VaZa Salon: Zamira Cutra and Valbona Tana, Ossining, NY
Scissoring the business was the best way for Zamira Cutra, 27, and Valbona Tana, 26, to start cutting hair on their own terms, with Zamira the Business Director and Val the Artistic Director of VaZa Salon. The sisters opened the 3,000-square foot six-seat salon, with a color table, make up and retail areas, and four shampoo beds in a renovated bank on Ossining’s revitalizing Main Street. Expect chic décor, upbeat conversations with Zamira, Val and six other hand-vetted stylists, and a great haircut. (VaZa specializes in cuts that grow into themselves, meaning you get months of mileage out of one visit.) Staying true to their immigrant roots, they offer niche services including balayage highlights, gray blending, hair extensions and the kind of curly haircuts that makes the trend for super straight hair look passe. Prices start at $43 for men and $70 for women and come with a love-it-or-we’ll–make-it-right guarantee.
A $50,000 small business loan from Community Capital meant the residents of Yorktown and Hartsdale didn’t have to split hairs when renovating the 19th-century shell into a lofty start-up enterprise in Ossining. Zamira oversaw construction during her third pregnancy (she’s mom to Leonardo, 4, Lumira, 2 and Maximillion, 1), using her fluent Albanian to converse with subcontractors. Val taught and facilitated the certification (in curly hair and coloring) of each stylist. Together they made the space as compelling as their before-and-after hairstyling; both make the cut.
How did you get into hair styling?
Val: I’ve always had a passion for hair, and went to trade school in high school. My sister and I always talked about going into business together. We’re close in age, just 13 months apart. I worked at Devachan, a New York City salon specializing in curly hair. The owner, Lauren Massey, who invented Deva Curl products, was my inspiration.
Zamira: Running your own business runs in our family. My Dad is a successful entrepreneur and always told us that we had no limits. (Sergio Acappella is chef and owner of Acappella, a 4-star Italian restaurant in Tribeca and provided food for his daughters’ grand opening.)
How did you get your business off the ground?
Zamira: We worked very hard for years and just saved money. I worked in my father’s restaurant while getting a degree in business. My husband and I lived with my parents so we could save more.
Val: Our interior designer has been my friend since we were 13 years old. I inspired her to be a designer and she inspired me to go into hair styling. I would put red streaks in her hair and trim it up. Together we redid her room, then she redid her closet, then the carpet, then the color. She knew us and what we wanted, which saved time and money.
Zamira: We used the architect who worked on the rest of the bank building, since he knew what renovating this 1870s building entailed. We kept the brick walls and retained the marble columns, which were added in 1908. Our landlord, TD Flats, recommended we go to Community Capital for a small business loan. I had my loan documents ready in a month, and we used the $50,000 loan toward our renovation budget. There was no boiler, no HVAC, no electrical for a commercial space, and we had to level the cement to put down hardwood floors. Most of the contractors I met with were taken aback by how daunting the project was. We went with one who was up for the challenge, who knew that my sister and I were determined to make it happen.
How is your business evolving?
Val: Education is a big part of our philosophy. A client should be able to go to any of our stylists and walk out happy with their hair. So I hold education sessions in the salon, and in the process of teaching, I continue to improve. We also foster certification classes at Devachan for curly hair. As the Artistic Director, I’m on the floor, making sure the other stylists stay up to date with the quality of services—the balayage highlighting and cutting techniques and curly hair treatment that we use.
Zamira: As the Business Director, I do payroll, marketing, HR for 8 employees, and inventory—with Val advising on things like hair coloring products. Val understood the importance of hiring stylists with client followings, but we hired two with almost none. We were confident that we’re going to build a following. We love the Ossining community and felt the town would support talent.
Val: Curly hair is a niche market. Our stylists are also certified in balayage highlighting techniques, hair extensions, men’s cutting, braiding and tinsel applications.
Zamira: We have a blunt menu of services, with prices very clear for add-ons. We have a great referral program, giving 20% off a service for a referral, and a loyalty products program rewarding every dollar spent on our paraben and sulfate-free beauty products. We truly appreciate referrals and we really care about getting clients to make healthy choices for hair care products.
What’s the best advice you got along the way?
Zamira: To be open to change. It helps you as a person and helps as a business owner to make the right decisions. Being open to change allowed us to complete the renovation and open in nine months from start to finish. Trust comes into play big time, too.
Val: My sister and I understand when we have to compromise, and have complete trust in one another to make decisions independently.
Advice you would give?
Zamira: Work on a budget. Really look at what makes sense. A dollar here, a dollar there accumulates. I always ask myself ‘does the business really need that?’ Understanding what you really need to run on a day to day basis is vital. You also need the support of your friends and family.
Why the little black dress(es)?
Zamira: The staff wears all black, every day. When you wear black you make the client the center of attention. We do wear red or pink on Valentine’s Day, and flag tee shirts on July 4th, but the idea is not to be noticed by wearing bright colors. We accessorize ourselves with jewelry, which we also sell.
What did you wish you knew in hindsight?
Zamira: We wouldn’t do one thing differently. Everything is perfect. I love the team we created and I love working with my sister.
Val: I had a plan, a dream list, of the things I wanted the salon to have, like a color table where clients could sit and plug in a laptop or Ipad, shampoo beds, an open space with a lot of light. This is my dream.
When will you feel you’ve “arrived”?
Zamira: We’ve been written up on Westchester Magazine, but I feel that we are successful every day when I walk in the doors. To be able to work with Val and make her dream come true and make mine of owning my own business come true is really amazing.
Zamira: Adding to our retail with a make-up line, and offering make-up sessions. We do weddings, prom and bat-mitzvahs, and want to grow this business. Adding more stylists, who understand the value of education, is definitely key. We also plan to add beauty supplies like brushes and flatirons to our retail offerings. We want to continue to grow, and take care of our employees.
VaZa, 137 Main Street, Ossining, NY 10562, 914.800.9137, www.VaZaSalon.com