Anthony’s Barbershop expands business by staying on the cutting edge

On many mornings, the line forms along the sidewalk on 21st Street an hour before Anthony’s Barbershop opens, young men seated side by side on a low brick wall, passing time by looking at their phones.

They take their hair seriously and, in order to get precisely what they want, they are willing to wait an hour and sometimes much more for a haircut. Hundreds of like-minded men, mostly in their 20s and 30s but sometimes older, are seriously devoted to Anthony Giannotti and his small crew of talented barbers, who have made this midtown shop one of the most buzzed-about businesses around.

They love the haircuts, many with elaborate names like “high zero-fade, no-part Ivy League,” “side-part with a hard party” or the mouthful that is the “double high-low fade psycho-billy quiff.” In general, these cuts have a bygone-era-meets-modern style that is both meticulous and sculptural in appearance, often with ample product worked into the hair. To finish, the neck gets the once-over with a straight razor and warm shaving cream.

But in a nod to an earlier era when barbershops were a social hub for many men, the customers seem to enjoy hanging out just as much as they like the cuts. Many drop by even when they don’t need a trim.

“I love this place,” said James Lee, 36, an Anthony’s regular and a longtime staffer at the Capitol who now works in his family’s restaurant business. “I only come here every three weeks. I wish I could come more. Having worked in the Capitol for so many years, you get accustomed, for good reason, to people being very careful with what they say and how they say it. No surprise, I looked forward to coming to Anthony’s at the end of the workday. Nothing is off limits and everyone revels in the conversation. That can be refreshing.”

Throughout the day, the banter is lively, wide-ranging, often humorous, occasionally bawdy and rarely worse than PG-13. Music, food, booze, cars, women, movies, sports. They discuss. They argue. They reminisce. They laugh. And no one ever seems to get upset, a man-cave-vibe in the middle of a well-orchestrated business. The other full-time barbers are Alex Tillisch, Jason Dunn, Shawn Bailey and Nigel Martin.

One customer shuffled in Thursday afternoon, holding his baby in a bassinet with one hand and a cooler with other, just in time to watch the Seattle Seahawks play the Green Bay Packers on the shop TV.

It is Giannotti, 30, once a disillusioned young barber on the verge of failure, who sets the tone and joins in the fun, but he is much more serious about his career than he appears.

If you haven’t heard of him, you’re probably not one of the whopping 122,000 people worldwide who follow him on Instagram, the mobile phone service that combines photo and video sharing with social-media networking.

Giannotti has combined a hip, urban, edgy image – his arms are replete with tattoos, he wears slim-fitting Dickies work pants and rides a fixed-gear bike – with plenty of haircutting talent, business acumen beyond his years and, more than anything, an abundance of focus.

These days, he’s the owner of a thriving business, which earns him six figures a year. And given his digital presence and burgeoning, high-profile spinoff projects, he just might be poised to become one of the hottest barbers on the West Coast.

Giannotti has a full head of thick, dark hair styled in a pompadour, a nod to his affinity for rockabilly and classic Americana. There are touches of gray on the sides and top that have appeared in the past year.

“With Anthony, the old adage, ‘Don’t judge a book by its cover,’ comes to mind,” said Michael Clem, co-owner of Layrite, the popular men’s grooming products company based in Southern California. “He’s a methodical guy. He’s a thinking man. He’s not someone who makes snap judgments, and he’s a perfect example that hard work pays off.”

Giannotti’s star is about to burn even brighter. Recently, a TV production crew headed by Zane Lampry, a comedian and actor, spent hours shooting a pilot episode for a reality show about Anthony’s. And Giannotti, while still tight-lipped about the details, is preparing to launch a high-end barbershop and bar in the next six months in a new development on R Street, partnering with highly regarded bartender Jayson Wilde, manager of San Francisco cocktail destination Bourbon and Branch.

Whitney Johnson, owner of the interior design firm Johnson & Ross, which specializes in restaurants and bars, approached Giannotti about the concept and helped assemble a team to run the venture, to be called Bottle & Barlow, on the first floor of the Warehouse Artist Lofts under construction at 11th and R streets. Unlike Anthony’s, the shop will take appointments for haircuts, which are expected to cost more than the $18 to $21 cuts at Anthony’s.

