Photos: Kris Kathmann – Concept & Design
50-year-old business helps regular customers feel healthy, well groomed, and part of a close-knit family.
The 1982-93 feel-good sitcom Cheers with know-it-all Cliff, athlete Sam, psychiatrist Frasier and perfectionist Diane was set in a Boston neighborhood bar “where everybody knows your name.” The bar patrons gathered as family.
The Waseca equivalent resides on 114 2nd Avenue NW, where the help and clientele often mix business and personal to help each other get through this unpredictable journey of ours called life. Owner Amy Prechel Bohlen is Rebecca Howe (Kirstie Alley) in this sketch, albeit a much more pleasant version than the sour Cheers manager.
Amy’s mother and a regular patron, Betty Prechel, who founded the business in 1960, named her salon after her husband Leo Alfred Prechel, another regular. Today, locals call this down-home-friendly meeting spot La Pre Chel Salon & Spa.
Tears fall freely when Amy mentions mother Betty, who began pampering customers 50 years ago in their country home five miles outside Waseca. Says Amy in a Connect Business Magazine interview: “I took over from my mother in 2002. She is motivating, extremely. I don’t know what to say.”
At this point, Amy daubs a facial tissue to her wet cheek. She pauses—to say she doesn’t know exactly why she is crying. But she knows. “My mother has always encouraged me to go beyond the norm, and she gives me the extra push, and she has always been there to help me,” she says. “She is a very kind woman and always motivated to do better. She is just a big sweetheart all around and there is nothing you could say bad about her.”
Amy Prechel Bohlen and mother Betty Prechel
Another pause. Emotions run deep because Betty raised Amy, in essence, in La Pre Chel, back when whirring hair dryers and faint perm scent dominated. To discuss the business is to discuss Betty and the three of them have become so enmeshed over Amy’s lifetime that her thoughts often can’t sort through the difference.
“We were always around the business,” says Amy of she and her three sisters, and their being around the business always meant being close to mom. “After school, we would all go to the salon. Sometimes I would take naps on the backbench while she worked. I had mannequins to play with and did hair on those. She was always looking at opportunities to grow the business, always looking for something different to add to the business.”
Betty kept a styling chair at home, which she often used as a temporary salon while having to move from one location in town to another. The present location on 2nd Avenue NW is its third—Amy bought the building in 2002.
Any discussion with Amy about La Pre Chel inevitably returns to Betty because Betty molded Amy and Betty still molds. She is her mother’s mirror image. Even today, during the interview, Betty sits in the back room, her genuine grin gently creasing her pleasant face, waiting for her daughter’s interview to end.
Says Amy, “To improve herself, my mother enrolled in Dale Carnegie courses. She has always looked for new and better ideas. She went from just doing hair to having a full-service salon with massage and facials. And she kept adding to it.”
Adding she did. Over the years, Betty sold clothing, jewelry, diet items, essential oils, and candy. She indirectly marketed the salon through presenting cosmetology on career day in local schools and—just for a good deed—occasionally visited the state prison to help inmates learn interviewing skills for potential jobs upon release. She visited nursing homes for National Beauty Salon week and gave away free beauty services to residents. She didn’t have to do all that. Of course, Amy followed in her footsteps and has done the same.
“It’s amazing what she has taught me,” says Amy.
Amy began cutting hair at La Pre Chel at age 19 in 1989 after one year of attending St. Louis Cosmetology School in St. Louis Park, where she learned salon basics such as perming, coloring, and sanitation. After a year of work, Amy had the itch to become a massage therapist and potentially move on to greener pastures outside her mother’s shadow. It was her mom who told her to wait, however, which she patiently did until their own massage therapist eventually left for other work. Literally the next day, she enrolled in Minneapolis School of Massage and finished after two years of attending part-time while commuting back and forth at night.
Amy worked alongside her mother until 2002, when she bought lock, stock, building, and chairs on a contract for deed. Betty continued working as an employee and taught the new owner most everything “business-wise,” Amy says. “I also went to advanced training, but someone you work next to all the time can teach you way more. I’m hands-on all the time and try doing that with my staff.”
After buying the business, she continued cutting hair and providing massages for ill clients in their homes, including one elderly client with cancer she remembered who physically felt better after her regular massages. Her intervention also allowed the husband a break. Says Amy, “I knew how much it made her feel better. She had been a long-time client and massage gave her some relief. Also, having something that made her feel ‘normal’ again made her feel (emotionally) better.”
She grabs lunch for some—eats with others—and does whatever she can outside regular work boundaries to make clients happy. Just like her mother would.
“If they have time, I still eat lunch or have coffee with some,” she says. “We keep it local to keep business in town and usually go to the Daily Grind or El Molinos. At lunch, we talk about everything except business. I try to enjoy life as much as possible. I like hearing what is going on with my clients’ lives.”
The business offers a wide range of services, including hair cutting, perming, coloring, nails (including gel and acrylic nails and shellac), pedicures, manicures, full-body waxing, facials, body toning, body wraps, tanning, massages, and hair extensions and wigs. As for the latter, Amy has attended many seminars on how to better serve people with cancer over a wide range of services. She has learned what to do and what not to do. Their skin tends to be thinner, which could make waxing problematic. Sometimes, besides top of head hair, they lose eyebrow hair.
