Jan 11, 2023

Episode 101

K.J. Hughes

entrepreneur and manifest partner k.j. hughes


K.J. Hughes’ origin story—born in Washington, DC to a beautician and hair salon owner mother—would eventually become the inspiration for Manifest, a hybrid barbershop, speakeasy, coffee bar, and retail concept that opened in DC’s Adams Morgan neighborhood in late 2021. Prior to Hughes’ development of the one-of-a-kind hospitality venture, the perpetual entrepreneur cut his teeth as a nightlife promoter before founding his own agency, which represents athletic and entertainment talent. Though his projects vary, one thing remains a constant in his pursuits—never taking no for an answer.


Stacy Shoemaker Rauen: Hi, I’m here with K.J. K.J., thanks so much for joining us today. How are you?

K.J. Hughes: I’m well. I’m well. I’m well. Thanks for having me. Thanks for asking me to come back on.

SSR: Yes, I’m excited. All right, we always start at the beginning. Where did you grow up?

KJH: I grew up in uptown Washington, DC. Born and raised in the 1980s. I’m an ’80s baby. This was a time when DC was… Where there was two tales of the tape, I guess. There’s always this political side of DC and then there’s the local side of DC, and I grew up in a neighborhood that literally was a stone throws away from the Capital. I grew up at First Bryant Street in Northwest. My grandmother was one of the first to integrate the local high school. So was probably third generation Washingtonians, which is hard to find these days in Washington. Upbringing was the classic story, I think, in regards to where I grew up and at the time that I grew up. So yeah, DC is home. I love it. I love everything about it. It’s just made me, and I’m happy to be in the city doing some productive things.

SSR: All right. And we’ll get back to that in a second, but your mom was a beautician, right?

KJH: Yep, yep, yep. My mom was a hairstylist in the ’80s. She worked at a hair salon called Shelton’s Hair Gallery, which at the time was, I’d say the… I don’t know any other thing, hair salons, but it was the place, it was athletes’ wives and Patti LaBelle and Gladys Knight. The who’s who during that time would frequent the salon on Connecticut Avenue. Connecticut Avenue was, at the time, DC’s version of Fifth Avenue. You had all the department stores and it was ritzy. So to have a salon, there was a second floor salon, so it wasn’t street facing, had to get buzzed in. It was the place. It was the place to be.

SSR: Yeah.

KJH: And so that was the first time… Some of the first money I ever made was in that salon sweeping hair, running errands for the stylists, and keeping their change, of course. But yeah, that place was, when you say street smarts and how I kind of started to maneuver, learn how to maneuver, you learned a lot there. Like I said, this was… I might’ve have been six years old, seven years old. So this is ’86, ’87, and this is my first time meeting gay and lesbian folks and first time seeing Connecticut… I said Connecticut Avenue was the ritzy spot, so this is where I would see life different from where we lived and different from where we grew up. So very influential.

SSR: Yeah. And what did your dad do?

KJH: My dad was an unsuccessful criminal.

SSR: Oh, okay.

KJH: Was unsuccessful criminal, went to jail when I was… In 1982.

SSR: Okay.

KJH: I think when I understood, I think I might have been in my teens when I understood what the word legacy really meant and how hard my mom was pushing. Yeah, I think it is. I think it is a driver, especially now that our kids, it’s definitely a major driver because all it takes is one in a generation to change your family’s last name, to change the history of your family. And so I think I’m the one, and yeah, for sure, there’s no doubt that my upbringing is why I am who I am today. You know what I mean? The sacrifices of my mom moving me out of that community and taking a risk, not knowing a soul or saying, “Hey, the world doesn’t look like this. I want to move you to a place that more resembles the world.” You know what I’m saying? And not knowing how to navigate that space on her own. Having me at 20 years old, you know what I mean? Me and my mom grew up together, so to speak.

SSR: Yeah.

KJH: And so I think she was wise beyond her years in making some of the sacrifice that she made to expose me to some of the things that she exposed me to that ultimately created this kind of wealth of knowledge that didn’t come from a book.

manifest barbershop washington, dc

A floor-to-ceiling window fronts Manifest, flooding the Snarkitecture-designed space with natural light

SSR: Yeah. So where did she move you out to?

KJH: So we moved about, not far, maybe 10, 12 miles outside of the city to Silver Spring, Maryland, which is not far from the University of Maryland. It’s just a suburb of Washington DC, so it’s not far whatsoever. So we were always back and forth into the city. She worked in the city, we went to church in the city. My grandmother lived in the city. We were still back and forth, but my every day comings and goings in terms school was now very much diverse. She’s like, “I can’t put you in public school system in this town. The public school system resembles the community.” And so she understood the proximity that I was. My father was a criminal. My grandfather passed away early in his life and affiliation with the underworld. And so she knew that I was too close. And I think criminality, it’s something you learn from community. I think there are brilliant criminals. I think there are some criminals who it’s like if you grew up in a different place at a different time, you would be Steve Jobs, you know what I mean? Or you would be whomever. And so I think she understood that when I was a really young age, that you have the ability to use this power for good, and so let me put something around you. Let me harness that in a different way.

