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The Spa That Debbie Built

A local salon mogul finds success by keeping it all in the family.

When Debbie Nazelrod opened Spa in the Valley in 2005, she thought it
was perfect—but there was one minor flaw. “I remember a client saying,
‘You built such a beautiful space, but I’m very disappointed with your
bathroom,’” Nazelrod recalls. “And I’m thinking, ‘I just built a salon
so nice that this could be my home,’ but I also knew she was right.”
This feedback led Nazelrod to go all out in the bathrooms at her latest
venture, Spa on the Boulevard. “I take everything a client has to say
seriously,” she says. “Whether it’s positive or negative.”

has always exhibited this perfectionism in customer service from as far
back as 24 years ago when she opened her modest first salon on South
Charles Street to this past year when she started her new venture, Spa
on the Boulevard. Opened a year ago this month and located in Abingdon’s
bustling Boulevard at Box Hill shopping center, the French-chateau
inspired space is the most recent addition to an ever-expanding
salon-spa beauty empire that includes the Moroccan-themed Spa on the
Avenue in White Marsh and Hunt Valley’s Spa in the Valley with its
Tuscan touches.

“We started with 800 square feet,”
says Nazelrod, 56, who owned and operated several salons prior to her
line Salon By Debbie, “and worked our way up to 11,500 square feet at
this location. I’ve never really been afraid of opening new locations.
All told, we’ve built 27,873 square feet through the years. But we have
always built from something small and then gone to the next location
and the next.”

Salons and spas come and go—and many last as long as a manicure, with cutthroat competition and more firings than an episode of The Apprentice.
But with a staff of 275—including Nazelrod’s devoted daughter who
suffers from a hair-loss disease and has a unique understanding of
guests’ needs—the salons are not only surviving, but thriving. Last
year’s revenues alone (not including the Boulevard, which had yet to
open) were close to $7 million.

“I’ve seen the dream
evolve,” says one of Nazelrod’s longest-running customers, Susan Wiley
who has been with her since the start. “When she was working downtown,
I’d drive all the way from where I live in Baldwin. I’d tell her, ‘Get
out of the city and come to the county.’ I’d say, ‘Trust me. You’ll have
customers. If you build it, we will come.’”

And they
have. With all locations open seven days a week—many salons
traditionally take Monday off—Nazelrod’s client base includes some
170,000 customers who flock for soothing stone massages, oatmeal and
licorice body treatments, balayage hair highlights, Brazilian bikini
waxings, lash extensions, and Ayurvedic facials. The spaces themselves
are immaculate and inspired (by trips to spas in Sonoma County, CA;
South Beach, FL; Florence, Italy; and other destinations), and services
such as a signature nearly two-hour Ultimate Facial (entailing
everything from extraction to a total body massage) are unique and keep
the appointment books brimming.

“I started coming
for facials and waxing,” says Wiley. “Now, they take care of this whole
61-year-old deal. I would never think of going anywhere else. A lot of
people put lip service to customer service and innovation, but Debbie
actually makes it happen. Debbie is a perfectionist who anticipates what
you need before you know you need it, and she has always been very good
at figuring out what is trending.”

The accolades
keep coming. Nazelrod has practically papered her walls with awards,
including America’s “200 Fastest-Growing Salons” by Salon Today, one of Baltimore’s Largest Women-Owned Businesses by the Baltimore Business Journal, and Top Female CEO by SmartCEO (not to mention numerous “Top Salons” nods from this magazine).

Debbie has done it boils down to a combination of pluck, passion, and
purpose. Sitting in the garden room—a relaxation area at the Spa on the
Boulevard with peach-colored walls, palm plants, and soft music—Nazelrod
seems to marvel at how she built a business from a single salon to
become a major player on the salon-spa scene.

husband] Rick and I both grew up in tiny row homes in Loch Raven
Village,” explains Nazelrod. “I come from a family of four children, and
Rick came from a family of five. My father was a firefighter and worked
his way up to lieutenant with Baltimore City. My mother was a
seamstress in a sweatshop.”

For Rick’s part, his
father worked for a Baltimore printing company as a bookbinder and his
mother worked part-time at Read’s drug store in Towson. Both grew up
understanding the value of hard work, though entrepreneurship was not on
the radar.