“I sell many wigs to people with cancer,” she says, “and wear wigs myself at times. It’s a good way to change the style without having to grow out the current style and do it all over again. Beyond insurance coverage, she says, people with cancer can receive monetary help covering the cost through a state cancer wig fund.
Amy’s father, Leo, and husband, Brad, continue to faithfully do remodeling and maintenance, including maintenance on two effective 1960s-era Helene Curtis hair dryers that still work great. Two regional distribution companies supply hair care product and ideas on how to advertise promotions for the retail walk-in trade. Like most salons, La Pre Chel sells commercial product for all types of hair. Redken and Nioxin have been main hair care brands—and Only Yours in skin care. Haircuts cost a modest $20, massages $60 per hour, and pedicures $45.
“Some people used to travel to the Cities because they thought they were getting a better haircut,” says Amy. “I wanted to bring what they thought they were getting up there, here. Over time, most people in Waseca have realized it.”
When first meeting a new customer, Amy and her stylists often ask a friendly battery of questions to help the customer determine the right ‘do, including: How often do you shampoo your hair? Are you willing to curl or put product into your hair? What hair care products do you like and are they working for you? Do you want color?
Stylists also consider the customer’s facial shape, bone structure, skin color, and which way nose or eyebrows angle.
“Everyone has some beauty,” says Amy. “My clientele knows I’m honest. I can do any design you want, but I’m going to tell you what could be better and you can choose from there. I always say, ‘You’re my advertisement.’ I need you to look good.”
Of that clientele she knows so well, 25 percent are men. She says men, like women, receive pedicures, manicures, massages, and waxing—except men usually have nose, eyebrow, ear and/or chest hair waxed.
“My job doesn’t seem like work,” says Amy, fairly relaxed now, her interview moving toward closure. “Yes, I have to get up at a certain time, but that’s the only part that actually feels like work. Every client is different and each new person coming in is a new friend. I can learn about their lives and become part of it. Pretty much all my clients are friends. Because I work with so many of my customers as friends, if they aren’t happy with what they bought, I ask what I can do to fix it. It’s like talking to a friend.”
Just like Cheers.
Mother Betty, who retired in 2009 as a La Pre Chel stylist, experienced over 50 years everything Amy has gone or will go through. For example, Betty had stylists leaving or not show for work. Which gives Amy enough daily strength to continue down the road to reach her professional destination.
An additional source of strength has been her customers and staff. “We are like family here,” says Amy. “There isn’t any drama or tension. I work with stylists Jaclyn Krivachek and Eva Arnfelt. They have helped with Facebook, a website, Twitter, promotions, and product displays. My best moments here have been having fun with my staff—the belly laughs involving events that can happen any day. And I enjoy hearing customers tell their stories.”
And what about Betty? “I think I’m living up to her expectations,” says Amy as tears form again in the creases of her eyes. “She compliments me all the time. I make her proud.”
CONNECT: What’s your latest innovation?
AMY: We just had a Redken Blow-Dry Boot Camp, in which customers brought all their hair care tools they use to do their hair. We showed them tricks to blow-dry like a pro to get the style we would provide for them normally, so they could do it at home. It was a hit. We dressed up in army fatigues and had fun. We served food, drinks, and had specials and lots of laughter.
“It happens all the time,” says Amy of stylists leaving La Pre Chel to start their own business or work for themselves or someone else. “You just wish them well. What can you do anyway? It hurts, but you wish them well. I’ve gone through quite a few, still talk to them and see them at professional classes. In leaving, they just want to grow as professionals and you can’t wish them harm for that.”
When first managing La Pre Chel in 2002, she says, “I was too rigid and was scared of everything. I tried making everything perfect and staying on top of everything. I watched the stylists too closely. I wanted to help them become great hair stylists, but watched over them too much. I’ve relaxed a lot over the last eight years. I’ve learned to let the stylists be themselves.”
She says she worried people would find fault in the salon, would be unhappy, and wouldn’t return. Waseca is a small town, she says, and the word of an unhappy customer can travel fast as lightning.
A while back, she made and began keeping a New Year’s resolution to let work tension roll off her shoulders before any long-lasting worry could fester.
As for hiring stylists: She really would like to hire a male stylist, but so far over eight years, none have applied. Women appreciate a man’s opinion and many would prefer a male stylist, she says.
CONNECT: Your staff?
AMY: I’m one of three stylists. When hiring, I first look at professionalism. I want our stylists to be sweet and motivated and if they want to advance in their profession and become better. I don’t want cookie-cutter haircuts thrown out all the time. I want haircuts that make our customers stand out in order to have people ask where they got that haircut. I also want them to be professional and keep any information discussed with customers confidential. The world outside doesn’t need to know everything our clients have done. We make an effort not to gossip.
A gentleman came in once with his wife, who was being serviced. He said, “So what’s the hottest news going around town? I told him I didn’t know. I wasn’t going to say anything. He couldn’t believe I wouldn’t gossip. Then his wife said to him, “See!” It was really good to hear her say that because she knew I wouldn’t gossip. People getting haircuts don’t want their dirty laundry known, especially in a small town where news can travel fast.