SSR: Love it. So you move out to Silver Springs, and you ended up going to college nearby? Or what did you end up doing?

KJH: So after high school, I went to Rutgers University, got out to New Jersey, in the turnpike, and I spent about a good 18 months in New Jersey. What I wanted to do is when I was in high school, I threw parties in high school. It was pretty popular. And a friend of mine was a DJ, another friend was a photographer, another friend had an empty basement and his mom traveled all the time. And so we had a nice little partnership and we were throwing house parties in 10th, 11th grade, making money, making good money. And so I chose Rutgers because I wanted to be close to New York City. I wanted to be in the hospitality industry, in the nightclub industry. And I said, “Hey, what better way than to be close to New York? There are hotels, restaurants, nightclubs.” I hadn’t yet put it all together that restaurants and hotels were a part of quote, unquote, “hospitality” just yet. I just wanted be in nightclubs, and I knew that some of the best nightclubs were in New York. And so I chose Rutgers to be in that proximity. Learned to pass training really quickly and I spent a little bit too much time in New York and not enough time on campus. And also, the only job I’ve ever had in my life is at Blockbuster. In 1996, ’97, I was a manager and I was making $15 an hour at that point. That’s good money in 1996 and ’97.

SSR: What were you doing? What were some of those early lessons learned and trials and errors that you were doing? Were you still doing parties, or did you find other things?

KJH: Yeah, so the parties turned, and this is where I started to learn about vertical growth and lateral growth. We had this ecosystem of parties. So we were throwing six or seven parties a year, I’m sorry, a week. Sorry. We were throwing six or seven parties a week. And at the height we were doing $20,000, $30,000 a week net. I didn’t know about a P&L and a balance sheet at the time. We were really just working our asses off at trying to be best. And DC was a city that was segregated by race and age in terms of nightclubs at the time. So you had this 21 and over kind, mature and grown. And they used to call it grown and sexy. They had that club crowd and that was we were 20 years old at the time, or I was 20. A couple of my buddies, they stayed in college because they were local. And so then we spun off and created a marketing company that allowed us to now use those email addresses and that influence of these parties to then sell and use to market other things. So we had contracts with record labels, we had contracts with movie houses, and we were using… We had big time contracts with Universal and Paramount. And so we would have this very kind of big but influential group of folks. Now, this is before I knew Gen Z and X and demographics and all. I just knew I was cool and I knew a bunch of people. And if you want your movie filled up, yeah, come see us and we can fill up your movie premiere. Or if you want your album sold or you want this new artist to be in front of whomever, yeah, we got 2,000 people that come here every Sunday. Bring me Tweet or bring me Pharrell or bring me whomever this new person is, Ludacris, and put them on stage and let’s figure out what type of check you can give us. And this is again, not sitting down with any formal business plan or anything. And we were able to be successful there. And then one of our major, the biggest nightclub that we had, we ended up losing our lease. And the city took that as imminent domain and they built an arena, and everything came crashing down. That’s where life got really real. And so that’s where I think some of… Yeah, that’s where things started to pivot

SSR: Yeah. But that didn’t stop you, right? Because you went on to continue in that world of entertainment and sports, right?

KJH: Absolutely. Absolutely. So right there was, like I said, another kind of crossroads period where I had to figure it out. And this is some of those lessons that we took from trial and error that were expensive. It’s like, “Okay, you know people, you have influence, you have made some money, what can you do with all of that?” You know what I mean? And again, I think we learned from watching folks from afar, but never really had any strong mentor. That’s why I try to be… I think I read somewhere, I seen somewhere, be who you needed when you were that age, right? And I think I try to be that now, way more even to probably a detriment where folks are like, “I didn’t ask you for your advice.” “Well, I’m telling you anyway, because I see you and you’re kind of hot and you’re doing your thing.”

And I’ve done that. I’ve cold called like 20 somethings and 30 somethings. I’m like, “Hey, I heard about you and I see you doing your thing. Do you have a relationship with a banker? Do you know this person? Do you have a CPA? Where you at? And people were like, “Man, I don’t even know you. Get out of my business.” But later on it’s like, “Damn, I’m glad you asked me those questions.” So at that time I didn’t have any of that, so I wasn’t really prepared to pivot. But again, watching and learning and losing and learning, I was able to make this pivot into sports and entertainment through a little bit of luck.

And I think it’s preparation. I also think it’s a little luck involved. And so ’04, ’05, there was a kid coming out of college who used to come to our parties and he’s like, “They say I could get drafted in the top round in the NFL. Do you know anybody that can help me navigate their process?” And of course we know. Well, I knew a lot of people. I knew agents at the time, I knew other people that were in the league. But then I’m like, “Well, shit, I know how to read.”

manifest barbershop in washington, dc

The exterior of Manifest in DC’s Adams Morgan neighborhood

SSR: I can do this.

