Since the start of the coronavirus pandemic, Black owned businesses have struggled to make ends meet, with 41% completely shuttering in comparison to just 17 percent of white-owned businesses, according to a study from the National Bureau of Economic Research. This represents a massive loss for over 440,000 Black business owners nationwide.
Like many entrepreneurs, Teychenne and Jataon Whitley, cousins and co-owners of Milk and Cookies Kids Spa and Salon on NYC’s Upper East Side, were forced to rethink their business tactics to stay afloat. And while it wasn’t easy, they developed innovative solutions to reimagine the popular kids spa and salon: a new gaming app (the beauty shop answer to Candy Crush), an expansion of their “Splat” collection of non-toxic kids nail polish, and by offering socially-distanced birthday parties for kids.
Ultimately, for Milk and Cookies Kids Spa and Salon, the less-than-ideal situation has led to surprisingly positive results. And with the increase of New Yorkers who are getting vaccinated, they finally can see some light at the end of the tunnel. In this conversation with ESSENCE, they discuss how they were able to overcome obstacles in the midst of a pandemic, and advice for other business owners on how to pivot for success.
What sparked the idea for a kid spa?
Jataon: We had always wanted to start a fun business together. The idea for ‘Milk and Cookies’ was a lightbulb moment I had with my daughter, Maileya. Starting from when she was pre-school aged, she loved coming with me to the nail salon to get her nails done and was fascinated with the whole experience. So one night, I was having dinner with Tey[chenne], and I asked her what she thought. She was already in the kids clothing business with her clothing line, Tiny Pants Kids.
Teychenne: It was an immediate spark. I loved it, and right away, we started vibing on the concept. I even came up with the name on the spot: “We’re going to name it Milk and Cookies.” From that night, It took about a year and a half until we opened our doors in February of 2015 in NYC’s Upper East Side neighborhood. About six months of planning and a year of being in motion. And it’s not real until you start filing paperwork!
Jataon: Since I was a mom to a boy and a girl, I wanted to make sure our concept was unisex, and I’m proud to say, I think we were actually the first kids spa and salon to open in NYC.
Did you face any challenges during the COVID-19 pandemic? If so, how did you overcome them?
Teychenne: In addition to being a spa and salon, we are also a popular kids’ birthday venue (spa-themed parties), so lockdowns affected us doubly hard when COVID hit. We were able to re-open as per NY State guidance on June 22, 2020, but have since been operating by appointment only, and with current social-distancing guidelines, we cannot take walk-ins. With these restrictions, and with birthday parties still not picking back up, we’re only operating at about 25% of our normal revenue.
Jataon: As with many retail businesses like ours, it has been an ongoing struggle. LIterally every other day, one of us wants to throw in the towel, but then we think about the customers and how many lives we’ve touched through these past years since opening our doors– literally seeing these kids grow up from when they came in as babies for their first haircuts, and it keeps us going.
Teychenne: We’ve always had the vision to expand our kids spa concept globally and digitally. When COVID-19 hit, it prompted us to move forward with one of our big dreams for the brand, which was to go digital and create an app. With everything becoming virtual, we said, why not, and we developed Fun, Beauty & Sweets, the beauty salon-themed answer to Candy Crush, a match 3 game which encourages kids to solve spatial puzzle problems.
This app is also a way for our brand to creatively engage our existing clients that might not yet be coming into the spa, and potentially find new ones. In fact, clients can now earn loyalty points, aka ‘Cookie Points,’ digitally. For each destination they complete in the game, they can earn 50 points that they can redeem for free services in-spa. Cookie Points were previously only accumulated by in-store spend.
And for anyone committed and skilled enough to complete all destinations, achieving the topmost level of the game, Milk and Cookies will let them select the next official color in our Splat nail polish collection, and we’ll even name it in their honor (limited to 3 total color introductions).
What does a return to “normal” look like for Milk and Cookies Kids Spa and Salon?
Jataon: I don’t think “normal” will look like the “normal” we knew pre-pandemic. Our by-appointment-only and COVID safety protocols will be with us for a while, and I definitely think we will have our technicians and stylists wearing masks for the foreseeable future. However, we are starting to see last year’s birthday parties re-book, albeit much smaller parties.
What advice do you have for other small business owners who may have faced challenges during the pandemic?
Teychenne: Now is the time to dream big. Use the time to explore creating a product or service to extend your brand. We didn’t have a technology background, but we had an idea, and we knew we could count on our own circle of friends and family, who supported us from day one, to help us figure it out.
Jataon: Now is also the time to get really involved in your business on the front lines. I know for us, COVID has brought with it, understandably, a high stress situation. You have to be mindful of where people are, be empathetic to what they’re going through, maybe they have a different background than you. We have had to instill a greater sense of calm, empathy and sensitivity at our business, while still standing firm on safety protocols.