'I Have No Doubt It's The Answer To A Prayer'

Owner Of Struggling Laurel Beauty Shop Overwhelmed By Nomination For Award

August 09, 2009|By Jonathan Pitts | Jonathan Pitts,jonathan.pitts@baltsun.com

Last year, even as she grew weaker from an illness she'd had for many months, the Rev. Josephine Pinkard of Severna Park kept telling her daughter, Avanette, of a dream she couldn't get out of her head.

"I see the roof [of your business] opening up, and God showering the place with blessings," she told Avanette, a beauty-and-wellness professional who owns Essential Essence, a Laurel day spa and beauty salon. "I see it growing by leaps and bounds."

At the time, the imagery seemed absurd.

The Pinkards had started the business in 1997, offering their Severna Park home as collateral for a loan. With Avanette Pinkard as boss, they'd built it gradually.

But the recession was hammering the place. Pinkard had had to cut loyal staff. She had no advertising money. And her mother's kidney disorder, she had to acknowledge, was a distraction from their mutual dream.

Then Steve Harvey came along.

Among his other pursuits, Harvey, the TV actor, comedian and movie star whose syndicated radio program, "The Steve Harvey Morning Show," reaches 60 markets between 6 a.m. and 10 a.m. each weekday, runs the Hoodie Awards, an annual contest that spotlights contributions by African-American leaders in neighborhoods across the country.

Ten weeks ago, he told a national audience that Essential Essence had been nominated as the best nail salon in America.

"You know that scene in 'Home Alone,' where Macaulay Culkin is running around the house, screaming?" says Pinkard, 43. "That was me. I was hollering like a crazy person. It was an unexpected blessing."

The phone started ringing like never before, says Patrice Brown, Pinkard's top assistant, and hasn't stopped since. Next weekend, the Harvey show flies Pinkard to Las Vegas for the seventh annual Hoodies.

Pinkard may have been the only one who was shocked.

"If anybody deserves that award, it's Ava," says Stacy Montgomery of Upper Marlboro, a longtime client. As a child in a mostly rural section of Severna Park, Avanette Pinkard was always drawn to beauty and beauty products.

At 15, while a student at Severna Park High, she took a shampooing job at a salon near Fort Meade, where she learned a lesson that would infuse Essential Essence.

At the time, she says, most salons catered to a single ethnic group, on the theory that it took certain skills to deal with "African-American hair" or "Caucasian hair."

That salon, owned by Korean natives, employed black and white hairdressers, making it an ideal place to learn that even though "hair is a person's crowning glory," it's all just hair.

As she made her way from salon to salon over the years, she realized she wanted to create a "multicultural establishment" of her own someday.

That jibed with what she always learned from her mother, a gospel singer who read the Bible, worked at an Annapolis nonprofit organization and lavished all the quality time she could on her only daughter. (Josephine Pinkard became a minister later in life.)

"She instilled in me to treat people well, no matter who they are," Pinkard says. "We all have trials - I certainly do - but treat people the way you should, put in your fair work, and good things will come to you."

Business studies have shown good customer service helps the bottom line. It costs between five and six times more, for instance, to attract a new client than to retain an existing one, according to Mark Stevens, author of "Extreme Management: What They Teach at Harvard Business School's Advanced Management Program."

"Retain, retain, retain," agrees Pinkard, a self-taught businesswoman. "If you create value, people will continue to come."

One such person has been Natalie Tucker of Laurel, who works for AARP - when she's not acting in commercials or on the stage.

For years, she has gotten her hair done there twice a month.

"There are a lot of salons in the area where, if you don't know anybody, you get this attitude when you first walk in," Tucker says. "Everybody just turns and gives you that look. It can be intimidating.

"Here, they treated me like family from the start. It's a warm, welcoming place."

Part of the warmth stemmed from Josephine Pinkard, a genial woman who greeted clients at the front desk, folded towels and worked on the books for years before illness started slowing her down in 2007.

Montgomery, an educator in Prince George's County, recalls Josephine Pinkard as "a spicy lady" who "really loved Ava and always had a lot of good advice for her."

Josephine Pinkard was "like a staple, like the sound of wisdom," Tucker says.

But it was her daughter who opted to site the shop in a small plaza on Cherry Lane whose storefronts look like private homes - a bid to provide a foundation of comfort.

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