A customer who walks into the Greek-inspired Nail Forum salons in Southern California sees 20 deluxe pedicure thrones arranged in a circle in the largest shop, visually overwhelming the manicure stations. At the three Valencia, Calif.-based salons owned by Quinncie and Ken Do, 70 technicians working at 50 chairs give an estimated 2,000-plus pedicures each week.

In Murrieta, to the south, 12 top-of-the-line pedicure chairs will outnumber nail tables at the new location of the high-end Nail Palace, the third area salon to be opened by Paul Tran.


Designer Young Tran has planned and developed about 75 salons across the nation in the last five years, including the early shops of the Southern California chain Happy Nails. His salons feature an appealing appearance, moderate pricing, and an average of 10 to 12 pedicure thrones per store — and a few with as many as 25.

Across the country, in both nails-only and full-service salons, pedicure offerings are becoming an increasingly important part of overall revenue. In California, Texas, Florida, and the Northeast, nails-only salons are starting to emphasize pedicure services as much or even more than manicures. Spas in department stores, hotels, health clubs and cruise ships are adding or expanding pedicure services. The trend is particularly strong among Asian nails-only salons, in many cases reversing the long-standing image of cramped, cut-rate operations.

Demographics, customer demand, advancing technology, and a new generation of Asian entrepreneurs drive this new trend, which is spreading across the country and abroad.


It Just Feels So-o-o-o Good

Customer demand is driving the pedicure business. Throne manufacturers report double-digit increases in sales over the past three years. At Rancho Cordova-based AmeriSpa LLC, vice-president Jim Casteel said the company’s sales grew 27% in 2003.

“The new salons that are opening are pedicures first, manicures second. Pedicures are no longer an add-on,” Casteel said. This year, orders for 12 or 18 units are common. “I didn’t see this volume in a single order three years ago. Then, people were putting in one for the first time.”

Industry pioneer European Touch Ltd. II also has seen a boom in pedicure chair sales. Three years ago, orders typically ranged from two to four units per location, but now range from four to 10, CEO Connie Weissling says.

Some of the largest orders come from full-service day spas. In Las Vegas, luxury spas at leading hotels are ordering between 12 and 20 top-quality chairs at a time, industry insiders say.

Weissling attributes the increase to the population group that drives so many trends: the baby boomers. And as that group ages, they are paying more attention to their feet and the connection between the feet and overall health.

“They have acquired a taste for pedicures. It’s not just a service to get pretty toes anymore. Now, it’s becoming more of a therapeutic benefit as well as helping to relieve stress,” says Weissling from company headquarters in Milwaukee.

All those years of marketing Father’s Day packages and selling gift certificates is paying off, too. At the Nail Forum, manager Catherine LaBrocca estimates that her male clientele has risen three-fold in three years, to about 30% of the business. “They’re becoming less intimidated,” LaBrocca says. “Just one guy decides, ‘OK, I’ll try it with my girlfriend.’ Then they know our secret. They understand why we come in to get our nails done.”

New chairs that incorporate automatic massage, headphones offering music, plus hands-on massage for the neck, arms, hands, and feet bring them back on their own, LaBrocca adds. As word spreads about how good a pedicure feels, it has become an activity for couples on dates and groups having fun.

At Day Spa Beautique Salon in Houston, owner and industry veteran Frank Burge notes the trend toward groups of 10 to 15 people coming in together for pedicure services, such as bridal parties and after-work gatherings. “We have groups of women who come in on a monthly basis, have a glass of wine, and make a lot of noise,” says Burge.

“We’re the only people in town this size, so they have to come here for that experience,” he adds. “I have 18 pedicure chairs. I wish I had room for two more.”


New Technology Fueling the Boom

In the fall of 2000 in the farming town of Watsonville, Calif., patrons at a high-volume discount nail salon began noticing sores on their legs. The bacterial infections, caused by dirty pedicure spas, fueled lawsuits and raised hygiene standards at salons across the nation.

It also pushed spa manufacturers to redesign their foot tubs to make them easier to clean, or eliminate altogether the piping and mechanisms where bacteria can hide. Now, many companies advertise “self-cleaning,” “pipeless,” or “pipe-free” models that promise to reduce downtime for technicians between clients and assure customers that their foot spas are safe.

These features are attracting new sales, as salon owners expand their pedicure areas or change out what they have.

Since Garland, Texas-based manufacturer Pro Spa Inc. came out with its pipeless model in June 2003, sales have shot up by one-third. Company president Van Cao says he expects overall sales to rise to 4,000 units this year. “The salons in (nearby) Dallas are advertising how clean and safe the product is,” he said.

Nails-only salon owner Paul Tran is planning his new locations around these models.

“Now, our manicurists clean by hand,” says Tran, who expects to buy 12 self-sanitizing models for his luxury salon in Murrieta, Calif. “We feel strongly about this kind of system. When people go to a nail salon, they want a nice, clean-looking one, with everything safely sanitized.”

While the trend toward self-cleaning models is boosting sales, it is also creating some nervousness within the industry. Weissling worries that salon owners and technicians could believe that they don’t need to clean the units at all.

“All the models require some cleaning,” she says. Failure to clean properly, especially at the end of each day, Weissling warns, could defeat the purpose of the self-cleaning system.

