When was the last time you were incensed by something you read? When was the last time you were incensed enough to do something about it? For Jacqueline Fay, that time was when she read the groundbreaking 2015 expose of the nail salon industry in the New York Times.
Like many of us, she had wondered about the proliferation of salons and the almost factory-like feel of many. “You just knew that something was up as you observed the distinctions among the women performing the services. I’d wonder why the same person doing my pedicure wasn’t doing my manicure. Why was it that there seemed to be a dividing line between who could do what. Then the Times piece came out and it all started to make sense.”
A Latina of Cuban heritage, Fay could converse candidly with the women serving her at various salons. Many turned out to be undocumented and they told her disturbing tales about tips being reduced or stolen; about the caste-like system in place where Latinas were allowed to perform only the services considered less desirable (enabling workers higher on the totem pole to do more desirable tasks); about being expected to do all the cleaning as well.
“Another red flag for me was realizing that prices for services, manicures for example, were static. I am a business woman and I know that costs rise over time, yet I paid about $12 for years. Cost of materials and schooling as well as rents increase, so someone had to be taking a hit if the price were to stay the same,” says Fay. “That meant the compensation of women at the lowest level of the ladder was kept low and the conditions of the facilities were subpar. I wondered if these workers were even licensed.”
“We have a tendency to turn a blind eye to social issues like this,” she says. “When a service is cheap, we want it to stay that way, not realizing that someone is being exploited. It’s analogous to wanting inexpensive child care, not considering the effect on the women employed. We think nothing of paying higher prices for artisanal bread, say, but balk at paying a few dollars more for a manicure by a trained professional in a safe environment.”
When the article in the Times came out, Fay, a Rutgers graduate, had just left corporate America after a thriving career as a human resources manager with several pharmaceutical companies. The opportunity to make real change as she considered her next business move galvanized her to open Grit + Polish in October of 2016. Her aim is to provide exceptional service by fairly-compensated and fully licensed technicians, all of whom are documented, in a state-of-the-art environment where air quality, sanitation, and comfort are front and center.
The Hillier-designed salon is proudly located in the heart of the resurgent lower Witherspoon Street neighborhood. Fay chose the space deliberately. “This area is completely rebounding with Avalon Place enticing new residents,” she says. “Shops and eateries are coming in. In tune with this revitalization, I wanted to provide a superior service for women, but not off the backs of other women. My prices reflect the real cost of providing quality service. Some clients have balked at the slightly higher prices. Women have been used to paying next to nothing for a complex service. They do not equate the low cost with a corresponding low wage. They want a clean, excellent experience but don’t factor in that highest quality products and highly trained technicians cost money.”
The chic, unisex salon is sleek with warm wood and subdued tones. The urban vibe is open and crisp. Men coming in would not feel that they were intruding into an exclusively female space. In fact, Fay tells about a 70-year-old client who has been regaling his golfing buddies about the pampering he gets.
Coming in on a cold snowy day, I was greeted by Deborah Salvato, the salon manager, who would be with me for all my services. After settling onto the pedicure bench, a far cry from the bulky massage chairs usually found at spas (chairs that massage the right spots only if you are 5’11”), I gratefully received a hot cup of tea and sank back into the cushions.
The tubs are pipeless, reducing the risk of bacteria buildup in the jets and the entire bench has individual ventilation ports, whisking away fumes and purifying the air quality for clients and staff alike. The manicure stations are also equipped with individual ventilation. The top of the line products are primarily by Essie and the pedicure went far and above the usual assembly line steps.
The regimen was designed by a physical therapist who worked specifically with dancers and who was a dancer herself. The background music was cool jazz and the absence of a TV gave patrons and techs the chance to talk. Because most services are by appointment, no one is under the gun to rush through and move to the next client.
And the cost of my mani/pedi? Only $10 more than I usually pay at a strip mall salon for far less attention and conviviality.
Fay and her husband, Brad, are a real valentine’s story. They met five years ago on E-Harmony and married two years later. Fay, raised in northern New Jersey, graduated from Rutgers and went into HR. Brad, a Colby College graduate with a master’s degree from the University of Connecticut, is an executive with a marketing technology company, Engagement Labs, which measures consumer word of mouth and social media performance for brands. Brad’s two grown children share in the creativity. His son is a graduate of American University who majored in both physics and film. His daughter is finishing up at Ithaca College in music.
After a civil ceremony in Princeton, the Fays had a wedding celebration in Malaga, Spain, on the Costa del Sol. They returned to the Princeton area to settle. “After we married, we both wanted an ‘our’ house and loved historic homes.”
The Fays are more than just urban business pioneers. They are art lovers as well. After their marriage they moved into a 200-year-old house in Griggstown that had previously been owned in the 1980s by the noted sculptor Lawrence Holofcener. They discovered he now lives in Florida with his wife. Holofcener was a famous Broadway lyricist, actor and playwright before becoming an accomplished sculptor. His wife Julia, nee Cornforth, grew up in Princeton. Over the years the couples have become friends.
Holofcener loaned the Fays a bronze model of a sculpture of Einstein at ease on a park bench. This piece is a companion to Holofcener’s famous life-sized bronze sculpture of Roosevelt and Churchill also seated on a park bench. Installed on Bond Street, London, it has reputedly become England’s most visited work of art. The Fays are actively engaged in efforts to have the Einstein piece commissioned for a full-sized installation in Princeton. “We keep the sculpture in the salon as a conversation starter in hopes of building interest,” Fay says.
It takes grit to begin a new business and it takes polish to make it thrive. Fay and her team have both in abundance. This is the new game in town, one that strives to live up to its social promise to its employees and the community.
Grit + Polish, 160 Witherspoon Street. Princeton. 609-924-1549. Manicures and pedicures from $20 to $70. Waxing $12 and up.