KJH: And I know how to… Maybe I can help you liaise. And yeah, he gave me a shot. I don’t know if he really gave me a shot or whether I just took the bull by the of horn and said, “Look, trust me, I got you youngin, follow me.” He ended up getting drafted really high, and we were successful in guiding his career and getting him some endorsements and introducing the right people, and he became a big star. And from there, a couple other guys said, “Hey, I want you to do the same thing for me.” And then this agency was born, and we were able to slowly put together a good roster of folks who believed in the way that we did business and liked, I think, the risk-taker attitude. And really what I started to understand was there was a lot of people in that business that didn’t look like us and didn’t move the way we moved. And I think that there was a level of comfort knowing I got some folks around me that really care about me that’s from my same hometown, or whatever the case may be. But it didn’t get rocky until you started to become a competitor with those guys. And then now all shots seem fired, right?

KJH: And then, now all shots need fired. Now, as opposed to being described as the local way maker or somebody that’s just grind or bootstrapped or whatever, those things now are used against you when you start playing with big boys.

I remember our first time going to LA, going into what would’ve become a competitor’s office. And it’s like you’re on Wilshire, 20 something floors, it’s a hundred of you guys. And I can remember later on that same person who I was trying to come and refer a client to describing me as just some guy from DC that didn’t graduate college and one of those hustlers. It’s really quickly hustler away from a compliment to this negative connotation. I mean, really fast. And so that was a big rude awakening for me and let me know, hey, you can play the game but the game is rigged and the game is not really made for you. And not me as in me, but me as what I started to understand was me as a Black man. Some of these levels are different and they play different.

That was both, it was anguish because at the time I had long locs and I was just authentic me and there was a period of time when that wasn’t a good strategy quite honestly. And that’s tough. That is really tough to sit down and have to think about strategically how do you present yourself? I don’t think there’s a lot of people that understand what it’s like to be a Black man in some of these worlds that aren’t our worlds.

And so, you start overcompensating certain things. Like make sure your car is nice. And I had a family one time ask to see my credit report. A Black family too. When you get into that world, it’s like everybody else that are in the same position as me don’t look like me, don’t talk like me, don’t dress like me, don’t come from my background.

This is where a lot of what we talked about when I met you comes into play. It’s important to see yourself in certain places in certain positions. We don’t come up seeing a lot of Black doctors on TV, Black lawyers, accountants. We don’t see that image, and so the world doesn’t see that image. But when you do see or you come across, even when it’s time to hire somebody, it’s like you don’t fit the … Because for 30 years on the news and the newspaper on this TV show, on that TV show, it hasn’t been any Black lawyers or Black accountants or Black whomever. And so, that’s where it starts to get a little rough.

And so, I think there was a period in my late twenties to the early thirties where I’m not going to say I had an identity crisis, but I think that’s where that missing a father figure in the household, that’s when things … I started to really understand, okay, you got to balance this out somewhere. And so it took a lot of reading and a lot of talking, a lot of admitting, hey, this is what I’m trying to do. This is what I want to accomplish and this is some of the hurdles that I’m coming up against.

And ultimately what I decided in early, probably 10 years ago is you are frustrated because you’re trying to play a game that wasn’t ever meant for you to play at that level. So stop playing. Stop playing the game according to their rules. Stop even showing up. Take your ball and go home. And I think it’s been the last 10 years where I started to understand how to create spaces and how to create moments and how to create memories that are authentic to not only just who I am, but authentic to people and not one thing. It just needed to be deconstructed. And I think that’s where my level of hospitality really, really stems from is it’s the kindness of the simplest things that can change the trajectory of your day. A good morning cup coffee and a good conversation can really pep you up. And for me, I found it to be very inspiring to hear the stories of the waiter or waitress or the maitre’d or the shoe shiner at the Union Station, to have this conversation. For what it’s worth, I’d say they were my mentors. The places that you frequent on a regular basis where they know your name and I know their names and you have these conversations and I ask questions.

I mean, one of my favorite places was a hotel bar, [inaudible] solo. That person is whomever, maybe immigrant, maybe a young person that’s just moved to New York or moved to LA and is moonlighting and trying to find their way in Hollywood and they’re from Nebraska and they give you a different story. Or sometimes it’s the owner and somebody called out. I mean, you would be surprised the conversations and the depth of conversations that I’ve had with complete strangers all in the name of hospitality. That’s how powerful this industry is. And that’s what really, really made me fall in love with it.

SSR: And so when did you decide to leave the career you had and pivot and create Manifest?

KJH: I haven’t left that career. I don’t deal with any new clients. The firm still exists. My partners still handle the things they need to handle with regard to current clients, but I’m just not taking any new clients.

