Salon marks silver anniversary

Plenty of us dream of going into business for ourselves — but few have the knowledge and determination to succeed.

Now celebrating her 25th year as owner of The Dock Shopping Center’s popular PK Salon, Parbatie “Pabs” Kanhai provides a portrait of a successful small business owner.

The past two and one-half decades involved plenty of hard work. In Kanhai’s words, “I practically live at the shop.” Yet, it all began with a clear sense of what she wanted to achieve and a strategy for how to get there.

“I knew what I was doing: I had been a salon manager and I knew I’d be able to tackle anything that came my way,” Kanhai says. “Starting out as a business owner was terrifying … but at the same time, extremely exciting.”

Besides that, Kanhai originally worked in banking and became a hairstylist nine years before opening her shop. After the birth of the first of two daughters, she wanted work that offered both a flexible schedule and the ability to work close to home.

In the summer of 1983, Kanhai was working at the shop that preceded her own at The Dock. It was called Haircrafters at that time.

“I was managing the salon,” Kanhai says. “The previous owner had nine shops from Long Island up to New Hampshire. He decided to sell them all and move to California.”

That businessman also needed the cash promptly to invest in another opportunity, or the salon’s doors would close. This gave Kanhai just two days to line up the money to buy him out.

“That was the most stressful time of my life,” Kanhai says, “but because of my banking background, I knew where to turn for financing.” Getting loan paperwork and other details completed by the deadline required a lot of in-person legwork.

Two days later Kanhai owned the business.

The first order of business was to change the salon’s name to one that reflected Kanhai’s ownership. She also revamped the store’s interior.

“I scribbled out how I wanted it to look,” she recalls. “Most important to me, I wanted to make the most efficient use of the space I had available.”

For starters, that meant turning all of the haircutting and shampooing stations at an angle, so people could move around more easily. She also added two glass-block room dividers at the shop’s rear, which affords privacy for services such as body waxing.

The shop is also brighter and more open than it was in its Haircrafters days. A signature element was the addition of a turquoise semi-circular couch in front: It matches all of the seats throughout. And though the majority of Kanhai’s customers are women, an old-fashioned barber’s pole in the window beckons men inside for a haircut — or more.

“The majority of our business involves color and highlights — and men are getting that done, too,” Kanhai explains. The influx of millennials into the workplace, especially in managerial roles, has prompted older workers to spiff up their appearance. The salon can make color changes subtle or gradual, so it isn’t immediately noticeable.

Unlike many other salons, Kanhai has built a track record for staff retention. One of her stylists, Rita Quattone, has worked at the salon for 18 years. The runner-up for longevity is Nicole Weinhaus, who has been employed there eight years. The salon newbie is Christina Bemis, who is a friend of Weinhaus and was recruited into the shop earlier this year.

Kanhai pays for all of the stylists’ training and equipment, whereas many competitors expect stylists to foot the bill for it. The flip side to that requirement: When Kanhai spots a training opportunity attendance is mandatory.

“The color work we do requires a lot of constant training by all of us,” she says. “So, if I find out about a class that’s taking place on a Sunday, we’re all going.”

The result has been employees who enjoy their work, stay long and develop a lasting clientele. “You have to enjoy this work because it can be very physical and difficult,” Kanhai says.

Several PK customers have been coming to the salon since the late 1980s, which attests to the strong people skills of Kanhai, Quattone, Weinhaus and Bemis. Sociologists have studied the bonds that develop between stylists and their clients. Kanhai attributes this to a lessening of inhibitions customers experience when their hair is shampooed and cut.

“People confide in their hairstylist,” she says. Over the years, she and her team have built a database of customers’ styling and color preferences. It also includes notes on family and recent events — such as cruise plans.

There are sobering occasions as well. Customers have come in to have their heads shorn when they’re undergoing chemotherapy. Kanhai schedules private sessions for this, and has been known to take customers shopping for wigs.

“One client made a fun event out of it by bringing several friends and a bottle of wine,” Kanhai says. She otherwise keeps a supply of wine, goblets and soft drinks on hand to offer customers.

Kanhai grew up in Trinidad and has an affinity for British culture. She especially jumps at opportunities offered by styling experts from across the pond, including Paul Mitchell, Vidal Sassoon and Graham Webb. They are all British or were born in Great Britain.

Kanhai’s two daughters are now grown and, although each spent time in high school and college helping out in the shop, they now have successful careers of their own. Sherita Kanhai is a social worker in Hamden, while Sabita Kanhai runs Sabita Holistic Center, a medical-massage practice in Southport.

In addition, although husband Raymond has now retired from banking, Kanhai has no plans to retire herself. It would be great if one day, a staff member could take over — “but that’s not happening any time soon,” she says. “This is my passion.”

Pabs Kanhai proudly shows a photo spread taken at PK Salon of her sister and daughters. The photos appeared in an industry trade magazine. Kanhai is celebrating 25 years in operation. — Robert Sample photo

Pabs Kanhai proudly shows a photo spread taken at PK Salon of her sister and daughters. The photos appeared in an industry trade magazine. Kanhai is celebrating 25 years in operation. — Robert Sample photo

Kanhai (second from left) credits the hard work of her staff with helping her through 25 years in business at The Dock Shopping Center. With Kanhai are Christina Bemis, Nicole Weinhaus and Rita Quattone.

Kanhai (second from left) credits the hard work of her staff with helping her through 25 years in business at The Dock Shopping Center. With Kanhai are Christina Bemis, Nicole Weinhaus and Rita Quattone.

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