We weren’t three minutes into our pedicure—or two toes—and already The Observer was getting wasted.
The place was Dashing Diva in Greenwich Village, a chain nail salon with 12 locations in the city and two in California. The place’s decor resembles a little like what might happen if Elle Woods met Malibu Barbie. The only part that isn’t either bright pink or white are the racks of multicolored nail polish on the walls. The pedicure station is a banquette of pink pillows, cut off from the rest of the salon by a wall of mini pearly-pink tiles. It’s a nice place to get plastered.
We were there for “Girls Night Out,” a weekly promotion that offers a free Cosmopolitan with any manicure or pedicure on from 6 to 9pm on Thursdays and Fridays. This particular salon touted a one-drink limit (at least that’s what it said on FourSquare), but we knew better. Besides, we were paying $40 for this pedi.
“You want water or Cosmo?” the pedicurist asked, only after enticing us into paying $5 extra for a mandarin orange salt soak. $45. “Cosmo,” we replied.
The Observer sipped. Svedka was our best guess. There was only one other customer, and she was not partaking. We felt like the old man at the dive bar—a lost, lonely soul, slinging back cheap whiskeys and searching for a friend. Except this time there was someone scrubbing dead skin off our feet.
The pedicurist noticed the empty glass. “You want more?” she asked.
As she returned with another, we began asking questions. Who makes these? What ingredients do you use? She didn’t know, she said. She just poured them from a jug in the back.
“You very funny,” she said and kept scrubbing.
It was then that the other customer noticed our beverage. “What is that?” she asked.
“It’s a Cosmo.”
“Oh, like on Sex and the City!”
She ordered one, and we felt better. Looser. Thirstier. We asked for one more.
“Usually customer only get one,” she said. “You drunk?”
“No. Are you kidding? Not at all!”
“You drunk! Your face red!”
Was it? Oh, god.
“Listen, I’m a bartender,” we said. “There’s no way I’m drunk off two Cosmos.”
“Ooooo-kay.” She laughed, then she got us another drink.
It’s not uncommon to walk into a salon—whether hair or nail—and have an alcoholic beverage offered to you while your perm sets or your dye soaks or whatever shellac you might have dries. In fact, it’s quite de riguer.
“I’d say most New York City salons serve wine, at least after 3 o’clock,” said Joe, who’s been a hairdresser at upscale salons in the city for seven years. “I don’t really know about like, New Jersey though.”
For most women, this is not news at all. The Observer was served our first glass of wine at age 20, by Joe himself (one of the few reasons he wanted to withhold his last name).
It a wonderful practice, isn’t it. But is it legal?
According to the New York State Liquor Authority, it isn’t—at least, not without a liquor license. And, though a spokeswoman for NYLA said she was “sure there are a couple” licensed salons in the state, the authority was unable to name any. “We don’t organize them that way,” she said.
The Observer attempted a painstaking, manual search through the list of 30,445 licensed venues in New York county, but we could not find a single licensed hair salon.
Salons in general don’t profit from alcohol. They serve it up gratis—either as a polite gesture, an attempt to allay the anxiety that can accompany a radical haircut, or a marketing tactic. Which is why going through the hassle of procuring a license hardly seems worth the trouble. Especially since, as Joe told us, salons have been serving alcohol without complaint for “as far as I know, forever and ever and ever.”
They just don’t know they’re violating the law.
At the high-profile John Barrett salon above Bergdorf Goodman, Heather, a manager who declined to give her last name, wondered why we were asking if they served wine. After all, what did it matter? “I’m pretty sure it’s legal to serve it, as long as we’re not selling it,” she said.
We told her the truth. We also told her that we had been told that the salon did in fact serve wine—by the receptionist! Like two minutes ago!
She explained that yes, the salon would offer wine, but added that technically customers would be buying it from the restaurant downstairs. “We’re a corporate salon,” she said, “so we have to cover our asses.”
April Barton, owner of the chic, celebrity-attended Suite 303 above the Chelsea Hotel (and former Season 3 contestant on Bravo’s Shear Genius) confirmed that her salon does “occasionally” serve wine. “But it’s not really a big thing,” she said. “We used to do it a lot, but lately its slowed down.”
When we told her it was illegal, she froze up for a moment. “I didn’t know,” she said.
The Observer also spoke with Kerri Lee Ross, an account supervisor for Siren PR, the agency that handles Hollywood stylist Sally Hershberger’s salons in New York. She said it was “a fair assumption” that the salons served wine to their customers, but “to be perfectly honest,” she had never heard that it was illegal.
Severon Dickson, owner of the trendy, hole-in-the-wall Dickson Hairshop on the Lower East Side, says his barbershop stopped serving bourbon a few months ago because of the “Nutcracker Bill” passed in June. That bill threatened to take store licenses—specifically salon licenses—away from any establishment found selling “Nutcrackers”—a potent Kool-Aid-like cocktail found in bodegas and barbershops, sometimes served to minors in a Styrofoam cup or soup container.
Back when they offered booze, did they have a license?
“No, but no salons do,” said Mr. Dickson claimed. “Because you don’t have to have a liquor license to give away alcohol.”
Wrong! We dropped the bomb. “Oh, O.K.,” he said, unfazed. “It’s not worth the liability for me, and I’m definitely not gonna be carding every client. Which is fine, because people don’t come here to drink. They come here for haircuts.”
Even Joe, with all his years in the business, had no idea he was violating the law. “I’m glad you told me,” he said. “I’m planning to open up my own salon, and I was going to serve wine!”
Naive as they all may have been, salon managers tended to go into lock-down mode when asked about serving booze. Diva Salon said a manager might be available to speak in an hour. The Observer returned 15 minutes early to find a dark, abandoned salon, the gate pulled down. The receptionist at the Dashing Diva said no manager would be in for five days. When Ms. Ross called The Observer back, she insisted that she had never said Ms. Hershberger’s salon served wine. At the end of our phone call with Ms. Barton, she said her salon shouldn’t really count. “I’d prefer to say we didn’t do it,” she said. “It’s not our priority here…our salon’s about craft, beauty, music.”
The last thing we want to do is rain on everybody’s parade, but according to the Liquor Authority, there are legitimate health concerns involved. Because any New York establishment with a liquor license is required to serve food of some kind and also pass an inspection by the state or city Health Departments. Think about it: would you chow down in your hair salon?
Leonard Fogelman, a lawyer who has specialized in New York liquor law for 35 years, said he’s never even heard of hair salons applying for licenses.
“What it appears is that these salons are [making] a nice gesture to their guests, but the reality is that it’s violative of New York State liquor law,” he said. “It’s a misdemeanor.”
So for god’s sake, why doesn’t the Liquor Authority act? How can this outrage be allowed to continue?
“We do receive complains once an a while, but believe it or not, we forward them to the NYPD,” said NYLA spokesman William Crowley, who explained that busting an establishment without a license did not fall under it’s jurisdiction.
“We can’t take a license away that doesn’t exist,” he said.
So should the law be enforced—if for no other reason than to bring a little more revenue into state coffers?
“The issue is not the revenue, the issue is the appropriateness of the law,” said Gerald Benjamin, a political science professor at SUNY New Paltz and an expert on state policy. “Whether the rationale is sensible in contemporary times, and if it’s not, what should replace it.”
Mr. Benjamin added that it was the first time he’d heard of the issue.
“I am shocked,” he said. “Shocked, shocked, shocked.”
When The Observer woke up in our bed three hours later, toes perfectly soft and glistening lilac, we were pretty shocked too.
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