By Ainsley Maloney
Photography by Melissa Kelly Photography
In her late 20’s, Su-Shan Lai owned a successful salon in Beverly Hills, CA. She hustled day and night, working 80-hour weeks and spending most evenings at social events to mingle with potential new clients.
Despite all of her success, though, Su-Shan felt increasingly unfulfilled. Striving for more, it turned out, clashed with who she was deep down.
“You have to stop and figure out what is the thing that really makes you happy,” Su-Shan said. “I am not materialistic. I believe in high-end service, but not high-end superficiality. Some people want glamorous, and that’s fine. But I prefer a small, cozy space to keep the prices reasonable. I am more comfortable one on one: I like really be present with that one person.”
The Pottstown, PA native soon decided her heart was pulling her back to the area, and in 2012, she opened Starshine Salon on 4456 Main St. (a spot that is now home to her husband J.D. Korejko’s comic book store, Johnny Destructo’s Hero Complex).
Now, five years later, Su-Shan’s 111 Grape St. salon has become so popular that, rumor has it, Philadelphians had better odds of getting tickets to see the Eagles in the Super Bowl than booking an appointment with Manayunk’s Best Stylist.
With 1,040 clients, she’s been booked solid since October 2016, accepting regulars and referrals only. Despite her usual workaholic tendencies to extend her hours, she’s stayed true to herself. She hired a stylist, Grace, to pick up new clients so Su-Shan can press “pause” for now.
“Who needs more than a thousand clients?” she said with a laugh, especially considering she knows each and every client intimately.
When they enter her salon, it’s free of noise, chaos and clutter. She doesn’t double-book clients, so their time in her space is theirs alone. Consultations with her are up to a half hour where Su-Shan asks her clients deep questions to learn about their habits, lifestyle, and goals for their hair. That might even result in talking a client out of a very expensive treatment.
Su-Shan explained, “If a client wants a keratin treatment, I ask them how often they work out. Keratin breaks down with sweat and frequent shampooing. I tell them, ‘This may not last as long as you’d like, so it may be a bigger investment than you expected.’”
“I make sure my clients have all of the information,” she continued. “I wouldn’t feel good about my work if I made people buy unnecessary products. I don’t want to clutter my clients’ lives with extra maintenance or expensive upkeep.”
Su-Shan’s philosophy resonated strongly with Kathleen Lambert, owner of Kat Cares Pet Sitting, who has been a regular client for over two years. Kat used to seek out the cheapest cut, and as a result, her hair, she said, was looking limp and dull. Desperate, she walked into Su-Shan’s salon one day, having recognized her from a local business meeting.
“I said, ‘I don’t know what to even ask for, but I need you to help me and my hair!’” she recalled with a laugh.
“Su-Shan really educated me on my hair and on what the cuttery was doing to it,” Kat added. “She explained that instead of using bleach, she was going to use a blonding cream. She recommended a conditioning treatment that made my hair feel amazing. She’s so well educated in the product line she carries. It was really a conversation about what I wanted, and what she could do to help. I trusted her completely.”
The results solidified Kat’s loyalty.
“After she did my hair I was floored,” Kat said. “I looked better, and I felt better. I am 150 percent confident that she knows exactly what she’s doing. I always say, ‘She’s worth every single penny!’”
Their appointments led to more than amazing hair. Great conversations soon blossomed into a friendship. During one styling appointment,
Su-Shan shared that she and her husband were looking to move closer to their Manayunk businesses. Kat, who lives two blocks from Main Street, mentioned the house next to her was for rent. Now, Su-Shan and Kat are next-door neighbors.
For her part, Su-Shan loves the freedom of walking five minutes to work every day. She’s now a Manayunk resident and business owner as well as a board member of the local non-profits North Light Community Center and Manayunk Theater Company.
“Manayunk is so artistically vibrant,” said Su-Shan. “There are always people walking by, there’s great food. I am so impressed by how many other female business owners are here. It’s such a ‘girl power’ kind of area.”
Su-Shan recalled how, when she first opened her salon, two women took her in immediately. Meredith Podob-Gornick, the owner of Latitudes and Longitudes, welcomed her warmly and introduced her to the other store owners. Also, Moon Krapugthong (chef-owner of Yanako, Chabaa Thai Bistro, and Binto Market) invited Su-Shan to host a talk at Yanako for an Asian-American Female Entrepreneurs event.
“It’s exactly the kind of welcoming community I always wanted to be a part of,” she said.
Feeling much more at peace with where she is both in her business and her life, Su-Shan expressed immense gratitude toward all the people who have supported her along the way.
“I tell my clients, ‘Thank you,’ personally as much as possible,” Su-Shan said, “but it’s really important for my clients to know how much they are appreciated, and how grateful I am for them.”