lowell stephens & kirk tulloch of onyx barbers.
As you all have come to know, our homegrown talent focuses on highlighting the sheer pool of talent that we have in this city. So far we have done local musicians, an event planner that has brought you some of the best jams, a renowned graffiti artist, and a life documenter. In the spirit of showcasing exactly how diverse and talented our city is, today we focus on two local icons that have spent the better part of the last decade making sure that the men in this city are always lined up! Lowell Stephens and business partner Kirk Tulloch run the ever famous Onyx Barbers. Currently on Victoria Street, this barber shop will soon be located on the ever buzzing Yonge Street and making its new home at Yonge and Shuter.
If you could do anything in life, what would it be? For many of us, pursuing our passion sometimes becomes impossible in the wake of what people expect us to be. How can you be that musician, that actor, that security guard or cop when the world tells you that those jobs are either impossible to succeed in or just not “desirable”? As a result, we compromise and become that doctor or lawyer only to live our lives in a state of discontent. What a price to pay, isn’t it? But in the midst of all this negativity and false expectations, there are a few who work hard to pursue and fight for what they want. With a no excuse policy, Onyx is a product of that determination to succeed. And by success, we don’t mean money or fame, but the actualization that what you do is what you love to do. As the saying goes “there ain’t no such thing as a free lunch.” Nothing could be truer for these guys and how they made something out of nothing.
We had the distinct privilege to sit down with the owners of Onyx, Mr. Lowell Stephens and Mr. Kirk Tulloch, to find out exactly what their journey has been and hopefully, after learning about their story, you will be just as inspired as we were.
Kirk: Both Lowell and I grew up in the same neighbourhood in Scarborough, Danforth and Eglinton. Lowell grew up in the 400 buildings there (where many house holds were run by single parents), while I grew up middle-class with both my parents. We both went to the same church (Seventh Day Adventist, hence why we don’t open on Saturdays) and that’s how we both sort of met each other. I’ve know Lowell since I was 10, he was like a little brother to me back then. I actually started cutting hair when I was 14 years old. But I only began making money off of it when I was 16, and that was set up at my house back then. Though, I would make $5 here and there, it was enough for me to buy food or clothing at that age. At that time, everyone was cutting hair. I remember a friend of mine, Andy, he cut hair when we were in school. He eventually turned his basement into a salon and made enough money after, to buy a car. He would make $300 in one day. When I saw that, it made me want to cut. It was easy for me since I was very artistic, so I just saw it going hand in hand. I started doing designs first and then grew into doing fadings etc.
When did you decide that this was going to be your career? What made you want to start your own business, let alone a barber shop?
Kirk: I hit a part in my life when I knew what I wanted to do with my life. Yet, people around me weren’t good, so I thought that I needed space. At 24, I decided to move to Hamilton and eventually stayed for a year. At that point, I really didn’t want to cut anymore. So to make end’s meat, I worked odd jobs and did a lot of thinking. I’ve always been interested in real estate, so I planned to save up enough money to get into the real estate industry. So I decided to come back to Toronto and I worked 3 jobs: Leon’s, working at a car dealership and doing security. It was an 80 hour work week for me. After a couple months, Lowell called asking if I still cut hair. He had come up with an idea and wanted to open up a barber shop with a former co-worker. We were all tired of working for other people so we all just said, let’s just try it! There was nothing to lose. Yet, once we started planning, it came to the surface that the former co-worker involved had a different version of how this shop was going to work. We found out that he wanted to be in control, and us working for him. So both Lowell and I parted ways with this individual. We originally wanted to make this shop more upscale, so we thought maybe locating it to London, Ontario (where the population there is more upscale). But we decided to eventually remain in Toronto, where we both grew up. So after a year of trying to find a suitable location for our shop and planning, at the last minute, we had learnt about a flea market having space, so we decided to go check it out. We weren’t quite sure about it, but I made a decision, jumped in and rented a stall in the flea market. I quit all my 3 jobs and focused all my energy in this new shop. The space was only 110 square feet and business started slow because most barbers when they start up a new shop, rely on their existing clients. No one knew me, hence why it was slow at first. So, I started handing out 200 flyers a day, since I knew it was a numbers game; it was only a matter of time. The first week, 5 people came in for a cut, but within 6 months, it was packed. I then told Lowell to quit his job and to come join me. He eventually quit his existing job and we started cutting together.
Everyone is comfortable in our shop and we cater to all sexes and races. There is actually a client that comes in here, Jack (Asian guy from Big It Up) and he told us a story about his past experience from another barber shop. Because he’s downtown a lot, he’d go to barber shops in the Eglinton West area. One time he went to a shop there, he sat and waited for 3 hours to get a hair cut while the other barbers were taking in other guys that came after him. See, that doesn’t happen here. To be honest, a lot of barber shops have really bad customer service; you end up waiting awhile because they don’t know you. Now for us, we’re located downtown so we want everyone to feel at ease here no matter who you are.
