The Weave Bar in West Philly doesn't open until 9 a.m., but many women - and some men - start lining up at 7 against a backdrop of fried fish restaurants and African braid shops to snag the precious first walk-in appointment of the day.
Most come with their tresses already washed and blown out; some have bags of hair stashed in pocketbooks. Why are they so excited?
Because once they hop in the chair, they'll be out in 90 minutes. And - get this - prices start at $50 for a whole head full of long, luxurious, silken hair. For women who have spent hundreds of dollars and hundreds of hours waiting for extensions, the Weave Bar is akin to, well, haute heaven.
"I used to drive up to New York on the regular to get my hair done," said Jonesy, WUSL Power 99's popular morning-show host. "But ever since I started going [to the Weave Bar], I haven't gone back up. They do such a good job and most importantly, they really value my time. And as a working woman, my time is valuable."
Jonesy, who is rocking a kinky, curly do that falls to the middle of her back, illustrates the latest trend in black hair care: the express weave service. Arrive with clean and blow-dried hair, and choose from a menu of a la carte services that includes ponytails, cuts, and weaving. At a one-stop shop, you can also buy your hair there. Some days are walk-ins. But if you have an appointment (available at the Weave Bar Mondays through Wednesdays), you can get out in the time it takes for a long lunch.
This "Hair Cuttery for weaves" model, started in Georgia, has recently blossomed for two main reasons: On-the-go women - of all races - like layered, lengthy locks. Like it or not, weaves have become mainstream. The woman sitting next to you may even be wearing one.
Secondly, the tough economy forced African American salon owners to rethink their business plans as an increasing number of both well-heeled and younger customers were no longer willing to spend time and money in a place that sometimes forced its clients to wait all day for unsatisfactory service.
"We are pushing a new concept of a salon here," said Yolanda Bailey, the 29-year-old mother of two and real estate agent who in February opened the Weave Bar with her husband, Mahari.
Since then, the business (Bailey is not a hair stylist) has serviced close to 2,500 customers, some of whom travel from as far away as Washington. She's earned back most of her $40,000 investment, and she's eyeing a second location in North Philadelphia.
"It's about a pleasant experience at an affordable price. With the recession, a lot of people cut back."
Express-weave connoisseurs point to Patricia Thompson's 14-year-old Georgia-based salon, Touched by an Angel, as the first weave-and-go operation. But the idea didn't really take off until three years ago when one of Thompson's former employees, LaTonya Saunderson, opened the Weave Shop. Her motto: Home of the original $50 sew-in weave. Saunderson heavily advertised on Atlanta billboards and online. She now has 10 salons and franchises throughout Georgia and Michigan as well as two New Jersey locations in Bloomfield and New Brunswick.
Maja Sly, an Atlanta-based real estate agent, modeled a similar business, the Weave Express, after Saunderson's. She opened her first store in October and is already working on her third.
"It's all about the system," Sly said. "And it works because we are able to make money because we are saving money. The utilities are less than a traditional salon because we use less water because people come in with their hair washed." And because the weaves they put in already are straight, all the stylists have to do, if their clients want them to, is curl the hair.
The business venture is clearly working for Bailey, who also offers a full range of services for women who just want to have someone else wash their hair.
On a recent Friday morning, seven stylists and three assistants are busy in the 1,200-square-foot space trimmed in cherry wood. The exposed brick gives the place a downtown feel.
Some women are having their hair braided against their scalp in preparation for their weaves. Other clients are in the process of getting about 12 to 15 rows - or tracks - of hair sewn in.
Among them, there are a lot of reasons to look pretty: an Usher concert, a 21st birthday bash, a trip to the Bahamas. Stylist Joy London just finished sewing in 32-year-old Kia Banton's weave and is putting in a swirl of curls.
"Every time I come here, I'm always pleased," said Banton, who lives in Overbrook and works for the federal government. This is her second visit. "It's such a classy place, and I look good when I'm done."
Who says a cheap weave can't be a good one?