“The degree of cleaning will vary based on the type of pedicure system it is. Check with each manufacturer on cleaning requirements,” Weissling advises. “People hear ‘self-sanitizing’ and they tend to not ask any questions.”


Asian Entrepreneurs Are Bringing New Vision

Some large, full-service spas like Burge’s Beautique have long had a large number of pedicure chairs. But in the past three years, the biggest sales have been to nails-only salons that are bringing their number of pedicure chairs on par with — or surpassing — their manicure stations. The majority of those buyers, manufacturers say, are Asian.

Casteel estimates that 60% of AmeriSpa’s sales are to Asian, nails-only salons. Weissling says European Touch’s sales to Vietnamese salon owners make up about 80% of sales in California; overall sales are about 40% to 45% to Vietnamese salon owners and another 10% to Koreans in the Northeast.

Albert Kang, a Korean immigrant who founded Hi-Tech Machinery Corp., has designed turnkey operations for hundreds of salons in the Northeast, and many of them include the same number of pedicure chairs as manicure stations, operations manager Steven Hong says.

But volume of pedicure services is only part of the story.

The immigrants who revolutionized the beauty industry with their cut-rate manicures starting in the 1970s are starting to change their image by focusing on quality and customer service — while still pulling working-class customers into the market. Some of the new Asian entrepreneurs grew up in their parents’ salons, and now are bringing to the family business a modern vision of technology, sanitation, and customer service.

“There’s a new generation coming out. They’ve learned the culture better. They’re better at marketing,” says Do, who earned a marketing degree and swore she’d never go into the occupation of her Vietnamese-immigrant parents. “The salons will be bigger, they’ll be run better, and they’ll be more customer-service oriented.”

Others are people like Paul Tran, an educated man and military officer in his native Vietnam who has opened about 20 salons in the Washington, D.C., area and Southern California. They have accumulated capital over the years and now have the means to upgrade their business.

“I’ve seen his plans for the new salon, and the only way I can describe it is lavish,” says Casteel, who is working with Tran on the purchase of new chairs.

Asians in the business attribute the changing image to cultural factors including family unity and an immigration experience that forced people to work hard, and learn from their mistakes.

“The Vietnamese take the nail industry as bread and butter,” manufacturer Cao says. “That’s the main financial income for their families. The whole family puts their investment into it. That’s why they were able to take it to another level. In the past, only a day spa could afford something like this.”

And so, they can buy better quality. “Asians are asking now, ‘What is the best product to use?’ It’s not, ‘What’s the cheapest product to use?’” Cao says. “I’ve noticed that’s a big difference. They’re not asking how much it costs.”

Young Tran, the Huntington Beach, Calif., salon designer, had a background in industrial design and building restaurants when a Vietnamese salon owner came to him asking for plans. Tran persuaded the man to think beyond what he called the cramped, store-front, TV-blaring, neon image typical of many discount, Asian-owned salons.

“I told my client, ‘This is a golden opportunity for you to do something different,’” Young Tran recalls. “‘Everybody’s doing the $20,000 or $30,000 store. It looks cheap. Leave your competition behind, and the mall developers will come looking for you.’ The client listened to us and made it architecturally sound. The customer walks in, the place is clean, and the people are well-trained.”

Now, Young Tran’s Design Express has helped place salons costing $300,000 in Southern California, Arizona, Pennsylvania, Florida, and Texas. Nearly all of his clients are Vietnamese.

His model was so successful that he dismantled his website and stopped sending out brochures: people were copying his designs from the photographs, Tran says.

Likewise, Do’s Nail Forum salons emphasize an atmosphere that is more relaxing and spacious than a discount salon. The lighting is softer and the décor draws on Greek architecture. It’s still a busy place, but appeals to a broader social and economic range.

Part of the appeal is that Do’s prices remain accessible to moderate income-earners with a basic pedicure costing $22 and a combination pedicure and natural-nails manicure in a 45-minute service for $35. It is the most popular menu item, operations manager LaBrocca says.

At the Nail Forum, customer service and cleanliness are of utmost importance in training the largely Vietnamese staff, Do says. “The techs who come work for us know that is our priority. You sacrifice some techs because they don’t follow through in terms of cleanliness and in terms of not speaking Vietnamese in front of the clients. It’s a lot about etiquette.”

In the Northeast, where Koreans dominate the nails-only businesses, owners are making similar changes.

The Hi-Tech Machinery Corp. has been placing its competitively priced thrones in salons like Do’s. Now, the Passaic, N.J., manufacturer has opened its first salon, Galaxy Nails and Spa, in Westfield, N.J., and plans up to six more in the next two years. The salons will project an upscale image, yet charge competitively — $39 for a combination pedicure and manicure, Hong says.

“I felt there was an opportunity for a set of upscale salons in certain areas throughout the country, like a Starbucks of nail salons,” Hong says.

These innovators hope that their environment will also forge loyalty among their employees. Most of Young Tran’s clients rent space to technicians, while Kang’s salons will employ technicians directly. Yet they both emphasize training, atmosphere, and work spaces that make the technician more comfortable in an effort to reduce turn-over.

“People keep saying Vietnamese do nails in a certain way, but we’re trying,” Do says. “We’re getting better. We’re moving up.” 

Trina Kleist is a freelance writer based in San Diego.