Out With Fancy Spas, in With Budget Salons
By KAYLEEN SCHAEFER
November 26, 2008
UNLIKE some New Yorkers who can’t get enough of hand-pulled noodles or facsimiles of designer purses, Sheila Hurtado doesn’t make a habit of going to Chinatown to shop or dine. But in recent weeks the 35-year-old office manager who lives in Park Slope has found another reason to make the trip there to see Wineeta Ranftle, an esthetician from Bangkok, who gives deep-cleansing facials in what was once an office supply closet for as little as $32.50.
I’m trying to be frugal, said Ms. Hurtado, who used to get $65 facials at the Rompal Salon in Park Slope, where the lighting is dim and the waiting room is stocked with chocolate and wine. In contrast, at Ms. Ranftle’s small fluorescent-lit space in a beauty supply warehouse, treatments are accompanied by a sound-track of wind chimes emanating from a portable CD player that hardly masks the ringing of office phones and thumping music from the clothing store downstairs.
Still, Ms. Hurtado said, Wineeta gives me really good facials, and I can’t believe the price.
In an era of economic austerity, Ms. Hurtado is among those who are trading down for luxuries they just can’t give up. Sure, budget beauty seekers have been haunting Chinatown and Koreatown for years, but the ailing economy is making $300 for a massage seem excessive even for those who can afford it.
Take Meredith Haberfeld, 34, an executive coach in Williamsburg who has tried out expensive spas in New York, Las Vegas and elsewhere. I’m repeatedly disappointed by the fancy spas, she said. Often, I feel like I just spent $300 and I didn’t even like it.
Recently, Ms. Haberfeld’s quest for the ultimate foot rub led her to Feet Island in a basement on Mott Street, where a man she calls Dr. Joe works on her feet for 75 cents a minute.
Owners of budget salons in New York that offer everything from facials to eyelash extensions to hair-styling say that more and more women who claim they were once regulars at spas like Bliss or Haven in SoHo are showing up for treatments that will cost them less than half the price.
For example, at Sai Kay 21 on Bayard Street in Chinatown, where an hour and a half facial costs $55 albeit in a room with a couple of other customers the esthetician, Mandy Wong, said she recently noticed more non-Asian women at the salon.
They come in groups to eat and get a facial, she said. Everything is a little cheaper here. It’s the Chinese style.
I thought my business would decrease in this economy, said Grace Gao Macnow, the owner of Graceful Services, a Midtown spa that charges $60 for an hour qigong massage, but instead it’s increased some of my clients have a black Amex card and still they come here.
The transition to a spa without rainfall showers, candles or mud baths, and space to pad around in a robe and slippers can be rough for some.
At Graceful Services, for example, there aren’t any lockers for customers to stash their shoes and bags in, which Ms. Macnow said was a problem for a recent visitor carrying a Gucci purse.
She said, I’m not putting my $2,000 purse in a bin with my shoes,’ said Ms. Macnow, who told her to just lie down.
The woman did, and after her massage, Ms. Macnow said the more-than-satisfied customer apologized for grumbling.
Recently, Ms. Ranftle, the beauty esthetician who works out of the warehouse on Broadway, said she had a new customer who, before she could begin the facial, asked Ms. Ranftle: Did you wash your hands?
Some people are going to like my room and some people are going to say it’s not for me, Ms. Ranftle said. I don’t take it personally.
Of course, there are those who have been partaking in unadorned spa experiences before the economy made them a necessity and are sorry to see their secret places flooded with bargain seekers.
In the last few months, Agnes Park, 29, a lawyer who lives in Manhattan, has noticed more non-Asian women than Asian women at Ebenezer Eyelash on 32nd Street in Koreatown, where lash extensions cost $90 for a full set, compared with about $300 at places like Shu Uemura. It’s really hard to get appointments now, she said. I have to beg them. And this will be on a Tuesday night, not a Friday night when girls want to go out with their lashes.
Jenn Falik, a beauty and style expert who’s made appearances on the Today Show and E! News, frequents salons like Hair Party 24, a 24-hour Korean hair salon on Madison Avenue and 28th Street, and a Chinese qigong massage place on 14th Street in the meatpacking district that is decorated only with a giant fish tank in the front. In the last several months, she has noticed that the latter has become decidedly busier.
There was never anyone there, she said. It would be me, my husband, and the taxicab drivers with their cabs in neutral idling outside.
But this summer, the waiting area was packed with guys who looked like they worked in investment banking and women who appeared to be on breaks from their jobs at local boutiques. The cabdrivers would just get 15-minute treatments and be gone, Ms. Falik said. But these people were getting longer treatments. We had to sit in the dank waiting area and watch the fish eat the algae.
Some hope they can fend off the crowds by refusing to reveal their cheap finds. Anna Bennett, 42, who lives in the Bronx and is an assistant to the dean at Benjamin N. Cardozo School of Law, won’t review her Chinatown spots for facials on Yelp, a Web site for posting reviews, even though she writes about other places in the city. Her co-workers feel the same. One gets her hair straightened for $12 somewhere in Chinatown but refuses to give Ms. Bennett the name of the place.
No matter how many times I ask, she won’t tell me the name of it, she said. She doesn’t want anyone to go there.