Long Island is a place that expects things. We expect a coffee shop on every street corner. We expect outstanding weather from June through August. We expect to jump on the L.I.E. and not encounter traffic. We expect to head out the door at 7 p.m. on a Saturday night and get a table at any restaurant just by walking in. Some of these are realistic; some are not.
But there is one thing that goes beyond an expectation and approaches necessity—we need to look good. Not just good; good. And that intrinsic need to have an outward appearance that turns heads is the reason Cactus Salon and Spa has grown from a one-shop operation to the preeminent styling outfit on LI.
Cactus was founded in 1978 by Joe Secreti. The initial business model called for a single salon in Dix Hills, but he quickly realized there was an opportunity to establish something bigger. So he opened a second salon. And then a third. And so on, until, 32 years and 28 ribbon-cutting ceremonies later, he turned Long Island into the staging grounds for a bona fide styling empire. His goal—become a brand.
“We quickly understood we needed a brand to take it to the next level,” Secreti says. “Once we became a brand, we were able to change the business model to [one] that really made sense.”
Advertising in print (the Press), over the airwaves (WBLI, KJOY, WALKFM) and on TV (MTV, News 12) brought exposure and public awareness to the Salon, and that led the rampant expansion of the Cactus brand. Secreti pegs the ’90s—specifically from 1992 to 2000—as the time period when his business made that next step.
But rather than get cozy with a loose grouping of salons bearing the same name, Secreti decided to further raise the bar. His new goal became to put measures in place that would ensure customers could expect the same high-quality styling regardless of the Cactus Salon branch they walked into. The all-too-common practice of scheduling an appointment months in advance or spending hours waiting on a walk-in for the one hair cutter who could actually cut hair didn’t work. He wanted to take the chain and make it tighter.
To that end, Secreti partnered with Paul Mitchell Schools—the “Harvard of all beauty schools”—to create Cactus Academy. And academy is certainly the right word. His base of operations resides in a 20,000-squarefoot building inside Roosevelt Field Mall, where 150 students undergo a year-long training course.
“These kids come out like Green Beret soldiers,” Secreti says. The end result is an army of professionally trained, world-educated (some receive training from overseas places like London and Italy), scissors-and-comb-wielding hairstyle architects.
Cactus’ future is being paved by two ideas—continued expansion and refinement. Secreti sees between 15 and 20 branches springing up across LI over the next five years and 200 locations opening off the Island. The refining will be modeled after the Salon’s Stony Brook location, which has 24-foot ceilings and is “very, very edge-y Manhattan.”
All that growth typically comes at the expense of any relation a business has with its community, but the same can’t be said for Joe’s. Always actively giving back to the Island that got it off the ground, Cactus gives cards to every employee at Stony Brook Hospital and College. Those cards get them a 10 percent discount on whatever services they choose. On top of that, the Salon then gives 10 percent of whatever is spent to Stony Brook Children’s Hospital and the Sunrise Fund.
Beyond the time and money spent on a salon appointment, there’s a certain level of trust that has to be shared between client and cutter, where the former is asked to put their hair, nails and skin in the hands of the latter and feel confident in the outcome.
Two schools of thought have come out of this dilemma: The first scours the Internet and relies on the recommendations of friends to find a stylist, sits down in a chair, closes their eyes and prays the person they see staring back through the mirror resembles what they hoped. The second goes to Cactus Salon. Deciding which you belong in couldn’t be any easier.