Did their ever come a time when you were ready to put your gloves up?
Kirk: Now, I will always remember this. It was New Year’s Eve; one of the busiest days for a barber shop. We came into work that morning and found the doors had been locked by chains. So we later found out that the owner of the flea market wasn’t paying his bills, despite the fact that we had always been on time with paying rent and all. We had all of our equipment in the building so we had to beg to get our stuff back. We moved everything into my living room and actually started cutting there…in my house! It was the only way for us to hold onto our clients. But that didn’t help as I eventually lost my apartment, moved in with my sister and slept on her floor. For 3 months, we were out of our barber shop. We then both decided to go directly to the owner of the building company and had explained our situation (that our business was booming back in the flea market days etc.). We asked him if he had any real estate he could provide for us. He told us that he owned this building on Shuter Street and perhaps we could use it. It was formerly a dental office. So we checked it out and told him that we would take it. We took down the walls and made it what it is now. Ever since then, we have thankfully, never been in a negative. See, before all of this, no one told us that we could do this. Everyone tried to talk us out of starting our own barber shop. My own mom started to cry because it was hard for her to see the potential. But we stuck to our dreams and followed it, no matter what anyone said.
When we first opened and customers actually came in. Customer service, for us, is extremely important in our shop. To us, people don’t have to come here and get a cut; they could have easily gone somewhere else. See, that’s why we always remember to treat everyone fairly. Other great moments would be Lowell cutting Dave Chappelle’s hair, when 50 Cent was shooting something in the city, we cut his hair, cutting John Singleton’s hair in his hotel room, Little X coming in for a cut and among many others. But truly, we really don’t get fazed by celebrities because they really only come once a year and they don’t influence our business; the regular guy that comes every week makes up our core business. See, we will never bump a client because some celebrity doesn’t want to wait, that’s just how we run the shop. We’ve had major icons that would come in, sign their names, sit, wait patiently and never say a word. Lenox Lewis, Rod Strickland and others did exactly that, they were amazing because they were just regular guys who were humble about their achievements.
What were some of the challenges of starting a business?
The hardest part would be getting over the fear of failure. Don’t talk to anyone who isn’t that into your idea. Keep it to yourself and plan effectively. Trust me, eventually you’ll learn that the good people will try and help you, but the non-important ones will try and knock you down.
People always talk about the “black” experience, being obviously black was/are there any specific challenges or advantages when you came to start your own business?
Kirk: If there was any negative, I didn’t see it at all. But that’s probably because I don’t believe in excuses.
We are straight partners, so we split 50/50. I’m better with negotiating whereas Lowell will beat around the bush and joke around. Lowell is very tech savvy and is great with computers etc. I’m a risk taker whereas Lowell is more reserved and strategic.
What is proper barber shop etiquette?
In the shop:
- don’t talk loud on your cell phone when waiting.
- if you have any questions or it’s your first time in, just ask any of the barbers and they will guide you through the process. But remember: pick one barber to ask your questions.
- sit and wait.
- if you bring your kids, please keep them in control and watch them so that they don’t run around the shop (to avoid injuries).
On the chair:
- never slouch, always sit straight.
- never chew gum while the barber is cutting your hair. As your facial muscles move, it’s harder for the barber to cut evenly.
- don’t try looking in the mirror while your hair is being cut, it makes it harder on the barber because they then have to reset their blade/razor. Just simply ask to be directed to the mirror if you want to look at what they’ve done so far.
- never answer and talk on your cell phone while the barber is cutting your hair. This will severely affect your cut and makes it extremely hard (and annoying) for your barber.
Fade: it’s a type of hair style, not an actual cut.
Levels of blade (1, 1.5, 2 etc.): for metal blades they go as high as 3.5, and for plastic blades they go up to 10. The level of blade determines the length of hair.
If you are unsure, just ask! A good barber will always be able to guide you along and explain everything to you.
Congratulations on your move, what prompted this change?
Thank you! We realized that we needed more space as we have outgrown the current one. And because we are planning on adding new features and services, we need a fresh place to start. You’ll see why when you come in. Another factor is that our current location is more hidden to the public. Most of our clients were recommended by word-of-mouth. So for us, we wanted to increase our visibility.
What are some of the latest trends you are noticing in your shop? What’s played out?
Mohawks to answer both questions. It’s been a slow rise. It’s a daily occurrence that there will be a guy that wants it done.
Well, aside from our new location (slated for an August opening), we’re about to roll out a very intriguing new feature that will be easier for our clients once our new place is opened. To be honest, there isn’t really going to be another barber shop like this. Franchising is a possibility; it’s one of our long term goals. Also, we are always doing community based events where we cut people’s hair for free…a way to give back to the community.Onyx Barbers 252 Victoria Street 219A Yonge Street – Soon to be new location (416) 363-8408 http://www.onyxbarbers.com/