When Debbie Nazelrod opened Spa in the Valley in 2005, she thought it was perfect—but there was one minor flaw. “I remember a client saying, ‘You built such a beautiful space, but I’m very disappointed with your bathroom,’” Nazelrod recalls. “And I’m thinking, ‘I just built a salon so nice that this could be my home,’ but I also knew she was right.” This feedback led Nazelrod to go all out in the bathrooms at her latest venture, Spa on the Boulevard. “I take everything a client has to say seriously,” she says. “Whether it’s positive or negative.”
Nazelrod has always exhibited this perfectionism in customer service from as far back as 24 years ago when she opened her modest first salon on South Charles Street to this past year when she started her new venture, Spa on the Boulevard. Opened a year ago this month and located in Abingdon’s bustling Boulevard at Box Hill shopping center, the French-chateau inspired space is the most recent addition to an ever-expanding salon-spa beauty empire that includes the Moroccan-themed Spa on the Avenue in White Marsh and Hunt Valley’s Spa in the Valley with its Tuscan touches.
“We started with 800 square feet,” says Nazelrod, 56, who owned and operated several salons prior to her line Salon By Debbie, “and worked our way up to 11,500 square feet at this location. I’ve never really been afraid of opening new locations. All told, we’ve built 27,873 square feet through the years. But we have always built from something small and then gone to the next location and the next.”
Salons and spas come and go—and many last as long as a manicure, with cutthroat competition and more firings than an episode of The Apprentice. But with a staff of 275—including Nazelrod’s devoted daughter who suffers from a hair-loss disease and has a unique understanding of guests’ needs—the salons are not only surviving, but thriving. Last year’s revenues alone (not including the Boulevard, which had yet to open) were close to $7 million.
“I’ve seen the dream evolve,” says one of Nazelrod’s longest-running customers, Susan Wiley who has been with her since the start. “When she was working downtown, I’d drive all the way from where I live in Baldwin. I’d tell her, ‘Get out of the city and come to the county.’ I’d say, ‘Trust me. You’ll have customers. If you build it, we will come.’”
And they have. With all locations open seven days a week—many salons traditionally take Monday off—Nazelrod’s client base includes some 170,000 customers who flock for soothing stone massages, oatmeal and licorice body treatments, balayage hair highlights, Brazilian bikini waxings, lash extensions, and Ayurvedic facials. The spaces themselves are immaculate and inspired (by trips to spas in Sonoma County, CA; South Beach, FL; Florence, Italy; and other destinations), and services such as a signature nearly two-hour Ultimate Facial (entailing everything from extraction to a total body massage) are unique and keep the appointment books brimming.
“I started coming for facials and waxing,” says Wiley. “Now, they take care of this whole 61-year-old deal. I would never think of going anywhere else. A lot of people put lip service to customer service and innovation, but Debbie actually makes it happen. Debbie is a perfectionist who anticipates what you need before you know you need it, and she has always been very good at figuring out what is trending.”
The accolades keep coming. Nazelrod has practically papered her walls with awards, including America’s “200 Fastest-Growing Salons” by Salon Today, one of Baltimore’s Largest Women-Owned Businesses by the Baltimore Business Journal, and Top Female CEO by SmartCEO (not to mention numerous “Top Salons” nods from this magazine).
How Debbie has done it boils down to a combination of pluck, passion, and purpose. Sitting in the garden room—a relaxation area at the Spa on the Boulevard with peach-colored walls, palm plants, and soft music—Nazelrod seems to marvel at how she built a business from a single salon to become a major player on the salon-spa scene.
“[My husband] Rick and I both grew up in tiny row homes in Loch Raven Village,” explains Nazelrod. “I come from a family of four children, and Rick came from a family of five. My father was a firefighter and worked his way up to lieutenant with Baltimore City. My mother was a seamstress in a sweatshop.”
For Rick’s part, his father worked for a Baltimore printing company as a bookbinder and his mother worked part-time at Read’s drug store in Towson. Both grew up understanding the value of hard work, though entrepreneurship was not on the radar.
“We were both from blue-collar families,” says Rick, who has known Nazelrod since she was nine and the best friend of his younger sister. (They didn’t date until many years later, after they both found themselves divorced.) “You work until a certain hour, and you come home to eat dinner with your family—that kind of thing. If we had tried to plan all of this as our life’s dream, it never would have worked.”
