NVC Alum Ezza Opens New Location, Finds New Ways to Expand
Ezza Nails, co-founded by Booth alums Ale Breuer (CEO) and Kim Marsh (COO), specializes in manicures for the professional woman. The 2017 Edward L. Kaplan, ’71, New Venture Challenge finalist runs on a membership-based experience with cashless payments and non-toxic polishes – and has flipped the typical salon model on its head.
The industry is known for its competitive atmosphere: nail specialists usually build their own clientele and rely on tips. At Ezza, there is no living off of tips; each nail specialist is paid a high hourly rate, receives gratuities and performance-based bonuses, and is provided health and dental benefits. It’s a career.
Clearly, their vision has been successful. During the 2017 NVC process, Breuer and Marsh made connections and worked on the business, winning $75,000 to put toward the business. They then went on to participate in the Pritzker Summer Accelerator Program before opening their first salon in 2018. The following year proved prosperous, too. The nail company raised $1.5 million in funding and launched its second location in downtown Chicago.
Ezza’s third Chicago salon open last month. This West Loop location, however, is different from the first two. According to Breuer and Marsh, it was designed “to represent the future of Ezza: a nail home that brings people together with a shared passion to empower women through nail.” With two stories, the second floor is dedicated exclusively to hosting corporate and community events. There, the hope is that members and guests will gather (post-pandemic) to learn more about Ezza products and best practices to maintain the company’s signature no-chip manicure.
Another exciting perk of the location is its next-door neighbor, Ulta Beauty. Breuer and Marsh saw the potential in a partnership between Ezza and Ulta. Undeterred by the beauty company’s nails exclusivity clause, they met with the CEO, Mary Dillon, and convinced her to lift the clause in order to offer Ezza’s nail services.
The West Loop location was meant to open in April, but due to the COVID-19 pandemic, it had to be delayed. When lockdown hit, Marsh and Breuer’s first priority was the staff. “Ezza,” the pair says, “would not be here today without the hard work of our operators and nail specialists as well as the deep support from our members and guests.” They raised more than $30,000 for their nail specialists using a “Support Our Squad Fund.” They wanted their employees to know there was a community behind them.
With the knowledge that Ezza would eventually re-open, the co-founders spent months researching ways to keep their staff and customers safe. “It was very important to us that we not only followed the Illinois and Chicago public health guidelines,” the duo says, “but that we were going above and beyond to ensure that we had the right policies and systems in place.”
When Ezza opened its doors again on June 15 (once Chicago entered Phase 3), operations looked a little different. Plexiglass barriers sat on salon stations to separate clients and nail specialists. Floor decals guided social distancing. Mandatory masks, limited capacity at any given time, extreme sanitization between appointments, among other strict safety measures, were now the norm. Initially, Breuer and Marsh worried about reactions to the policies, but so far so good. Everyone has followed the rules, and the positive feedback from both employees and customers has been overwhelming, they said.
COVID-19 has put the company motto, “Tough As Nails,” to the test. Though location expansions are on the backburner, the co-founders have found new ways to expand. “This pandemic,” Breuer and Marsh say, “has forced us to innovate and identify new opportunities for Ezza by accelerating our goals for ecommerce and retail.” They completely rethought how to best use company resources and time. This ultimately resulted in restructuring corporate roles to concentrate on product innovation and retail launches.
The new branch of business has already released its first product with much success. Ezza’s Toughen Up Kit has sold out twice during quarantine, and it is set to release a new At-Home Gel Removal Kit, as well. This will allow for faster appointments, which will minimize time in the space to keep everyone safer. Thanks to Ezza’s new partnership with Asutra, the self-care retailer endorsed by Venus Williams, the Kit will also include Asutra’s Sleep the Night Away lotion.