And Manifest became clear, I’d say 2018- ish where it was clear that I wanted some sort of a brick and mortar because I wanted to be more influential. I wanted to give back some of those moments and memories and feelings that I had experienced through my 10, 12 years of traveling and all star weekends and World Cup and Super Bowls and all these restaurants in the world and the top hotels in the world and this person’s yacht and that person, the helicopter from here. And again, as a plus one, I think that was also a part of it too, is I knew during that time when I was just explaining my late twenties, early thirties, I didn’t just sit back and mope. I went and did the work. I said, okay, I see how this game is played. I went back and got my undergraduate degree on an entrepreneurship scholarship, graduated from the University of Maryland with a management degree, went right back and got an MBA. And the summer right after I finished my MBA, the University of Maryland offered me a position to be a professor to teach sports and entertainment. All within six years, seven years, I got all the things that they knocked me down for the previous 10.

And again, I learned a ton. The earlier version of me in my twenties was, like, “Ah, fuck school, I don’t need that.” But that was me hating quite honestly. School absolutely has been influential. Not just actual information that I didn’t know, but the process of navigating the regulatory things of college is the same as when I had to open this place. The constituency, understand the stakeholders and understanding that just because you go in and kick and scream and whatever, the class is full, sir, nothing you do.

And so I think it’s just little lessons like that. I think I graduated undergrad at 31, even at that big age, it’s like I still needed to be a part of these formal processes and formal systems. And I think bigger than anything for me was culturally college is influential. The culture of college is something that you need. It’s just the stick to it-ness of this is shit is hard as hell. Add, drop date is coming up. What am I going to do? You going to drop it, you going to quit?

And so I think that is something that a young person really needs to understand is life is tough. What you going to do though? What are you going to do? You going to sit it out every time it gets tough or you going to push through and you going to push through and get the seat? And live with it and understand that okay, maybe you went out a little too much that semester or maybe you didn’t put the work in and live with it and then go back the next semester and fix it. I think you need that.

And so during that time, that’s what I did. I leveled up. I leveled up. And that’s what I tell a lot of people. It’s like, “Yeah, you don’t like the way it’s being played, then change up a little bit. But keep working at yourself and keep growing and keep grinding.” That takes us up to 18 or so. And it’s like I was just tired of being a guest in that world.

out of office speakeasy cocktail bar at manifest in washington, dc

Barbershop tiling is echoed across the moody Out of Office cocktail lounge

SSR: Because I was going to say it sounds there are fabulous glamorous moments that you just rattled off, but I guess you were always the guest or always the plus one.

KJH: Right. And even as the plus one, whatever celebrity or athlete or whomever that I was with, they were the plus one too. They were guests as well in this space because now they were the spectacle. And I recognized that. I recognized that very early on when I went to an owner of a NFL team’s house with a top draft pick and he introduced me as his home boy. I had on a three piece suit. And this guy still owns a team today.

And so I recognize that there are a lot of spaces that we occupy that are not meant for us. Or I’m not going to say meant. That weren’t made for us and weren’t created with us in mind. And that became really a reoccurring theme in my head is now I would go places and I would see culturally what’s happening. And so the commonality that I saw is a lot of places didn’t necessarily welcome or didn’t invite our business per se, but loved our culture, loved the music. And so I happen to be on the celebrity side of that, so they loved that. But then frequenting those places outside of the celebrity realm as just a regular person, it wasn’t the same treatment. It wasn’t the same experience.

And so the more and more I talk to folks, especially athletes and entertainers and just Black people, brown people, gay, lesbian folks who all understood and all admitted that as I’ve become more successful, as I’ve gained more ability to travel, more education, more experience, I’ve noticed that I walk into these spaces not as myself because I know they don’t want me as myself. This is a subconscious thing that we show up as these a guest. And I’m like, “That’s not fair.”

And so I started to ask people, “What is luxury for you? What are some experiences that you’ve had that have brightened your day, that have changed your mood, that have made you a better person?” And of course it was stories from the time that they went on some magical once in a lifetime thing, but most of it was just the regular run of the mill stuff. Dinner at your favorite space, a good night’s sleep at your favorite hotel.

And then COVID hit and that’s when I think I really understood. We bought this building in ’19 right [inaudible 00:38:25] had COVID. And the idea was just to create a barber shop, but make it upscale and integrated. Because everywhere I went in the world, the barber shop was a Black barber shop, white barber shop, gay barber shop, lesbian barber shop. All over the world it was like that. And then the idea of the luxury barber shop always, most likely was always the white barber shop.

One of them I went to in the basement of a hotel and two chairs, they offer you whiskey when you walk in, but they got a Black man in there shining shoes. And I’m like, “I understand the aesthetic, I get it, but this not luxury. This is Queen Elizabeth’s luxury, but this is 2015 or something.”

And then now reverse gears a little bit to just being entrepreneur and just the business of that and understanding some of the teachings. I went to How I Built This with Guy Raz. It was live at Lincoln Theater. And the guest was the guy who created bevel. I forget his name off the top of my head. And he said he had been working for Andrews Horowitz. He was a Stanford MBA or something. He was artist and residents or entrepreneur residents that Andrews Horowitz and had been beaten his head up against the wall trying to figure out the next big thing. And he kept coming up with ideas that were great businesses and great business models, but that he knew nothing about the industry.

