the white-owned salons in the Chicago area. She says a lot of the complaints are about the use of methyl methacrylate for nail extensions, a compound the entire industry once used that’s been linked to skin problems and permanent nail deformities. It’s not illegal to use MMA (except in Ohio), though the FDA has issued warnings about the potential side effects. And Vietnamese salon owners counter that once they learned of its dangers they stopped using it.

The complaints have prompted the Illinois Department of Professional Regulation to start licensing nail salons again, something it stopped doing in the early 1980s, according to department spokesman Tony Sanders. However, it never stopped licensing technicians, requiring them to attend 350 hours of classes and pass a state exam on nail technology.

The service at Fashion Nails is quick and definitely not snobbish, though nail technicians chatting away with each other in Vietnamese bothers Betty Clark, an African-American nurse. “That’s one thing I don’t like about coming here,” she says. “I don’t like them speaking Vietnamese around me. I have no idea what they’re saying.” But she’s quick to add that she appreciates not having to feel discriminated against, as she had in salons where the owners were white. “It’s a big difference,” she says. “The Vietnamese are glad for your business, while the others act as if they’re doing you a favor.”

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Lloyd DeGrane.