Frank Rota, the owner of Ridge Salon and Spa (2585 West 16th Avenue), counts himself among the fortunate ones in his industry. He’s celebrating his 40th year in business in tiptop shape, fresh with a suntan acquired during a recent trip to Hawaii.
In a recent interview in his shop with the Georgia Straight, he explained how tough it is for many to remain working on their feet for that many years. That’s to say nothing of the challenges of high lease rates and taxes for those who own their shops.
“Some barbers basically don’t last 20 years because of knee problems,” Rota revealed. “Usually, it’s the knees and the back that go first. A lot of my colleagues can’t work anymore. Touch wood. I’ve been lucky.”
Rota immigrated from Italy to Vancouver as a young child and started his barbering apprenticeship in 1975. In those years, it took two years to get a licence, and he opened his first shop at West Broadway and Trafalgar in 1977.
Those were the days when long hair was in style. He later opened a shop near the Ridge Theatre, which accounts for the name, before moving to West 16th Avenue near Trafalgar in 1985.
Over the course of his career, he has sometimes given haircuts to members of four generations in the same family. He’s even gone on house calls to seniors’ homes to continue cutting clients’ hair long after they’ve left the immediate neighbourhood.
“Maybe that’s what’s kept me in business for 40 years,” Rota said. “It’s a thank-you. They didn’t have to patronize me. It’s the least I can do.”
That same generous spirit has motivated him to do something extraordinary to celebrate his longevity in business. Until June, Ridge Salon and Spa is collecting money from clients and Rota is throwing in some of his own to buy a machine to help patients at B.C. Children’s Hospital.
“They gave me three options,” he said. “It depends on how much I raise.”
The most expensive piece of equipment is a GE Aisys Carestation anesthesia machine, which costs $90,000. According to a couple of posters hanging in the salon, it “provides critical life support and pain relief to children in treatment”.
Another option is an electric operating-room table, which is priced at $44,219. It allows children to be placed in the best possible position for surgery.
The third is an Olympus video rhinolaryngoscope. It costs $16,717 and “provides a clear diagnostic picture and instant, reliable recording, playback, and storage of clinical images of a child’s ear, nose, throat, and respiratory system”.
It’s not the first time Rota has done something like this. In 2013, he donated the use of a shop for a health fundraiser in which fathers and sons shaved their heads. He recalled that about $15,000 to $20,000 was collected.
So why is he so keen to raise money this year for B.C. Children’s Hospital? He said he’s seen a lot of kids grow up over the years who have benefited from its services.
Then, with a laugh, he added that some of his customers are “really generous”.
Rota’s sense of humour has kept him going through some hard times. He recalled that in the early 1980s it was tough to stay in business during a brutal recession because many people tried to save money by not going to the barber.
As taxes and lease rates rose in later years, he had to make a transition to cutting women’s hair to help pay the bills. One of the secrets to his success has been to give customers what they want.
“I used to go to seminars and they would always say to you, ‘You’re the artists. The customer knows nothing. Give him what he should have.’ I didn’t believe that,” Rota said. “It’s like going to a restaurant and you want your steak well-done. Burnt. And the chef comes up to you and says, ‘Why would you want to ruin this piece of steak?’ It’s because you don’t want blood in your steak!”
He’s passing along this customer-driven philosophy to his son Mike, who works alongside him in the salon. And he’s hoping that Ridge Salon and Spa carries on for another 40 years.
“Get an idea what the customer wants and just do it,” Rota said. “Give the customer exactly what he wants. I don’t have to like the haircut.”