Shelton salon heads toward half-century mark in town

Even before the business day began, Warner Voelpert, owner of Warner’s Hair Design in Huntington Center, fielded a steady stream of phone calls.

He rescheduled appointments for those who had canceled because of a recent snowstorm, and made appointments for others concerned about an impending storm.

Voelpert has run Warner’s Hair Design for the past 46 years. “I love the business,” he said. “I’m 72 years old and a happy camper. The success here is our staff.”

Of the eight hair stylists, one has worked at the salon for 38 years, another for 30 years, and another for 25 years. “In 46 years, I’ve never laid anyone off,” Voelpert said.

Staff members share responsibility, he said, and they’re responsible for their own clients. “Everybody’s a boss,” he said. “They’re all managers.”

And, “they make good money,” he added.

Voelpert is semi-retired and works part-time at the shop in Huntington Plaza, while his wife of 45 years, Janet Voelpert, coordinates the day-to-day business in the salon.

Many longtime customers

The customer base is loyal. Some clients have been coming to the salon since the day it opened, and one 93-year-old still has her hair done there. “We’ve become family,” Voelpert said.

Jean Mihelik of Shelton has been a client for at least 35 years. “I enjoy how he does my hair,” said Mihelik, who was the first client of the day on a recent Thursday. “It’s been good.”

“We don’t get complaints,” Voelpert said.

He recalls that 15 years ago Bridgeport native John Ratzenberger, who played mailman Cliff Clavin on the TV sitcom Cheers, brought his mother into Warner’s for her weekly appointment, and Ratzenberger’s sister was also a client.

Today, the clientele mostly hails from Huntington and other parts of Shelton and Monroe.

Warner’s was originally located two buildings down from where it is today, but in 1983, that building burned down.

The event turned out to be a blessing in disguise, Voelpert said, since the shop moved to a more central location in the plaza.

Huntington Plaza is a “service” rather than retail shopping center, he said, with eateries, beauty shops, doctor and dentist offices. “They all do well,” he said.

Early start in the business

Voelpert, a Shelton resident since 1975, grew up in Easton. As a boy, he and his friend, Tony Buonanno, would often do cleanup chores at Buonanno’s father’s beauty salon in Bridgeport.

Voelpert grew to like the atmosphere and realized he could make a good living running a hair salon.

And his personality matched the business. “I was a people person,” he said.

Two weeks after graduating from Bassick High School in Bridgeport, he earned his hairdressing license.

Voelpert worked at hair salons in Bridgeport, Monroe and Milford before opening Warner’s Hair Design in 1969 in Huntington.

Business was booming at Warner’s in the early years and into the 1980s, and despite the most recent economic slowdown, “our salon is quite successful,” he said.

Changes in the hair design field

The hair design business has seen changes in Voelpert’s time. “Over the years, the fads have gone,” he said, referring to such trends as the Farrah Fawcett look and Dorothy Hamill haircut.

“Now it’s individual,” he said.

In the mid-1980s, the haircut, shampoo and blow dry started replacing the permanent wave, and customers began styling their hair at home, between appointments.

“We were doing 100 permanents a week in 1985, and we lost that business,” Voelpert said. But there was a silver lining, because more women came in for color treatments, including foils, highlights and lowlights —the services that replaced permanent waves.

Despite the shift, Warner’s still offers permanents, as well as hair staining, color corrections, facial waxing, as well as haircuts and beard trims for men.

Keys to success

What’s the secret to a long-lasting business?

“We’re a friendly salon,” Voelpert said. “We listen to your wants and needs.”

Warner’s Hair Design staff consults with clients before cutting or styling, and the underlying question they ask is, “What are you missing to make yourself feel good?”

Showing customers how to take care of their hair at home is a big part of the consultation. “We’re friendly and family-oriented,” Voelpert said.

He said when children come in for their first haircuts, they get balloons as gifts, and daily and walk-in appointments for all clients are available, time permitting.

Warner’s prides itself on strict adherence to appointment schedules. “We’re on time,” Voelpert said.

The salon opens early for the convenience of customers. It operates Tuesday to Saturday, opening at 7 a.m. Men come in for haircuts before going to work, he said, and nurses visit the salon on their way home from night shifts.

Wedding parties also make use of the early hours, and can make special Sunday hours by appointment.

A positive outlook

Warner’s is a Paul Mitchell Signature Salon, and the staff receives product training twice a year, Voelpert said. Warner’s also sells Matrix products.

Through the years, small salons have lost their identity amidst large companies, Voelpert said, and beauty trade shows have grown larger and less personalized.

“We become a number,” he said. “We’re guinea pigs for the companies. Sometimes the companies forget about the little guy that made them.”

But despite the changes, Voelpert remains positive about the business and his customers. “If they’re satisfied, I’m satisfied,” he said. “I come to work smiling, and I leave smiling. Every day is a happy day here.”

Warner’s Hair Design, 19 Huntington Plaza, is open Tuesday from 7 a.m.-5 p.m., Wednesday and Thursday from 7 a.m.-8 p.m., Friday from 7 a.m.-5 p.m., and Saturday from 7 a.m.-3 p.m.