Nearly two decades ago, Chris Staten had a chance to tour with a local jazz great.
Staten figures he would have made a couple of grand a night singing.
Two thousand dollars a night is good money anytime, and it was especially good for Staten back then, when his only other source of income came from cutting hair.
That job paid him barely minimum wage. He was still an apprentice, after all.
So when it came time to tell the jazz musician whether he would be joining him on the road, Staten did what seemed obvious and right — he said no.
“I gave you my word,” Staten remembers telling his boss. “I’m going to finish my apprenticeship.”
The student and his boss, Tyson Thompson, are now partners in Chris Tyson Grooming Co., 6939 S. Lewis Ave., and they’re looking to shake up the barbershop business.
“Barbers took a hit and barbers had a bad rap somewhat in the city,” Thompson said. “Being lazy, not really ambitious.”
That hasn’t been a problem for Staten or Thompson.
“I was 16 — maybe 17 — and I said, ‘You know, by the time I’m 45 years old, I want to be making $47,000 a year,” said Thompson, 41. “I want $5,000 in the bank, two cars and I want a house about 1,300 square feet by the time I am 45.
“I think I bought my first house at 22. … I think (when) I was 22 I might have made $80,000.”
He’s been cutting hair ever since, and now has a wife and three children.
Staten, a Chicago native, has seen his fortunes improve dramatically since arriving in Tulsa in 1999.
But Thompson and Staten are self-motivated with a plan to succeed. Not every apprentice barber who walks through the door can say the same.
So last year, as Thompson thought about tinkering with his business, he and Staten came up with an idea: Scrap the traditional barbershop model and create a new one.
“We needed to come up with a model where people were winning like we were winning,” Staten said. “That was the frustration.”
What they eventually decided was to do away with the traditional barbershop model in which a barber rents a chair and gives the owner a cut of his earnings and replace it with a comprehensive strategy for long-term career success.
And so was born Chris Tyson Grooming.
Under the new business model, every aspect of a barber’s performance is tracked, from the number of haircuts he (or she) does to the amount of hair gel he sells to how often his customers come in.
“The computer tracks every little thing,” Thompson said.
At Chris Tyson Grooming, an apprentice barber is paid minimum wage and won’t cut a strand of hair for eight weeks, if that. But when the day comes that he is allowed on the floor, the money — and the chances for long-term success — are good under the new model, say Thompson and Staten.
New barbers start off keeping as large a percentage of their earnings as any similar shop in the industry, which is fine with Staten and Thompson.
“Because our goal is for him to feed his family, take care of them, and leave a legacy,” Thompson said. “There is still plenty of money left for us because we want happy barbers, fun barbers that we can earn enough money that we can go on vacation with.”
Luke Smith, 26, joined Chris Tyson Grooming six months ago, straight out of school.
He calls Staten and Thompson role models.
“They are just well-rounded, good persons, husbands and fathers,” Smith said.
Staten and Thompson have shown Smith that it is possible to love your work and make good money, too.
“We’re all self-employed,” Smith said. “I actually just opened up my own LLC a couple of weeks ago.”
Moving up, one haircut at a time
Growing up far apart, neither Thompson nor Staten ever had plenty of money.
Thompson and his three brothers were raised by a single mother. They moved all the time.
Thompson had attended a half dozen elementary schools before the family finally settled in north Tulsa.
He started cutting hair — his own — when he was 11.
“My mother couldn’t do it the way we wanted,” Thompson said.
Then he took the show on the road.
“I was in the ninth grade of Booker T. Washington High school cutting hair in the locker rooms and classrooms to help with lunch, because I got $5 a week for lunch,” Thompson said.
Back at home, he’d charge $2 or $3 a clip. Everyone was welcome.
“I did everybody from pastors to pimps, even drug dealers, whoever would give me some money,” Thompson said. “We didn’t have much growing up. That was my way out.”
And that it has been. Thompson was 15 when he took his first barber’s job at Skyline Barbershop on 36th Street North.
“My first full year of work I think I made $20,000,” Thompson said.
Thompson says he “didn’t dream much bigger than my surroundings,” But by 1998, when he was just 24, he and his wife opened their first barbershop, Tyson Family Salon.
Two years later, Chris Staten walked in looking for an apprenticeship, and Thompson turned him down.
“He didn’t return my call initially,” Staten said of Thompson. “I was with a funny guy, a guy who was different … he had a different vibe.”
Staten called Thompson again, this time without the weird guy by his side, and the rest is history.
What would move a 21-year-old from Chicago to come to Tulsa without a car or a place to stay?
God, of course. And a school called Rhema Bible College
“I had a friend who had actually come down here and came back and the dude was just different,” said Staten, 37. “He was a young guy, always like a peer I looked up to…
“I just had a lot of questions just about God, and man, I said, it sounds like the place I can get all the answers.”
Now Tulsa is home for Staten, who is married with a 6-year-old daughter and a 2-year-old son.
“Something I wasn’t used to was Southern hospitality. Everybody speaking to you. People getting in your private space,” Staten said. “They don’t know the 2-foot rule or the 4-foot rule.
“They are like smack-dab in front of you, almost touching your toes, feet-to-feet, and talking in your face. But it has been a pleasure because you can make connections and talk to people.
“It was a good change for me from the city because people have such an edge and are so stand-offish.
‘An oasis away from the hustle and bustle of life’
Thompson and Staten like to say that Chris Tyson Grooming is a mix of the traditional and the cutting edge.
If by traditional they mean a place where talk is king and rumors are the thing, they have succeeded.
Everyone knows everyone, it seems, and if you don’t, be ready to say hello. And then tell your story, because Thompson and Staten are going to ask for it.
“A lady called me and said, ‘My husband passed away and he would want you to know how great an impact you had on his life,’” Thompson said. “We get that all the time. Those are the things that make this business great.”
At the same time, Thompson said, there are people who care less about the chatter and more about the cut. They’re typically younger, and they have a specific look in mind – a modern look.
That’s fine, too.
“We want to be more on the cutting edge and kind of keep up with the relevant styles, haircuts, be urban and appeal to all cultures,” Staten said.
For all their efforts to straddle the fine line between the traditional and the trendy, Thompson and Staten say they know that at the end of the day, the customer is not coming back unless he feels welcomed.
And that, the business partners say, is where Chris Tyson Grooming separates itself from the rest of the pack.
“I think it’s the greatest cut place people have never heard of,” Thompson said. “It is an environment by which you will be accepted for who you are. You will never be judged, you will feel comfortable.
“It’s an oasis away from the hustle and bustle of life.”
To learn more about Chris Tyson Grooming Co. and Tyson Thompson’s career, go to christysongrooming.com or tysoneducation.com