Waterhouse Salon celebrates 30 years downtown
UPDATE: This version clarifies that not all spa services have ended at Waterhouse Salon.
New London — Richard "Ric" Waterhouse had just dropped out of college with only a few dollars to his name when he arrived in the city with no job and no place to live, hundreds of miles from home.
Even his landing in New London was a bit haphazard, the result of having a roommate at Rhode Island College whose parents lived here. Sure, he had family in Groton and Pawcatuck, but on July 2, 1982, he felt like he had nothing, a clean slate, all roads leading nowhere.
Somebody took pity on the young man, and recommended he go to City Hall to ask for food and rent vouchers. From there, he found work at the city's waste transfer station separating garbage as he dealt with the flies and bees and stench.
"That motivated me," Waterhouse recalled in a Sept. 7 interview at Washington Street Coffee House. "There was no place more bottom to start."
Still, Waterhouse's rise to become one of the premier salon owners in the region didn't happen overnight. There were bumps and starts along the way, including a stint at the former Friendly's restaurant on Broad Street (now a Dunkin Donuts) and the long slog he endured walking in the freezing cold to a job at Filene's in the Crystal Mall.
Then he had a crazy kind of break when he decided to go back to school using a $2,500 loan procured from a local bank. At first, he headed over to the former New London School of Business but they wanted $2.700 for their program; he later came into the former New London Academy of Hairdressing in downtown, and $2,500 turned out to be the perfect amount.
Not long after, he popped into Nancy's Salon on Meridien Street , and he thought it was the most beautiful place he'd ever seen. Nancy Hennegan, the owner who still runs the salon, took a chance on Waterhouse, a chance that he'll never forget.
A few years later, an opportunity opened up for Waterhouse to run his own salon on Bank Street, and at first he hesitated. He was, after all, only 26 years old.
"I never had the intention to open my own salon," he said.
Now, 30 years later, all the pieces have fallen into place. He owns the thriving Waterhouse Salon and his Bank Street building, employs seven people (two for more than a quarter century), and maintains a client list in the hundreds. COVID-19 was tough on the business as he was forced to close for three months, but the salon is now back with all safety precautions in place. And, most important to Waterhouse, he was able to pay for his employees' health insurance during the interim.
"I was really impressed that other salon owners were reaching out to each other and checking in," Waterhouse said. "It was a nice feeling."
Customers, he added, have been equally solicitous, phoning and even writing cards to express their concern. Overall, he said, the sense of community has been refreshing.
"We're inches from customers' faces all day long," Waterhouse said. "Even a doctor I know said 'I don't spend so much time so close to everyone.'"
Waterhouse said he is reacting to the pandemic by the book: requiring temperature checks of customers, constantly cleaning and taking only one customer per chair every hour. No facials are allowed, and some spa services are on hold for now, though others such as manicures and pedicures are available. Even self-serve coffee, magazine racks and water coolers are off limits.
"In Connecticut, people are known for following the rules," he said.
Waterhouse typically defers to his employees when talking about the success of his business.
"I have always tried to identify my professional weaknesses and hire my weaknesses," he said in a message.
He mentioned Jennifer Greene, who has been cutting hair alongside him for 26 years, and Laura Light, his esthetician, who has worked at the salon for 27 years. He also wanted to salute Jason Steele, a hairdresser for 16 years, and Giana Anton, a "rock star" in the industry.
But perhaps he owes his 98-year-old friend and client Lenore Levin the biggest thank you. It was she, whose family once owned the former Solomon's office supply company now occupied by The Social Bar + Grill on Bank Street, who set him up in business, saying she knew he would pay back the loan.
Waterhouse remembers her telling him, "'I didn't want to walk any farther to have my hair done.' ... She really wanted me to be on Bank Street."
One of the biggest boosts to his business right from the very beginning and continuing today, Waterhouse said, is his salon's relationship with the Aveda beauty line and their all-natural, certified-organic products without synthetic fragrances.
"That's probably the biggest change in 30 years," he said. "People really do care (about environmentally sensitive products)."
Waterhouse reports that the business has had its ebbs and flows, but overall he is happy with being in downtown and has been impressed with Felix Reyes, the city's economic development director, as well as the commitment of Mayor Michael Passero. He even admits to being happy with traffic changes on Bank Street to one-way, one-lane traffic that he initially had thought would be disastrous.
"That was the single best thing they've done in a decade," Waterhouse, a former New London resident who now lives in Lyme, said. "A lot of progress is being made."
Still, he has concerns over the future of downtown with many of its most prominent businesspeople getting on in years. He's in his 50s, and is considered one of the younger entrepreneurs who has made a go of it in the heart of the city. At this point, he said, he may be the longest-running business on Bank Street besides the Bank Street Cobbler.
As for changes he has seen in the industry, Waterhouse jokes that people used to find value in his services based on the amount of hair left on the floor; now, "people pay me and find value for the hair left on their head. After all, that's what they're buying, right?"
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