Feb 26, 2021 - Business

They took their Black barbershop to SouthPark. Next up: the moon.

Jermaine (left) and Damian Johnson, No Grease

No Grease owners Jermaine (left) and Damian Johnson. Photo: Michael Graff/Axios

Two successful businessmen were touring their new space in Charlotte’s fanciest mall when the person showing them around suggested they consider changing their brand.

“It’s a good thing I had my mask on,” Damian Johnson says, “so they couldn’t see the look I made.”

Damian and his twin brother, Jermaine, have built their lives around No Grease barbershop, and they’ve become a model for Black entrepreneurial success in Charlotte. Now they were entering SouthPark Mall, and now they were hearing it wasn’t good enough.

“I had to compose myself,” Damian tells me. “We understand how America has worked. So we can read between lines, [whether] it’s being done knowingly or unknowingly.”

Why it matters: They didn’t get mad, though. They knew the more pressing question hanging in the air that day was actually this: Could a Black-owned, Black-operated barbershop named No Grease succeed in an upscale mall in the heart of a neighborhood where only about 6% of the population is Black?

  • The answer, so far, is a resounding yes. The SouthPark store’s revenue numbers have already surpassed several other locations, and they’re “nipping at the heels” of the top-performing shop at Carolina Place Mall.

The big picture: The success is one more indication that Charlotte is becoming national hub for the next generation of Black barbers as they expand into corporate and lucrative environments.

The Johnsons say No Grease is the first Black-owned franchise barbershop in the country. They’ve also helped hundreds of young people re-start their lives through their barber school, including one who contracts with Walmart to open shops in their stores.

But they kept it personal, even as they grow. That’s especially true for the No Grease SouthPark store, where Damian and Jermaine took that suggestion to change their brand and are using it to start a deeper conversation about race and history.

print of 19th century barbershop hanging in No Grease SouthPark
Print 19th century barbershop hanging in No Grease SouthPark. Photo: Michael Graff/Axios

In the late 1700s and early 1800s, barbering was a top profession for Black men in the U.S. This was long after the Middle Ages, when barbers were also doctors — hence the red (blood), white (bandages), and blue (veins) of the barber pole.

The Black barbers in the early days of the U.S. had unprecedented access to elite customers, cutting the hair and shaving the necks of some of the people who enslaved them. The jobs helped them “navigate the forbidden terrain of a racist country,” according to a book written by Douglas Bristol.

They called themselves the Knights of the Razor, which is also the title of Bristol’s book. Damian and Jermaine not only read the book but they’ve become friends with Bristol.

So that night after touring the space in Charlotte’s high-end mall, they knew exactly what they’d do.

They called Bristol and told him they were going to open “Knights of the Razor, by No Grease.”

Knights of the Razor SouthPark storefront
Photo: Michael Graff/Axios

The brothers have always used their shops as places to stir up some meaningful dialogue.

They’ve received plenty of criticism over the years for their logo, which is a nod to minstrel shows in the 1800s.

Jermaine drew it when he was 19. He was a theater arts guy who admired how the minstrel characters made a living in a white world, and their contributions to modern theater. Older generations of Black customers thought the image was shameful have asked them to take it down.

Things got heated around the 2012 DNC, when a petition to remove the logo from then-Time Warner Cable arena circulated. They didn’t do it.  (“We’re taking our logo down for no president,” Jermaine says now, laughing at the memory.)

“The interesting thing being Black in America is you have to be these two people,” Damian says. “You show the face that everybody’s comfortable with, and you can’t show your Blackest side.”

Long before Charlotte was having panel discussions and task forces about race, these were the discussions happening right in those chairs at No Grease.

And, the brothers ask, isn’t that the whole point of a barbershop anyway?

Damian Johnson No Grease
The brothers have big goals. Photo: Michael Graff/Axios

The first time Damian Johnson visited SouthPark Mall, he bought a bowtie. He was a student at Johnson C. Smith, and it was the early 1990s.

He and Jermaine grew up helping their mom in her salon in Buffalo. First sweeping floors, then cutting hair. Now in college, Damian took a job at a barbershop/carwash on Central Avenue, in the building that’s now Fuel Pizza.