And then he said, “I finally realized that the thing that I’m going to create is going to be something that inherently I’m able to pull off, I’m able to tackle with what I know, with what my experiences are.” And it was almost like God himself blessed us with this opportunity because I’m coming from a hairstylist, grew up in a salon. I know I’m not a barber, but this is the first time of all the business that I’ve ever started where I truly feel that I am putting all of my gifts and all of my experiences into this recipe bucket

And I mean, people come in all the time and they’re like, “I just can’t believe how much detail you put into it.” And it’s like, these are not missing pieces. These aren’t pieces that were abstract. We white boarded everything that goes into how do you make people feel good? How do you sell gladness? How do you sell joy? And we looked at hotels, we looked at restaurants, we looked at nightclubs. A lot of times we looked at what not to do. It was no real shining star who was doing it absolutely great.

But we took little pieces from each of those industries and we said, “Okay, how do you take the thing that people need, a haircut, and make it convenient with saving time?” And then how do you serve that up in a way that might change somebody’s day? Yes. And then the day manifests. I mean, people fought me on it because it was like, oh, it’s too deep. You have to explain it all the time. And I’m like, “What are you doing every day anyway?” Whether it’s your cup of coffee, whatever ritual that you have, all you’re trying to do and all we’re trying to do … And this was straight from the pandemic. All we’re trying to do is just be our best selves. And if you can play a part in that, if you’re a part of the cast on that day, we just trying to manifest our best self.

And I think as I’ve gotten older, I want to take less chances at that. And I think that’s what we get into when you think about your grandma and you think about even your mom and dad, it’s like, why y’all keep going to the same place over and over again? And it’s like, because I’m too old to be risky, a bad experience.

SSR: Exactly.

KJH: The delis that you go to, and this is where some of those businesses last for two or three generations. The pizza parlor that you might have worked at and then also your daughter might work at. It’s like those places exist in communities and that’s what we wanted to do. We wanted to be a community driven space that was built to enhance your life and not take away anything.

That’s one of the things we say all the time is, I want to put you onto something. I want people to leave here full. Either I gave you some new piece of information, I put you onto a new brand, whatever conversation we had, it highlighted your day. I want you to leave here full. And that’s the perfect exchange I think, for time. And I think once you are able to create that and do that, I think it’s priceless. I think that’s where the membership comes in. I think that’s where other opportunities to open more Manifests come in. I think we are at a place where as long as we stay true to delivering world class experiences, I think the sky is the limit.

SSR: You had this idea and then the build … Was it the building first and then the concept evolved when you saw the building and COVID, or what came first and how did you evolve it?

KJH: Eric Jackson, who was my barber for the last six years prior, really, I want to say between my experience and being in the salon growing up and Eric’s service, the attention to detail, how passionate he was about it, how he voiced. Of course, you and your barber have a good relationship and shit, I see my barber more than I see my doctor. Him being a gay man, him expressing to me, “I don’t have a lot of Black, straight male clients.” He’s like, “I don’t know what that’s about.” He’s like, “You’re different and I want to bring back the art of barbering.” Just over the course of six years, all of the conversations that he and I had, plus all of the experience …

He and I had, plus all of the experiences I was having in life, I think it was just a marriage made in heaven where I’m like, “Well, Eric, let’s just open a barber shop and let’s make it really luxury and let’s make it a place that people can come and get a quality haircut and that’s not segregated.” I think it started there. It started right there where he could feel safe and comfortable working in a barber shop as a gay Black man, and people could feel safe and comfortable coming into a space being serviced by a white woman or a gay white man, or a lesbian woman or an Asian American or a…

I think that’s where it really started is I believe that experience and luxury in providing a quality of things will trump any of the things, and so that’s where it started. And the space is literally right around the corner from where he worked. I mean, literally less than a mile, less than three minute walk.

And so I parked one day in front of this space that was a salon that had a for lease sign in front of it. And I called him and was like, “Have you seen this space around the corner?” He was like, “No.” And I’m like, “If you free, walk over here.” He walked over. And we both called separately and got our own tour and see, make sure he wasn’t telling one price and tell me another price. And so we toured it maybe that week. This was probably May of 2019, and the rest gets rocky before it gets better.

manifest barbershop and retail store in washington, dc

In the retail area, arched niches house clothing, with shelves wrapped in wood and terrazzo

SSR: Got some challenges, right?

KJH: The rest gets very rocky. So of course, again, I can’t do anything small. The barbershop would’ve been too easy in just a barbershop, but I think again, I was, at the time, I was getting my MBA, so everything in MBA is value driven and data driven and be like, “How do you provide value? Make sure you provide value.”

I’m taking that essence at the same time. I’m getting my MBA ’19, and I’m building this in 19. And so at the same time I’m like, “We got to provide more value, more. We got to do more.” While they’re waiting, they don’t need to be twiddling their thumbs. We need to do coffee. We need to get them a drink. We need to hopefully… I wanted to put massage chairs upstairs and everything.

