MIAMI – When you walk into the Chop Shop, you better know Big Ed's rules:
1. Don't be afraid to do it.
2. Don't be afraid to fail.
3. If you go ahead and try and reinvent the wheel they will respect you for trying.
4. If you build it they will come.
And Big Ed knows of what he speaks. He has built it, and they have come. In droves.
The Chop Shop is a barbershop. Or maybe the Chop Shop is a car shop. Sometimes, it's hard to tell. At first it was just a place to get a cool haircut, until the owners realized they were onto something bigger. It just so happened to coincide with the hobby they loved.
"For many businesses, it is easier to target people from a specific demographic," says the Miami-based small business co-owner Amir Youssef. "Some salons target high-end customers, or others target a particular racial group.
"We, instead, wanted to target people that love a specific thing: cars. For us, it is not where you come from, it is what you love."
When you walk into the Chop Shop, the first thing you hear is a favorite track featuring: Method Man, Redman, the Pharcyde. And this is not background music. It's loud.
Your barber — "Lucky," "Nut" or "Fresh" — offers his hand and says he'll fix you up shortly. So you sit down in a black leather Hunsaker race car seat and catch a little of what's on the overhead flatscreen TV. Or you play some arcade games. Or you just chill on the yellow and black padded bench down the center of the shop and see what's going on.
A garage air gun blasts hair clippings off a finished head of hair. The place is packed.
"We wanted to create something that had an urban look, but that was also really professional," says co-owner Big Ed, who is Amir's brother. "We really hit the nail on the head, as they say."
In addition to the race-car-seat waiting area, diamond plating covers the walls halfway to the ceiling all around the shop. Each barber works from a Craftsman toolbox that stores all the essentials: razors, scissors, electric razors. A car and bike motif completes the design at each station. Tires are propped up throughout the shop. And in the back, serving as the shop's focal point, there is a reconstructed car garage.
And then there's the name: The Chop Shop, a term used for car garages that specialize in stolen parts and repairs. Big Ed says he was driving through the Bronx when he looked up and saw a Chinese restaurant next to a barbershop. The restaurant said "Chop Suey," but the "Suey" lightbulbs were out. The barbershop was next door. That's when it hit him: Chop. Shop.
All Big Ed and Amir had to do after that was move from New Jersey to Miami Beach, along with their friend "Nut" — barber/artist Luis Bredeson.
There is a wall near the entrance of the Chop Shop covered with Polaroid photos of haircuts — zig-zags, words, logos, and tribal symbols buzzed onto their customers' heads. If you can imagine it, the Chop Shop barbers can do it. They say if you can draw it on paper, it is as good as on your head.
A dancer at a Miami club likes stars, and he walks out of the shop with a head full of them — from the nape of the neck to the crown.
Creating the Chop Shop is no simple task, these entrepreneurs say. The scenery has to match the vibe, which has to match the people, which has to match why the customer came in the first place.
One barber hinted at the more difficult strategy: "We are giving people a place where they can just come and get their hair cut and feel like they belong…. Guys here went to Starbucks and came back and have been here three or four hours after getting a cut."
Big Ed is 32 and Amir is 30, but they say their youth has not been an obstacle to success. They're a couple of eccentrics who rode their hobby to profit.
They also take care not to underestimate tried-and-true business concepts. Barber Lucky says of his boss: "He keeps his word. If something is broken, it gets fixed the next day." And the shop uses eye-catching colors, yellow and black in their design, signs and flyers.
Subtle human resources techniques also go a long way. Big Ed shakes his employees' hands both on the way in and on the way out, and he had their names embroidered on their smocks so customers can ask for them by name.
"Everyone is a superstar, so we have to show them a little love," he says.
Barbers are chosen with the help of Nut, who requires a demonstration in the shop and a show of proficiency with scissors, not just an electric razor. "Or else how can you call yourself a barber?" Nut says. "This is not a game."
Since 2001, or, as some suggest, since Shaquille O'Neal joined the Miami Heat — much money has been made and spent in this city, which has become somewhat of a networking capital with DJs, club owners and promoters generating their own economy.
But it hasn't exactly been a sure thing for most newcomers. "We didn't quit." Big Ed says. "Everyone was looking for easy money moving down here, but we just got a job and held onto it."
They learned from the mistakes of a colleague who started his own graphics company, and when the time came, they "did what he didn't do."
As a bouncer at clubs with the longest lines in Miami, Big Ed gradually developed an extensive network of contacts. But he worked long hours to do it, driving two to three hours a night to make $150 to $200 at a distant nightclub.
He and Amir waited to have the means before moving on their dream. "Pay attention to the money coming in and the money going out," Big Ed warns. "If you are going to get a partner, get someone you can really trust."
At the end of the day he feels that this is his calling, which means he never takes failure hard.
"If I can depend on myself…. I am not a lazy dude. I always find a means to get it done," he says.
"I love the people who doubt you." he says. "When they tell me it cannot be done. When they say, 'you're not in a good area... there are no customers in that area,' I love it. It keeps feeding me. They are feeding me fuel."
Enough fuel to franchise? Could be.
"When the timing is right," Big Ed says. "We stand behind our work."