While still in high school, Nazelrod, who always loved playing with makeup, went to work for About Faces. “I worked part-time as a receptionist for [then owner] Gloria Brennan,” explains Nazelrod. “I felt at home there right away.” But when it came time to pick a profession, Nazelrod felt limited in her options. “Since I had come from a blue-collar family I thought that all I could do was be a secretary, a nurse, or a teacher.”
But it was Gloria’s then-husband Patrick Brennan who helped expand her horizons, encouraging Nazelrod to learn the beauty trade and then work for him on the floor. By 1980, she became an aesthetician and continued to work at About Faces in Pikesville for 13 years, where she built a client base thanks to her sunny personality and commitment to hard work.
Patrick says he’s not surprised by his former employee’s success. “She was always committed and competent,” he recalls. “She had good customer-service skills as well as being client oriented and good technically—Debbie is very good at what she does.” (Though there are no hard feelings, About Faces is now a direct competitor.)
A large part of Nazelrod’s success is also due to the fact that she has surrounded herself with members of her own, extremely close-knit family—all of whom are involved in aspects of the business. Her 27-year-old daughter Amanda Jeffries is the general manager at the Boulevard and Nazelrod is currently grooming her, so to speak, to take over the business in the years to come. Amanda has also been instrumental in helping to forge ahead with plans for a dedicated hair-loss area installed at Spa on the Boulevard for those who suffer from thinning hair, hair loss due to chemotherapy, and other conditions.
Ironically, Jeffries herself suffers from alopecia (a condition in which hair is lost from some or all areas of the body, usually from the scalp), which necessitates wearing a hairpiece, as well as having her eyebrows tattooed on. “I would love to be able to help others going through similar issues,” says Jeffries. “It definitely has been a journey; a lot of tears and heartache.” But Jeffries’s struggles have also proven of value on the job. “I am able to understand our guests’ needs and appreciate that hair can change one’s image,” she says. “While I face challenges every day—bad hair days, eyelash problems, and hating summer weather—I love my job and surrounding myself with watching our guests transform.”
While Amanda is stationed on the Boulevard, Nazelrod’s son, Joe, does the bookkeeping for all three locations (“I can honestly say there’s nothing bad about working with my family,” he says); Nazelrod’s stepson, Tim, does the electrical work; and Rick, who in the early days did the major construction work on her smaller spaces, is in charge of facilities management.
“There was a time when I did the drawings, I framed everything out, and did the spackling and painting,” he says. In those early days, Debbie’s salons were very much a grassroots, DIY affair. “We had so much help from friends and family,” says Nazelrod. “I have a picture [hanging in my foyer] that I purchased in Amish country of a barn raising. It reminded me so much of what our friends and family have done.”
And anyone who isn’t family still gets treated as such. When a hairstylist needed a kidney transplant, Nazelrod and her staff raised more than $30,000 at a benefit at Martin’s East, including proceeds from a staff-written cookbook. “She makes each and every one of us part of her family,” says longtime employee Megan Dulsky, the general manager at Spa on the Avenue. Adds Avenue spa manager Elaine Girardi, “She’s a good person and that helps her attract good people.”
The love is clearly mutual. With her perfectly applied makeup and eyes that sparkle when she speaks, Nazelrod gets emotional when she talks about her staff. “I just came back from a family trip to Jamaica,” she says. “I had a massage there, and their touch is incredible—you can’t teach that. You can teach everything else, but they’ve got to have it in here,” she says pressing on her heart. “Those are the people who I want here and 98 percent of the people we hire have [that quality].”
When Nazelrod isn’t spending two days a week at each spa-salon, she and Rick enjoy season tickets to the Ravens’ games or cooking dinner for family in their Perry Hall home. Another favorite pastime is hitting the road in their 40-foot motor coach—“it looks like an apartment,” says Nazelrod, laughing—for road trips to Key West, Ocean City, and Gettysburg. “We don’t give gifts for the holiday,” says Nazelrod. “We give memories.”
Despite the long hours and occasional headaches that come with running a large group of businesses, Nazelrod says she couldn’t be more pleased.
“I would do it again and again,” she says, her voice catching with emotion. “I love this business. I love being able to take care of my clients to the point where I watch them walk out that door almost stumbling because, after coming here, they feel like they are in La La Land.”