And so ultimately it had to bring it back to what’s culturally relevant. What can I accomplish within my network? And so that’s where my two partners come in. My other two partners, Susan Morgan and Brian Merritt, both from Chicago, both I’ve known since early 2000. Susan went to Howard. Brian was the husband of one of my really good friends who went to Howard, and he had all of the retail experience. And Susan is a VP of new business at a very large advertising agency, so she had all of the marketing and branding experience.

And so I’m like, “Hey, guys, I got this barbershop idea, but I think we should do it big.” And Brian was like, “Oh, the boutiques are not really… They’re dying. The internet is taking everything.” And then when I told him, I’m like, “No, but they have this upstairs space and we can make it a speakeasy.” He was like, “Oh, I’m in. Liquor?” He’s like, “Liquor sales? I’m in.”

SSR: I’m in.

KJH: “I’m in.” And so he focused on the retail and making sure that we can get quality brands. Susan focused on all of our branding and really how to tell the story of all of these things in one, how to tell it in a way that is not dismissive and is not divisive. And I think that’s where…

I mean, she is really, really brilliant in making sure that we don’t speak to one part of the business. You look at our Instagram, look at our website, every part of the business gets its equal shine.

When we talk about ourselves, we very rarely talk about it as a barber shop or as a coffee shop or as a retail space because the consumer likes to put things in boxes, right? And so the way that we’ve been able to just hone in on work, work, work, work, work, let the people talk, it’s been really working. It’s been working.

We had 10,000 followers on Instagram in less than a year, all organic. We have upwards of 250 or so members and all less than a year. We’re doing incredible in terms of just feedback and exactly what we wanted it to be, which was this place of influence where Black and brown people and some of the folks who are oftentimes missing when things are being built come in and say, “All right. This is a place for me.” And that’s gay, straight, lesbian, Black, brown.

I’ve been in here and I’ve seen exactly what I’ve wanted to see in certain hotel brands, and it’s like we have something. It gets me emotional sometimes because it’s like I’ve… When you’re an entrepreneur and you are building so many different things, especially coming from where I come from, it’s really defining when, I think, when God aligns you with your purpose. That is something it’s indescribable.

SSR: No, it must be. And I know it was a labor of love. What do you think was the most challenging obstacle, I mean besides COVID, to open your doors?

KJH: The permitting and licensing portion of any business. It’s more expensive and harder than even the best advice. We almost got, literally at the 25th hour, almost got tripped up. They wanted us to build a wall between the barber shop and the coffee shop. They wanted to be two separate spaces completely because of the health code. That’s one.

Then you got stakeholder engagement. We’re in a predominantly white neighborhood, predominantly, I’d say, 40s, 50s, and above in an area of DC called Adams Morgan, which is three blocks from where the Obamas live. It’s a very nice area. It’s a very affluent area, but we are one of three mixed use buildings within this largely residential community. So we are zoned commercial and we can have commercial activities along with a bar, but over their dead bodies. They protested every step of the way.

Another lesson here is understand that, what is it be, the regulatory space is a space of patience. It’s not a space to take things personal, although there will be personal attacks. You have to stay steady and try to get ahead of the curves. Find a stakeholder who has bought into what you are doing. If you are a member of the community in which you’re trying to open a business, that’s even better.

If not, either partner with or find some friend that is going to help. Because you come into a lot of these communities and they have a great deal of influence and they don’t have nothing but time. This was during COVID. They were writing letters, they were doing everything they could to stop this 30 seat speakeasy because there’s a chance that it could be too rowdy, or it’s going to invite the people who shouldn’t be in the community in the community. I mean, it’s a lot of that talk.

And so be poised and hire your professionals, and let your professionals do some of the fighting for you. We ended up having to pay I would like to say 20 times what it should have cost for our liquor license proceedings, 20 times more. All because the community wanted to control the type of business that we were going to run, the hours of operation, and put some other restrictions on what time we could have it, what type of music we can play. All of these things.

That may be exclusive to DC. I’m not sure, but so all my entrepreneurs out there that want to open brick and mortar spaces, and I’m sure it’s like that for hotels and designs and all that. It’s like you can draw something up, but if it doesn’t pass code, or if you need all this constituent buy-in, it’s an uphill battle.

But it can be done. And don’t let the hurdles deter you because if this place didn’t look like this, if it was designed different, it wouldn’t be the same. It wouldn’t feel the same. It wouldn’t be the same

I have text messages from the previous owner of the building who’s like, who lived on the street, and he was like, “Oh, once you go for your liquor license, you’ll never get it. You’ll never win in this community.” Just press on. It’s like that meme I’ve seen where two people are swinging the rake trying to find the diamond, and one person stops short of that last brick that you got to bust to find it. It’s like when they keep telling you to think small, stay on your course, especially us. Especially as a Black entrepreneur, there are too many gatekeepers that are telling us, “No, not so big. No, don’t dream so big. Start out with just a little, teeny barber shop. Don’t do all. Don’t do coffee. Don’t worry about the bar. Oh my God, you spending that type of money on just the barbershop? Oh, don’t do that.”

