“I wanted to make a little oasis where they could go and feel comfortable, not have 22 year old Russian models floating around with cash falling out of their pockets; I didn’t want the foreigners to have to sit next to them, I wanted them to come and sit next to me.”
Interview by John Harrison
The ‘Expat Salon’ has in a short time, become a well known fixture of the foreign community here. The founder, owner and dynamo behind the operation is Toni Lockhart-Saydkhuzhin (Toni). To find out how and why she came to Moscow to start a hairdressing salon, I interviewed Toni over a delicious dinner at the new Italian restaurant – ‘Concerto’ at the recently opened Swissotel Krasnye Holmy Moscow at Paveletskaya.
Q How did you come to be in Russia?
Love. I met my husband when I was working in Latvia, and I moved here to be with him around Christmas in 2000. I had lived for six and a half years in Riga before that. I worked in both Latvia and Lithuania.
Q Have you always been in hairdressing?
No, not at all. I lived in Prague for a few months between Latvia and Russia. I went to a hairdresser there that other expats suggested. It turned out that all the expats there went to one girl because she could speak English. It wasn’t in a great location or anything special other than they had one English speaking stylist. We all took the tram, number 8 I think it was, right across town to this little hairdresser, and we got our hair done there. I thought that if you took this idea one step further, moved it to a good location, made the whole atmosphere attractive, imagine how many people you’d have. That was in early 2000.
Q How did you finance the salon?
My husband and I put our savings together.
Q Is there a demand for a hairdressers for expats?
We broke even in the second month, that’s how big demand is. We had no idea that that would happen. I thought that we’d get to that point after about 6 months, but we got there in the second month. I was shocked. It seems like that never happens in business unless you’re selling ice water in the desert or something like that. I really felt good about it, I felt that I had done something in my own right. My husband was very supportive, he was always saying ‘you’ll never know whether it’s a good idea or not until you’ve tried it…’ If you have an idea it’s one thing, but when someone you respect approves it, then you’re willing to try it. I had doubts – what if it fails, what if we lose on our investment?, we can’t afford to do that, but luckily it all worked out. Actually I underestimated the need for the salon.
Q In the beginning your clientele were mostly foreigners. Is that still the case now?
Right up until now, it’s about 90% foreigners. That’s unusual, most expat businesses slide over to serving Russians after a while. I thought we might have to, around the 4th or 5th month we still had a lot of extra capacity, we were making a little profit, nothing to write home about though. I thought, maybe we need some more Russians – the Russians come in, they don’t even ask about the prices, they buy the products; so I thought maybe we need a few more. So we went after the Russians in the neighborhood. We didn’t do a mass, Moscow-wide campaign ‘come to our expat salon’, we just did some fliers in the neighborhood, with some discounts for people who live in the nicer remodeled buildings. We got 10 or 15 good Russian clients out of that, but then, with the word of mouth getting bigger and bigger, before long we realized that we didn’t need any more Russians. We are happy to have them, but we don’t have to go after them anymore.
Q Why did you think that an expat salon would be successful?
I knew that I would love to go to a salon like ours, even though I speak Russian pretty well; so I thought that others would like it too. I feel sometimes, to be honest, that Moscow is an acquired tast; it takes some time to come to love it. I came here speaking the language, and it still wasn’t easy for me, so I can just imagine how hard it would be for those who don’t speak the language. I wanted expats, especially expat women, to come and feel at home for a little while. I think the guys actually have it pretty easy. I think the night life is great, and the girls are gorgeous. I wanted to make a special place for the women to come to and relax. We are unisex, we have a lot of male customers; but I had women primarily in mind when I started the business. I wanted to make a little oasis where they could go and feel comfortable, not have 22 year old Russian models floating around with cash falling out of their pockets; I didn’t want the foreigners to have to sit next to them, I wanted them to come and sit next to me.
Q Are your customers loyal?
Mostly our customers come back time and time again. Yes, we do get the incidental trade, we get the odd tourist, we get someone’s mother who is visiting for a month, and she is brought in by her daughter. By and large it is the long term people, the people who are here for at least a year. It seems that people are coming for longer and longer. We do a customer questionnaire, we ask people – how long have you been in Moscow, and how long will you be in Moscow? Recently it seems more and more people are answering that they are going to be here for 3 or 5 years. So we need a bigger salon in a hurry.
Q Will you keep on concentrating on the expats if you get a bigger salon?