Johnson said she has spent time hanging out at Anthony’s and quickly got a sense of Giannotti’s devoted customers, which include students, restaurant-and-bar employees, state workers and professionals.

“You have these guys who are waiting 31/2 hours for a haircut, and they plan their day around it,” Johnson said. “Anthony is self-made in the best sense of the word. He has created his own monopoly on the market and, I think, is the best in town at what he does.”

Many have begun to echo that view, both locally and beyond. A recent visit to the shop found a man from England asking Giannotti to pose for a photo. Visiting family in the area, he had stopped in for a haircut and happily endured the two-hour wait. How did he hear about the shop? Giannotti asked.

“I’ve followed you on Instagram for over a year,” the Englishman replied.

Later, when it is pointed out that he has a lot going on these days, Giannotti laughs and says: “I’m trying. Empires don’t build themselves.”

Giannotti says he was raised to be an entrepreneur. His parents owned a successful Japanese engine importing business in Chico, and his father, Michael, retired in his 40s. Giannotti earned a degree in business with a minor in marketing at California State University, Chico.

At 19, he started making and selling his own pomade hair dressing that grew into a successful business that he promoted on MySpace. He became interested in barbering from his affinity for rockabilly music and style.

He went to barber college in Sacramento in 2006, got his license and started cutting hair. But it didn’t go well. Because of the ailing economy, men started going longer between haircuts. Giannotti got laid off, not once, but twice.

“I was the last one hired and the first one fired,” he said. In late 2008, after losing his job again, he told his wife, Breanna, he was finished.

“I’d been doing this for two years and I couldn’t find my footing,” Giannotti said.

But his wife had other ideas. She and her husband’s parents conspired to show him a 750-square-foot shop on 21st that was available. When Giannotti saw it, he balked at first. But his dad, for years his role model in business, persuaded him to seize the opportunity and sign a lease. By early 2009, Anthony’s Barbershop opened for business. There was no fanfare. And Giannotti had few customers. Some days, working alone, he would do three haircuts.

About 10 months after he opened Anthony’s, Instagram launched and Giannotti immediately recognized its potential to build his brand, since haircutting is such a visual business and many men are always looking for the right look.

He was meticulous in honing his message, carefully studying what people wanted to see. He posted photos of eye-catching haircuts and used hashtags – keywords that corral content – to attract the right kind of followers, including barbers, cosmetologists and those simply looking to keep up with what’s current. The comments he gets suggest he is widely revered.

“As far as I know, he is the most followed barber on Instagram,” Clem said. “A smart guy like Anthony who has a good brand and a well-deserved reputation, his potential is unlimited. He can do whatever he wants.”

Little by little, Giannotti built a barbering behemoth online. It gives him both name recognition and clout. Hair shows and industry people fly him to seminars and appearances. Giannotti says the long-term goal is to expand his empire by becoming even more of a name and a tastemaker.

“He’s a really calculating person,” said Tillisch, who works four feet from Giannotti. “It’s that way with everything he does in this business. He knows exactly what he’s going to do. He knows all of the outcomes.”

Despite the hip persona and marketing savvy, Giannotti’s success is based on an old-fashioned formula. He hires barbers according to personality and attitude. He has high expectations but does plenty of mentoring to get their skills up to his standards. He is constantly studying what’s new and hot. He learns from the best and travels to industry shows and “barber battles” throughout the country, where he is a featured participant.

But more than anything, he works and works. The ribbing and banter and laughing is something of a soundtrack for the long hours that are the cornerstone of the Anthony’s success formula. The barbers wolf down their lunch while standing up. They barely have a moment between cuts. Giannotti may be a star, but he still does 25 haircuts every day. At the end of the shift, everyone leaves with sore feet and aching backs.

When Giannotti and crew return in the morning, they know there will be a line waiting for them, they’ll be busy until closing time, and everybody, customers and barbers alike, will have a good time.

Anthony’s Barbershop is open from 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. Tuesday-Friday and from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. Saturday; 2408 21st St., Sacramento; (916) 457-1120.