Cover Star: Northern Light

Ronan Stewart and Connor Grant opened the doors to their eco salon, RoCo, in 2011 and it was an
instant success. Plans to expand were halted by a fire in 2015 but within a year they were back with an exciting offering that looks set to pave the way for other salons. Ronan spoke to us about doing things their way.

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Getting started I trained in Patrick Gildea’s in Letterkenny and then did a bit of travelling. When I came back to Derry I managed a salon for a few years before deciding I wanted to open my own salon. I had a very organic ethos which came from working with Aveda so I researched organic colours and that’s how Connor got involved. We had worked together and I went to him for advice on distribution. He wanted to come on board and we found an Irish company called Organic and Mineral who make organic hair colours.

We set up on the Strand Road in Derry in 2011. It took off and within a year we went from three staff to18 or 19. It was going great, we had plans to expand, and then in 2015 a restaurant behind us caught fire and we had to leave in the middle of service – the fire started coming through the back of the salon. The premises were ruined. We had a crazy four months, with two pop-up shops on the go and trying to find premises. We found this beautiful old restaurant along the quay in Derry and were able to build our dream salon. We’ve been flying since.

Getting stuck in, we were able to build a team from scratch and bring them around to our way of
thinking. When we take someone on we don’t want them to have hairdressing skills – we can teach them that – it’s the personality we are looking at. We don’t take from colleges anymore, we have our own apprenticeships team. We take them straight from school into a two-year programme where they get all the qualifications. They are in the salon five days a
week, they get paid, and we find from that early age they truly believe in the ethos of the salon.

It’s worked really well, a lot of our team have come up through it and our senior stylists have all come up through the ranks. They become part of RoCo and that’s what we want. In our staff meetings, we found that we were concentrating on staff a lot and we used to ask, why are we not talking about the clients more, but I realised that if you focus on the staff, the client benefits. Four times a year we take the staff on a day or night out. It keeps morale up.

There’s a road of development in RoCo. Every three months Connor and I have support and supervision meetings with each person where we can talk about any issue they have and we take on board any criticisms that can help us improve. It’s private and they can say whatever they want. At the end of it, we ask them where they want to be in three months. Three months later we look at what they have achieved. If they haven’t met that, we ask, is it our fault or is it your issue, and how do we move forward. Most of the time they have ticked all the boxes from the three months previously.

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When we first opened we put the blinkers on and decided we would do things that we
like. We brought in the gender-neutral pricing this year and that was risky. But it’s right – why should a woman with short hair pair more than a man? A client had short hair and I charged her a gent’s cut. She asked, ‘why is it a gent’s cut, it should be a ladies short cut.’ I asked friends in the industry and the answer was: women will pay more, which was sexist. Our ladies with short hair love it and they’re coming back every four or five weeks because their hair grows so fast. Our takings haven’t changed, they might have gone up.

Last week a client came in and asked for an express cut. I said we don’t do dry cuts because we
feel clients don’t get the full experience, the massage chairs and so on. She said, ‘I’m on the move, I’ve yoga at 11, I’ve got to work, I’m on deadline tonight.’ So I cut it and she was in and out in 20 minutes, and I took off the price of the blowdry. People are busy – they want to come in on their lunch break so we are looking at introducing it in the new year.

We had worked with various brands but we didn’t love them. We hounded Organic and Mineral and helped them to develop new ranges and through that, we started making products with them. We use recycled plastic and offer a refill service for clients – if they bring back their shampoos, we’ll refill the bottle for 30 percent off. We are putting a new retail area in the reception so they can come in and fill up their own bottles. We’re looking at taking on KEVIN.MURPHY, the
biodegradable packaging – it fits with the ethos.

When we take someone on we don’t want them to have hairdressing skills – we can teach them that – it’s the personality we are looking at.

We opened a café in the salon and do a lot of gigs using young local acts, and we’re planning a few food, fashion and music nights. We’re extending the mezzanine upstairs and bringing in makeup, nails and brow artists to make a hub where you can come in and get your lunch, your hair and makeup done, your brows.

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One of the reasons we opened our salon was to shoot our own stuff. I stop people in the street and say, I think your bone structure is good and ask them if they’d like to be in a shoot. Nobody has said no! And three of the models have been signed. I love music so any local bands know to come to RoCo and we will hook them up with a new look. Some of them have taken off, Soak is a client of ours, Ports, Ryan Vail and Roe. It’s trying to bring Derry up – you don’t have to be in London or Dublin to do well!