Center City Philadelphia is now home to the improbable pairing of an old-time barbershop and a low-lit, speakeasy-ish cocktail lounge. It’s the Blind Barber, a few days old at Juniper and Sansom Streets. It’s down the block from Time, Bar, and Opa, right next to the rear door of West Elm.
Blind Barber, now in five cities, started a decade ago in New York, with two guys from the Philly area among the four partners. More recently, they cut in follicly blessed Phillies star Bryce Harper to serve as spokesman.
The three-chair barbershop clips by day, while the two full bars (one separate from the chairs on the ground floor, the other on the second floor amid a few cozy lounge spaces) serve drinks and light food (grilled cheese sandwiches and dips) in the evening. They’ve gone for local flavor, enlisting Bucks County-bred Asher Roth to DJ at last Friday’s preopening party and putting a citywide on the drink menu (a shot of Old Granddad and a Miller High Life, $6).
Haircut ($55) and shave ($60) prices include a cocktail, such as a Hot Heather with tequila, pamplemousse, pineapple, lime, and ginger. Blind Barber welcomes anyone who’s after a barber-style haircut (traditionally interpreted as clipper-driven cuts above the shoulder), but all the barbers are trained in scissor work as well.
There’s also a line of grooming products, such as shave cream and beard oil. In fact, the grooming products — now available at 500 Target stores, through e-commerce, and at the Blind Barber shops — have become a huge part of the business.
Hours: 11 a.m. to 8 p.m. daily (barber shop/retail), 6 p.m. to late (bar).
I sat down the other day with cofounder Jeff Laub, who grew up in Williamstown, N.J., to get to the root of Blind Barber.
How did it start?
I graduated from NYU with the idea of being a lawyer. Everyone told me I was supposed to do that. You have to study for the LSATs. I didn’t do that and didn’t do very hot. Instead of going right to law school, I ended up getting a job at a law firm as a paralegal and for the first two weeks it was great to earn a paycheck and then I realized this wasn’t going to be for me.
After some time, I went back to the things that I had been doing as part-time work. My mom was a salon manager, and I answered phones. I also did it for this salon called Ted Gibson. I was there from the start of it and saw him build it out and launch his own product line. These stylists were charging 175 bucks a haircut. I was like, “You know what? Let me be a stylist.” I have great connections. I worked 9 to 5 at the law firm and then I went to cosmetology school, 5 to 10.
I’m like Frenchy from Grease. I’m a beauty school dropout.
I did really well on the written part and then I had to wash someone’s hair, and I said, “Nope. Not happening.” So I’m like Frenchy from Grease. I’m a beauty school dropout. And I hit a quarter-life crisis. "I have this degree. No job, no path right now. I don’t know what’s going to happen.” But I ended up going down to the Jersey Shore. We always had a house down there and my grandfather was there. He was a serial entrepreneur. I said, “Pop-pop, what am I going to do? Should I continue?” And he says, "Jeffrey, I love my barbershop. I love getting a haircut, drinking a beer, and talking about babes,” all that stuff, and then it was like a cartoon moment, a light bulb went off. What I loved about the salon was the gossip, getting a haircut, walking in, feeling not so good, and then 30 minutes to an hour later looking in the mirror and being like, “There I am again” and getting a cocktail, getting a glass of wine. I wanted to re-create that atmosphere.
I dropped out of cosmetology school and wrote a business plan. I looked on businessplans.com. That was my business school education. A lawyer said in New York there was no problem with having a drink and a bar in a barbershop. A liquor license can be shared as long as there was a division between the two spaces where the food and drinks were prepared.
I came up with the name Blind Barber because it was a speakeasy. When I Googled '"speakeasy" on Wikipedia, the first paragraph explains that they’re also known as blind pigs and blind tigers. I said, “Well, that sounds perfect. Blind Barber.” Got my law friends to help me get a trademark for it quickly. And then just started asking everyone I knew if anyone had a bar available. I had zero dollars.
Luckily, I was introduced to my partner Josh Boyd, who was friends with [partner] Adam Kirschenbaum. And I showed him the idea. He loved it. He had a bar [in the New York’s East Village] that he was going to sell, but rather than selling it, we kind of high-fived, grabbed a sledgehammer, and next day walked in and started knocking walls down and turned it into the first Blind Barber in June 2009.
How did it grow?
I ran the barbershop function for awhile while Adam and Josh did the bar. Right off the bat, we knew we had something special. People were coming there and they weren’t just getting haircuts or just getting drinks and partying. They were coming to just hang. We had a brand, and when people interacted with our Instagram, they felt like they were talking to Blind Barber. They felt like they had this canvas where they could become themselves, whether it was through a haircut, through a conversation, through a party. We were hosting little performances and it became this hub of actual community which we set out to build. Once we did that, we realized that our real driving force behind our passion was to connect with more people.
How did the product line start?
A gentleman came in from Singapore, and he had hair down to his waist. He said he saw us on Instagram. He said the two things he wanted to do while he was in New York was go to the Empire State Building and get a haircut at Blind Barber. It was like one of those moments where it’s like, “Wow. This thing’s really touching people and people want to see it, but we can’t be everywhere. What could we do to create a little calling card?” And we were using other products that [weren‘t] necessarily feeling like us. We asked, “How do you make product?” We found some of the best labs in the country, we had an amazing product-development friend, and through a lot of sweat and quarters from the couch cushions, we launched four products and went door to door — those doors being Barney’s, Mr. Porter, and Birchbox. And we got in.
We’re now in about 500 Targets nationwide. We distribute to Japan, Europe, Southeast Asia, China, Russia.
I know you’re from the area, Jeff. What about Matt?
Matt Breen [who grew up in New Hope] came in two years in, and he has a very strong retail background. He’s our CEO. He really understands how to grow the business in an efficient way. I operate as our CMO. Adam is our COO and then Josh is our chief business development officer. He handles a lot of our build-outs and stuff. But when I met Matt and we found out that we were from this area, we kind of started vibing. We’re both die-hard Eagles fans.
How did Bryce Harper get in?
When we had the product line, we were just talking one day with our director of PR and we were just like, “It’d be nice to have a sports guy.” I went online and Googled “best hair in sports,” and David Beckham popped up. I said, “He’s probably hard to get."
I went online and Googled ‘best hair in sports.’
Then Bryce Harper came up and I did a little more research on him and, obviously, he has a fantastic head of hair. He’s also going to be, probably, the best baseball player that ever exists. Then I started digging into the work that he does with charity, and it was immediate. It was like, “This guy is another one of us, who wants to do some good things in this world.” He was about something more than just hitting home runs. I said, "If we can get ahold of him, this fits what we’re trying to achieve.” So we sent him a package of products and a note that said, “If you want to make some cool [stuff], let us know.” And a year later he got back to us, after a little bit of hounding.
Josh and I went down for a meeting with him and his agent and I was like, “Listen, we’re not going to be able to do what T-Mobile or Gatorade do for you.” I said, “But what I can do for you is give you a canvas to paint on. You don’t have to wear a baseball uniform with us. You don’t have to stand there and hold the pomade out with your bat. Do some cool stuff, get creative, and just do something other than get on the field and play baseball. Have fun.”
This is all self-funded? You don’t have other investors?
No. All us. The profits from our locations go back into building these places. And Bryce didn’t invest money. We gave him equity for his participation.
Was he on board before he signed with the Phillies?
Yes. It was just the perfect storm. I don’t even know how to do cartwheels, but I can tell you that I was doing a bunch of them when it happened. We had this space [in Philadelphia] lined up and we knew that he was under free agency. If he went to another city, we were probably going to follow him there while opening this one.