It’s like this is why you don’t see our spaces get the same… This is why we don’t get the same type of opportunities. Because, quite honestly, this too the bank tells you that. The landlord, the GC, and the guy down at the permit department, that everybody that you’re encounter… I’m not saying everybody, but a lot of times these people they don’t represent the same thing you represent. They don’t come from where you come from, and so they can’t see it in their eyes. They can’t see you making it because ain’t never seen you make it. They’ve never seen anybody like you.

SSR: Well, and I know you said it wasn’t personal, but this was very personal to you. This was something that meant the world to you. Did that add to your drive, and also proving everyone wrong in a sense, that we can do this to open up a door for somebody else down the road?

It was always to show that Black businesses don’t need to be in a category of Black businesses. Being the best Black owned business is fine, but no, I want to be compared to Hair Cuttery me and Starbucks and whatever speakeasy there.

We look up and in 10 months and city paper voted us the best barbershop. They voted us runner up for best boutique, and they voted us top five the best bar in the whole city, less than a year old, so that’s where it was. What we wanted to do was say, “This is not an anomaly. You give me the resources, not just me but us. If we have the resources, if we have the support, if there’s fair and equity lending, if I can have access…”

My second location that we want to open is four times the size. We have an LOI on the table right now, and it’s going to cost probably two times what this costs. If we could get the money and get access to the things we need resource, we could be successful.

I think that the more and more you see these businesses, and the more and the more that people can look to and say, “I know him. He’s like me.” That’s where you start to become. That’s where you start to get that drive where you’re like, “Okay, yeah. Anything is possible. Not just anything, but I know somebody who’s done it. I’ve seen it. I’ve been inside the store. I touch and felt and I understand that.” And I think that’s very, very important in our communities to see.

Because if not… I’ve been telling people for a long time, if you can see a thing, you can be a thing. And when you don’t have that perspective, it’s lost on you. You don’t know what you don’t know. You know what I mean?

SSR: Since we are Hospitality Design, I should ask about the design of your space, because that is very important. And I know that was a big part of reinventing what the barbershop is, what this whole experience was going to be. And you partnered with Snarkitecture, so let’s start with why Snarkitecture, and then what did you want them to create? How did you translate your vision to them?

KJH: Plain and simple, I need to make a splash. I’m not a barber. I’m not a barista. I don’t know how to make cocktails. I don’t even drink cocktails. I’m a Jameson straight type of guy. And I can’t dress. I’m a [inaudible 01:08:54] so none of what’s going on in this space are necessarily my forte. But I knew that as a new brand… So we built this to scale. I didn’t build it to have one. And I, excuse me, I’m like, if we’re going to make a splash, it’s going to be through design. And if we’re going to impact people in the way that they feel, it’s got to be luxury. And I looked at what they did with their art installations, I looked at what they did with Kiss. And even looking at a Kiss, it’s like that is a destination type retail space, where no matter where you’re from, what you’re doing, whether you are a sneaker head or not, it’s like you heard about this space you got to stop through. And I think that’s where the name and some of what I fell in love with there and how they designed it is, none of this stuff on its own is special. So I wanted to make sure that we accomplished this idea of, hey, I want to walk in there and feel something. And that comes through design. Right? And then once you get in you get the substance. But on the face it’s like it’s got to look good. And this city was missing that. You got a lot of stuff that pops up, fizzles in, fizzles out. But nothing in this city was built with integrity in mind. It’s a lot of business that are built from an opportunity, and a solution, and how do we pop it up really fast and get some money. And so architecture was the only call and they said no, twice. And so we looked at another local designer here, they gave us the design, but it wasn’t hitting. It wasn’t special. And so we randomly got an email back from Snark and it was like, “Hey, you still doing that barbershop thing? Some of the partners want to hear more about it.” I’m like, I’m on my way. So I got on Amtrak the next day, went and met Alex. And passionately, like I am right now, said this is why this is needed and this is why y’all should do it. Yeah, I’m saying all the things that I’m saying to Alex, that I’m saying to you, to Alex. This is why this needs to be done. Black businesses need to highlight. It would be amazing for a firm like you guys, is where we are now, to work with a nobody, who just has a dream and a vision. And we got on a napkin and some paper that day, and the first hurdle was coming up with a budget. And then the second hurdle was fighting them on design. It’s like, I know y’all are designers, but it’s like, I have a vision here. And that was pretty interesting. But that’s what I’ve experienced. I’ve had dealings with architects in the past, helping clients build houses and different things. So that’s how architects are. But you got to push it. You got to push it. And the very last straw, the last card that you pull, and I’ve never had to pull it, is I’m paying you.

SSR: This is my vision.

