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Family-owned salon cuts hair for Notre Dame, South Bend communities

| Wednesday, March 8, 2023

Zak Emmons, the owner and operating barber of University Hair Stylists, has been cutting hair for 25 years, but his business has been serving the Notre Dame community for almost double that. University Hair Stylists, currently located in the basement of LaFortune Student Center, has offered haircuts to students and faculty for 45 years.

Emmons’ father Jeff started University Hair Stylists in his late 20s. Before then, Notre Dame ran its own barbershop when the University was an all-boys school, catering primarily towards the large ROTC population on campus during the ‘40s and ‘50s. The Emmons family acquired the business in 1978, expanding it into a salon that offers cuts, coloring, styling and waxing.

The Emmons were not originally in the business of owning a salon on a college campus.

“My dad was cutting hair in South Bend, and he happened to cut the hair of a couple guys who worked in the administration. And they said, ‘Jeff, we’re looking to hire. We don’t want a barbershop anymore, and we don’t want to run it. You should throw your hat in the ring,’” Emmons told The Observer.

The business originally operated in Badin Hall with a couple of chairs and one barber, moving to LaFortune in 1987.

Zak Emmons describes the business as being “backwards from a lot of places in so many ways.” For instance, they receive many more male clients than female clients at about a 70-30 ratio, atypical for a beauty salon.

“I think guys probably find it hard to stretch to go home [for] a haircut,” Emmons said. Staff and graduate students are easily half of Emmons’ clientele, if not more, with the other half being mainly undergraduates.

Many of these customers are regulars who routinely come back to the salon.

“I’d say 95% of what I do are people that I’ve done for either the last three or four years here,” Emmons said. “I’ve literally given people their first haircut, and then they’ve ended up like coming to school here.” He said he and the other hairstylists get to know their customers after years of cutting their hair.

University Hair Stylists now has six hair stylists, including Emmons. They have a very low turnover ratio of employees, differentiating them from many other hair salons. Almost everyone employed by the salon has worked there for at least 10 years, some even longer than Emmons himself.

“It’s kind of cheesy and corny, but they’ve become like family,” he said.

Customers affirm the family-oriented aspect of University Hair Stylists. Kimberly Milewski has gotten her hair done at the salon ever since she started working at Notre Dame over 25 years ago. While she was at first attracted to the salon’s convenience, coming during her lunch break, she continues to return even after retirement.

“Everybody’s so friendly. They’re always very helpful and will get you in right away,” Milewski said.

Emmons says the favorite part of his job is how everyone feels good about themselves after.

“Every day, like every 20 minutes, people come in and they’re like, ‘Oh my God, I feel so much better. Oh, that looks so great,’” he said.

Emmons loves knowing he can make someone’s day after they enter his salon, even though cutting hair doesn’t take very long. He compares it to a senior thesis, only he gets to see the light at the end of the tunnel every half an hour, then do it all over again.

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