“I’m just a barber,” said Jonathan Palmeri, when asked what being selected to Buffalo Business First’s “30 under 30” list for 2018 means to him.
He is one of a group of young Western New Yorkers who were recognized on the basis of their career achievements, leadership and initiative, community engagement, and their potential to become a community leader on a grand scale.
“It’s pretty cool to be recognized, to know that others see my hard work,” says Jonathan—or Jonny the Barber—as he is known by and among his colleagues.
Jonny always wanted to be a cop, just like his father. Born and raised in the Buffalo area, Jonny was a member of a large, blended family. While no one in his immediate family owned their own business, the adults in his life modeled a strong work ethic.
When Jonny was young, he used to watch his aunt cut hair. One day, after he and a friend had wandered into her shop, she asked Jonny, “Can you cut hair?”
He had never actually taken scissors to a head, but in his mind’s eye, he had performed nearly a thousand cuts. His friend was his first customer. “I was 15 when I did that cut, and all I remember is giving him one of the sharpest necklines I have ever seen…but only on the right side. The left side needed some work.”
Jonny says after that first haircut, he was hooked, and his aunt bought him his first clipper set.
Jonny started cutting other friends’ hair. And they kept coming back and bringing friends with them. Soon, the young barber decided it would be a good idea to charge money for his services.
And he thought he should go to college.
He went to Niagara County Community College for a semester, and then Buffalo State College for a year and a half, learning about business.
While he was enrolled, however, he learned a greater lesson that he applied to his own life: Not everyone is cut out for college, and that’s all right. But he knew he could support himself by cutting hair, because he was already making money doing just that.
Before he was 21 years old, he was working out of a barber shop in Williamsville. With only 400 square feet, however, in which to work, he says that shop was “too small for my vision.” In 2015, his vision grew, and he bought a building that boasted 1600 square feet; half of that he used to cut hair, effectively doubling his Williamsville work space. That shop, on Delaware Street in Tonawanda, is celebrating its three-year anniversary this month.
Earlier this year, Jonny the Barber opened a second space on Delaware Avenue in Buffalo, in the former BAC building across from City Hall. Jonny barbers there on Tuesday and Wednesday and works Thursday, Friday, and Saturday in Tonawanda. Between the two shops, there are seven professional barbers, including Jonny. He says his favorite cut to give to customers is a low, faded, blown-out pompadour. “Super clean with some amazing length on top…the higher the hair, the closer to God!”
In a way, they are a “brotherhood of barbers.” Not just the barbers—although they are all friends—but the clientele that Jonny the Barber(s) serves falls into that category, as well. Jonny didn’t necessarily set out to be a salon for men and boys, but things have evolved that way. And he’s ok with that. “My clients are the best in the world,” he said, “and all the guys who cut with me were in my wedding.”
Speaking of his clients, many of them have done more than paid for their haircuts. They have shared their own stories of learning and lessons along the way, helping Jonny as he moves along on his own path. That is one of the reasons Jonny enjoys going to work, he says: his clients. Not only have they mentored him, they have availed Jonny of their skills in carpentry and financial advisement, to name a couple. “I met them through cutting hair,” he said.
And that’s one of the reasons Western New York is the best place for Jonny the Barber: the people. “I know everyone here,” he said. He is grateful to all those who have helped him along the path of becoming a business owner, including his grandmother, whom he describes as “the salt of the earth.” Other family members have also pitched in and, with the money Jonny saved from cutting hair, he was able to open his own place.
He said he wishes he knew more about business when he was starting out, but “I don’t regret anything.” He described himself as a doer—“I don’t overthink things.” He feels fortunate to have been the barber who has cut the Buffalo Bills’ hair and to appear in shots of movies made locally.
He’s always eager to hire more good people like the guys he has, but admits it’s not easy to find good people. And by good he means of good character. As Jonny looks to the future—he wants to open multiple shops in and around Williamsville—he hopes to find some of the people who exhibit exceptional character. He said, “They don’t need to know how to cut hair; I can teach them that. I can’t teach a person how to be of good character.”
Jonny wants others who are hoping to become entrepreneurs to remember not to listen to everyone. “They’ll tell you to go to school. If you’re a hard worker, go for it; work at what you love.” Jonny is thankful for the organic growth his barbershops have had via Facebook and his website, and says he hasn’t had to pay for advertising.
And an excellent haircut speaks for itself. Jonny says he’s just a barber, but it’s obvious that when cutting hair is a passion—like it is for Jonathan Palmeri—“barber” takes on a whole new meaning. “At the end of the day,” he said, “we make people look their best. We take incredible pride in that. We respect our clients and always put them first.”