KJH: I’m a client. Let’s not forget here. Yes, you may be an expert, but I am a client. So I never had to pull that car. But one of the biggest fights was the window. They wanted the barber shop to be in the back or on the second floor. And I’m like, there’s no more conversation unless the barbershop is in the front. And again, everything that we did here, I could point to a reference point of my life of an experience that led, not like an, oh, I saw it somewhere. It was like, no, when I saw it, this is how I felt. And I can remember the feeling. And so that’s where, anytime I had any pushback, I won because I gave them context of not just, no, this is the way I want it. No, I want people to feel something. I don’t want them to just look, and awe, and take pictures. I want them to have a takeaway, a real out of body experience. I want them to have a memory and a moment because of these specific designs, these specific decisions. When I sat down and I said, hey, what’s going to separate us from a regular barber shop is not just the barber, right?

SSR: Right.

KJH: Because the best barber in the world is subjective, you know what I mean? But the best looking barber shop in the world is not subjective. We are that. We have accomplished that. That’s not subjective. And so that’s where it’s like, what are we going to be known as? And what’s the trap? What’s going to set the trap so that people come in, it’s like, “Oh shit. Okay. I didn’t know I even needed this today, but thank you for providing it.” And that’s where not taking no for an answer, another lesson of not taking no for an answer.

SSR: You mentioned before that everything had a memory or was linked back to something. Can you give us one example?

KJH: The window. There was a time when I was going back and forth to New York on the train. And I would go to Union Station quite often, and I would get my shoe shined. And the gentleman, he had been there for years, and all the stories he told me and how he used to be a business owner. But that trip, there’s a store called… Oh, what is it called? Oh man, Art of Shaving. The Art of Shaving, no matter what I was doing, how fast I was going, how late I was, when you walk past that window with that barber chair in it and somebody was actually getting cut, you paused for a second. And that ritual is seeing that art in progress through that. I guess we can say we stole that. That is that direct influence of why we have the chairs in the window. Direct influence. And it wasn’t just because, oh, I think that looks cool. No, it literally will stop you in your tracks. And if you have time, you will back up and say, “This is interesting. Let me stop in here.” What I think again, culturally, and they probably weren’t able to execute and a lot of those places closed down, is how useful are barber products and how often do I need them? After shave, or bump cream, or whatever lasts me six months. You know what I’m saying? And because they only have one chair, the barber shop component never became a community focus. You know what I mean? It never became the hub. It was more about selling the products. And so that was the direct influence for the window, was I want people to… A haircut is universal language. So no matter what your demographic, you understand what’s going on in this window.

SSR: True.

KJH: And whether you’re young or old, you understand that that looks different than where I get my hair cut. That looks special.

SSR: Yeah. And sorry, two questions off of that. Sorry, we’ll edit this. But I also love how downstairs is super warm, and inviting, and light and bright, which you don’t always associate with the barbershop. Again, like you reinventing the dialogue there. And then upstairs, or through that cool door up the stairs to the speakeasy, it’s very more moody and dark. But they still speak to each other. And that was very intentional, right?

KJH: Very. Very intentional. The goal was to have a day and a night. And also you didn’t want… I think it could become redundant when you’re in the same space doing different activities. You don’t get the same feeling. And that influence comes from hotels, where you go to a lobby, you get a feel. The spa is totally different. The concierge lounge is different. The restaurant is different. The rooftop is different. Parking and the pool is different, right?

SSR: Yeah.

KJH: It’s because these are all different times, different memories, different moments that I can create. And it’s not just one blanket space.

SSR: Love to continue the conversation, but for sake of time, we always end the podcast by asking the title of the podcast. So what has been your greatest lesson or lessons learned along the way?

KJH: Ask for help. Ask for help. A hundred percent of zero is zero. What you don’t know, you don’t know. And I think you got to be vulnerable. You got to put yourself in vulnerable positions. You got to lay it, lay it on the line. And you got to ask people for help in areas that you know may know nothing about. I think trying to create things in a vacuum is what a lot of people do. And that’s why there’s a lot of businesses and experiences that are model-less. And I think the more people you talk to, the better.

And I think the second lesson is eat out. I think your kitchen table is amazing, but I think your kitchen table is a place where you go to share some of the things that you guys have all learned on your path. But it’s important for you to fill yourself up somewhere. And I think that’s where a good night’s hotel stay, and sitting and having breakfast in the lounge, or having coffee at a diner, or engaging the halal guy, or the shoe shiner, or the manicurist, or the barber.

You wouldn’t automatically assume that those industries are hospitality driven, but for 12 and a half, 13 years, we provided services to entrepreneurs, I mean to the celebrities and athletes and musicians. And that was hospitality. I think anytime you are approaching palms up, saying, how can I be of service, that is my ideal hospitality.

And so I think it’s the most powerful industry in the world. I think that there’s journeys and there’s life experiences that you learn over pasta. And you just got to be open to it. You got to ask some good questions, and make sure you tip well. That’s it.

SSR: Yep. Love it. Kind of going back to the basics, right, what hospitality really is?

KJH: Absolutely.

SSR: Thank you for spending this last hour with me. I really appreciate it. And can’t wait to see the next Manifest open. So thank you. Really appreciate it.