“Central Avenue was the wild, wild west then,” Damian says. There was an antiques store, a diner, a thrift store. They remember the thrift store owner carrying a gun up and down the street to let everyone know he had it, and thinking nothing of it at the time.

Jermaine moved to Charlotte in 1995. Today the brothers like to say they grew up in Buffalo but got their master’s degree in Charlotte.

That first shop’s owner — they call him Mr. Gordon — told them that if they wanted to keep working there, they had to buy a house. He was paying them enough to invest in their future.

They bought a four-bedroom split-level out near I-485 in northeast Charlotte in 1996 for $84,000. They each took a room and rented out the other two to college students to help them get started.

They refinanced that house to open their first No Grease in 1997 in east Charlotte. They soon invested in a barber school, fulfilling a promise they’d made themselves that if they ever had a chance, they would give back to young Black men, the way Mr. Gordon did with them.

Becoming a barber isn’t easy: the state of North Carolina requires 1,528 hours of training, or nearly 40 weeks at 40 hours a week. It’s definitely not easy at No Grease. In this family business, barber school is about more than teaching people to cut hair. It’s about teaching them how to create a business, how to succeed.

They now have a No Grease location just outside of Atlanta, and bought a house there for any employees or students who need a place. The rules go like this: the employees will take care of the house, and the Johnsons will take care of the employees.

“We’re people driven,” Damian likes to say. “Our motto is that we develop people, we develop families, we develop communities. And it all starts with a haircut.”

One of those people to come through No Grease barber school in the early 2000s was a young Shaun “Lucky” Corbett.

Shaun Corbett portrait
Shaun “Lucky” Corbett is usually in a ballcap and T-shirt, but he dressed up for the grand opening of his new shop last year. Photo: Michael Graff/Axios

You’ve heard of Lucky. He’s the owner of Lucky Spot and one of the most universally respected people in the city. He helped found the Cops & Barbers program that bridges gaps between officers and communities. His turkey drive each Thanksgiving feeds upward of 200 families. And in late 2019, he became the first Black-owned, Black-operated barbershop to open in a Walmart in the country, and did it right here on Wilkinson Boulevard.

Now Walmart wants to expand with him. He’s already in Gastonia, and will likely go beyond. When the Johnson brothers think of all of Lucky’s success they laugh because…

“We fired Lucky,” Damian says.

Yep, after barber school, Lucky took a job at No Grease. He wasn’t fitting in with the other barbers, they said, and they figured what was best for him — and for them — was to force him out on his own.

And it worked.

Now the brothers are friends with Lucky, and looking to join in his expansion.

It’s one of the city’s lesser-known points of pride: The Johnsons have the relationship with Simon, which has 200 properties around the country, and Lucky can have his pick of Walmarts.

No Grease Barbershop Uptown
No Grease Barbershop Uptown. Photo: Michael Graff/Axios

One more business item: A few years ago, the brothers took out a loan of about $300,000.

The interest rate on it was 14%. Each month they paid the bill, they grimaced. They had nearly 20 years’ experience as business owners, but still they were Black business owners, and the banks let them know that.

In August 2018, Gantt Center CEO David Taylor introduced them to Hugh McColl, the legendary banker who built Bank of America and much of Charlotte in the process. McColl, now in his 80s, was devoting most of his work now to investing in Charlotte’s Black community. In his conversation with Damian and Jermaine, McColl got right to the point, like usual: “What exactly do you need?”

“Can you take a look at this bad loan?” they said.

Twenty-four hours later, they had paperwork for a loan between 3 and 4%, Damian says.

Just like that, their lives were transformed. They took it, loved it, but it frustrated them, too

“If we were two young white men in the barber industry doing what we’ve done, we’d have been millionaires now,” Jermaine says.

They’ve been able to reinvest their monthly savings into the business — things like renovating the SouthPark shop and putting up new signs.

One day a couple of years ago, Damian stood up in their Uptown office, and started drawing arrows all over a world map. Australia, China. All the places they’d like to expand, and now could see themselves expanding. They’ll be 50 in a couple of years, and they’d love to have a shop in Africa by then, and a home there to drop one of their young students off in.

And on the other wall in that office is a framed picture of astronaut planting a flag with a No Grease logo on the moon.

No Grease flag on moon
Photo: Michael Graff/Axios

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