We’d like to do an expat ‘day spa’ next. We want this [the existing salon] to be “expat hair and nails”. The ‘day spa’ will be a place where you go for maybe two or three treatments. Instead of just a haircut, you can maybe come in for a massage, a facial, pedicure, manicure, the total beauty treatment. We do all those things now, but we are really limited by the size of the salon these days. If we could find somewhere big enough, I’d like to have a room for yoga; but I don’t know if we’ll get a place that big.
Q Was it easier for you to start a business here and make a success of it than it would be in the West?
Oh absolutely. Here I have a real niche. I couldn’t think of anything to do in the States or in England that would be new. Unless I go and open up a Russian salon somewhere! It really works well because not only are we a nice hair salon, but we are sort of a club. Many people, especially women, don’t have the social life here that they would have elsewhere. If they are not busy with their families, they need something to do, they need a way to meet people. Maybe they feel that they don’t really fit in the women’s groups; many don’t want to go out by themselves; so it is difficult for them to experience the same social life that they would back home. Sometimes, people just pop in for coffee. They don’t make an appointment or come to buy anything, they just come in and say “Can I read your newspaper?” and stay for a while. It’s sort of a club-like environment. I don’t know what I’d be doing if I didn’t have this in Russia. It was much easier for me here than for many women when they first arrive here. I can speak Russian, I had a family immediately, I had my husband’s parents, and his huge network of friends. I was set up from the start but it still took some time for me to adjust to life in Moscow but now I love it here. I am very busy now with family, but when the kids are bigger, I’d like to take the business beyond Russia, I have the rights for the name of the salon in several other countries, including Japan, China, Azerbaizhan, Turkey and the European Union. We are thinking bigger than Russia. This is an idea that is good for every community where there is a large expat population.
Q Are your children in school here?
The plan was to move back to the States by the time they are school age; but we still have a couple years. We are not sure where we want to live. If we live here, they can go to the Anglo- American school, and that’s fine by me. I have strong ties with both my parents back in the States, but that’s my only tie. You can learn to love the lifestyle here. You can have great help at home, and that is easier to arrange than back in the States. There are tons of great restaurants; there is the opera, the theatre. It has everything that a big city has to offer; you can live like a king here. Everyone complains about the cost of living, but you try and live in New York city and have a nanny… A nanny alone would cost upwards to $2500 a month. I really realized this when I went back to Pennsylvania, back to ‘real life’. It’s not bad at all here once your established.
Q What do you do at the weekends?
My in-laws have a house about 45 minutes out of the city, and we usually go there with the kids.
Q Do you have any advice for young entrepreneurs arriving here?
You have to try, otherwise you will always kick yourself for not trying. But you have to have enough money behind you. Don’t think you can run things on a shoestring, it’s just too hard. Have a real plan and have some money behind you. You can’t do anything here without substantial investment.
We were so busy talking that we didn’t have a lot of time to talk about the food at Concerto, which was good. We complimented the chef, Mr. Salvatore Coco, on his work after the dinner. The restaurant is high tech, with dimmed lights; it has an atmosphere of convenience, cleanliness, combined with friendliness and informality. Service was unpretentious, even homely. Out of the window you can see the new round shaped ‘Dom Music’ concert hall, which is now in full swing with its Aurum program. Prices were somewhere mid-range, not too cheap; but they didn’t burn a hole in your wallet either. Between us, we devoured:
Toni started with ‘Tartare di salmone con gazpacho e uova di quaglia’, which was an exotic strarter, of slices of octopus served with tomato jelly, potato and black olive. She bravely followed this by ‘Grigliata mista di pesce’, which was an amazing assortment of fish on a platter. There were Prawns, Squid, Sea Bass, Lobster and Gold Grouper, I think, served with lemon dressing and mashed vegetables After that, Toni had a long rest, nipped out to look after her baby who was being looked after in the restaurant’s foyer, and returned. By that time she was full, all she could was to join me in a cup of coffee.
I started with ‘Caprese di Bufala’, which was basically sliced tomato and cheese, well presented, followed by good old minestrone soup, which was served with pesto sauce, pasta and vegetable souffle. I then ventured into the unknown with ‘Involtini di pesce spada alla siciliana’, attracted by the name, but having no idea what it actually meant. I was presented with swordfish rolls stuffed with bread crumbs, capers, parsley and garlic served with red onion jam and vegetable stew. It was all scrumptious, but filling. I had no room left for a desert, although I have a sweet tooth, and really wanted to try a piece of Sicilian cake.