“We were both from blue-collar families,” says
Rick, who has known Nazelrod since she was nine and the best friend of
his younger sister. (They didn’t date until many years later, after they
both found themselves divorced.) “You work until a certain hour, and
you come home to eat dinner with your family—that kind of thing. If we
had tried to plan all of this as our life’s dream, it never would have

While still in high school, Nazelrod, who always
loved playing with makeup, went to work for About Faces. “I worked
part-time as a receptionist for [then owner] Gloria Brennan,” explains
Nazelrod. “I felt at home there right away.” But when it came time to
pick a profession, Nazelrod felt limited in her options. “Since I had
come from a blue-collar family I thought that all I could do was be a
secretary, a nurse, or a teacher.”

But it was Gloria’s
then-husband Patrick Brennan who helped expand her horizons, encouraging
Nazelrod to learn the beauty trade and then work for him on the floor.
By 1980, she became an aesthetician and continued to work at About Faces
in Pikesville for 13 years, where she built a client base thanks to her
sunny personality and commitment to hard work.

Patrick says
he’s not surprised by his former employee’s success. “She was always
committed and competent,” he recalls. “She had good customer-service
skills as well as being client oriented and good technically—Debbie is very good at what she does.” (Though there are no hard feelings, About Faces is now a direct competitor.)

large part of Nazelrod’s success is also due to the fact that she has
surrounded herself with members of her own, extremely close-knit
family—all of whom are involved in aspects of the business. Her
27-year-old daughter Amanda Jeffries is the general manager at the
Boulevard and Nazelrod is currently grooming her, so to speak, to take
over the business in the years to come. Amanda has also been
instrumental in helping to forge ahead with plans for a dedicated
hair-loss area installed at Spa on the Boulevard for those who suffer
from thinning hair, hair loss due to chemotherapy, and other conditions.

Ironically, Jeffries herself suffers from alopecia (a
condition in which hair is lost from some or all areas of the body,
usually from the scalp), which necessitates wearing a hairpiece, as well
as having her eyebrows tattooed on. “I would love to be able to help
others going through similar issues,” says Jeffries. “It definitely has
been a journey; a lot of tears and heartache.” But Jeffries’s struggles
have also proven of value on the job. “I am able to understand our
guests’ needs and appreciate that hair can change one’s image,” she
says. “While I face challenges every day—bad hair days, eyelash
problems, and hating summer weather—I love my job and surrounding myself
with watching our guests transform.”

While Amanda is
stationed on the Boulevard, Nazelrod’s son, Joe, does the bookkeeping
for all three locations (“I can honestly say there’s nothing bad about
working with my family,” he says); Nazelrod’s stepson, Tim, does the
electrical work; and Rick, who in the early days did the major
construction work on her smaller spaces, is in charge of facilities

“There was a time when I did the drawings, I framed
everything out, and did the spackling and painting,” he says. In those
early days, Debbie’s salons were very much a grassroots, DIY affair. “We
had so much help from friends and family,” says Nazelrod. “I have a
picture [hanging in my foyer] that I purchased in Amish country of a
barn raising. It reminded me so much of what our friends and family have

And anyone who isn’t family still gets treated as
such. When a hairstylist needed a kidney transplant, Nazelrod and her
staff raised more than $30,000 at a benefit at Martin’s East, including
proceeds from a staff-written cookbook. “She makes each and every one of
us part of her family,” says longtime employee Megan Dulsky, the
general manager at Spa on the Avenue. Adds Avenue spa manager Elaine
Girardi, “She’s a good person and that helps her attract good people.”

love is clearly mutual. With her perfectly applied makeup and eyes that
sparkle when she speaks, Nazelrod gets emotional when she talks about
her staff. “I just came back from a family trip to Jamaica,” she says.
“I had a massage there, and their touch is incredible—you can’t teach
that. You can teach everything else, but they’ve got to have it in
here,” she says pressing on her heart. “Those are the people who I want
here and 98 percent of the people we hire have [that quality].”

Nazelrod isn’t spending two days a week at each spa-salon, she and Rick
enjoy season tickets to the Ravens’ games or cooking dinner for family
in their Perry Hall home. Another favorite pastime is hitting the road
in their 40-foot motor coach—“it looks like an apartment,” says
Nazelrod, laughing—for road trips to Key West, Ocean City, and
Gettysburg. “We don’t give gifts for the holiday,” says Nazelrod. “We
give memories.”

Despite the long hours and
occasional headaches that come with running a large group of businesses,
Nazelrod says she couldn’t be more pleased.

“I would
do it again and again,” she says, her voice catching with emotion. “I
love this business. I love being able to take care of my clients to the
point where I watch them walk out that door almost stumbling because,
after coming here, they feel like they are in La La Land.”