We Will Recover Spotlight: Chicago II Barbershop

March 1, 2021
Three photos of Chicago II Barbershop.
1. Rob runs a tight ship, inside and out.  2. Comprehensive safety measures at front entrance.  3. No one gets past Ken without sanitizing their hands. Photo credit: Kit Castagne, kitcastagne.com


Chicago II Barbershop is a key community hub of San Francisco’s Western Addition neighborhood. For 22 years it has been a place where people of all ages, races, and genders gather to spruce up and catch up on what’s what. Members of the San Francisco Department of Economic and Workforce Development were so impressed with Chicago II’s ongoing dedication to safety during the COVID-19 pandemic that they contacted us at the City’s COVID Command Center. Our Joint Information Center team recently spoke with the store’s founder/owner, Rob Harlin, to find out how his business is adapting to the pandemic and to see if there are lessons to share with other businesses.

How would you describe your business?
A successful barbershop for 22 years. A place where you get good value for your money. A business that is vital to the community. We are one of the last lines of communication between generations. A place to discuss things openly and get good positive information. Tell each other what you think. Be open and understand each other. The next generation can learn the right things and get a foundation so they can stand up in life and won’t tumble. The older generation feels connected and respected. We are more than a place to get a haircut. We have a collaboration with the University of California San Francisco Medical Center. Me and four staff members took a six-week course at the UCSF campus and earned Health Coach certifications. We look out for folks and can refer them to services at UCSF where they can get a primary care doctor and other medical care. You know, high blood pressure is a silent killer, especially in the Black community. Before the pandemic, UCSF would send several nurses to our shop every other week to give free blood pressure checks. The nurses can’t come out now during the pandemic so we do the blood pressure checks ourselves. No cost. You don’t have to have insurance or even get a haircut. We care for our community. I think that you might consider us an essential business.

How have you adapted your business during the COVID-19 pandemic?
At the start of the pandemic, I would look out of my window and observe something was going on. Smoke on the horizon. I could feel it but couldn’t put my finger on it. Then it was here, bang, surprising. I didn’t think the shutdown would go this long. Thought it was going to be maybe three months. It has been almost a year now. Small businesses are not prepared for something like this. It is a terrible loss. People use up all their savings. They have to give back everything they earned and even borrow more. Some businesses decided to break and run at the beginning. Maybe they were the smart ones. Me, I leaned in and did everything I could to be prepared to get back to business, make it safe, and do it right. During the first shutdown I put in a new floor, new everything. Plastic shields, electric sanitizing stations. You know, this is my third time dealing with a bust situation. The third time that I might lose everything. But I get up every day and shake the tree and see what falls out. I keep going.

What steps have you taken to make your business safe for customers?
I’ve done it all. I remodeled the whole shop. I got all stations 6ft apart, plastic drapes between chairs, electric sanitizing equipment, temperature checks, and I give everyone free masks. The entry way is well-protected. A barber is all about hygiene. It is the number one thing we are taught. We are just like a doctor or dentist office. The safety protocols they do, we practice the same thing. We are real serious. We haven’t had one case of COVID-19. Not one case. We take everyone’s name and phone number so we can get into contact. Everyone on my team has gotten the test. I gave long hard thought to doing outdoor service. We do have outdoor space, somewhere between 50-70 ft. But I didn’t get into it. I thought that we would get back in action soon and also winter was coming. Things keep changing. It is hard to know what to do.

Have you created new services during this time to support customers and your business?
Yes. The staff enhanced their skills and we added some new services. Some of the younger staff post about our services on social media. You know, I’ve hardly ever advertised in our entire 22 years. Our work is our advertisement. We do all the classic barber services–but done right. Real attention to detail. Haircuts, head shaving, hair coloring, and more. Because of the pandemic we can’t offer some of our services right now, but we did incredible facial scrubs and straight razor shaves with steam to stimulate the follicles and special aromatic creams like lavender, honey, or eucalyptus. I miss providing those services. People left looking good and smelling great.

Any interactions with customers (or others) during the pandemic that are particularly meaningful to you or other members of the Chicago II team?
I’ve spoken on the phone to some regulars and I run into someone now and then, but I haven’t seen most of my clientele. Don’t know where they are. Where’d they go? Did they have to move away, like the dust bowl? Every day, whether we are open or not, I come here and sweep my sidewalk. I talk to people on the street. Get their opinions and find out how they are doing. I am trying to stay informed. I see and hear a lot. The system is breaking down. People are on the edge and will do desperate things. Someone just broke into my car this morning. I try to have a good attitude, but it does get to me. I hope we can go a different way. A better way. I hope something positive comes from this soon.

What advice do you have for other shops trying to keep their business healthy and everyone safe?
I’ve thought about this. No business is in the same situation. It’s been hard but I’ve been able to float along, for now. I took out a small business loan. I got a small grant from a local church right here on Divisadero. My daughter is working on some applications for grants and loans. Some other businesses may have high rent, a lot of borrowed capital, and no work. You don’t have a business at that point, the business has you.

In a nutshell, what is your advice to others?
Do the right thing. Don’t be selfish. Do the right thing and we’ll get through this together.

Since we began our series of conversations, San Francisco moved out of the Regional Stay Home Order and some restrictions were lifted on January 28. How are things going?
I was so glad to re-open. A really happy moment. This has been the best time in almost a year. Most of the staff are back. About five of them moved on. Some have started their own businesses. You know, I can think of at least seven of the barbers that have worked here, been part of the Chicago II Barbershop family that I’ve mentored over the years, who have gone on to start their own shops. They are talented and hard-working professionals. They learned their craft, just like I did. Chicago II has always been this way. I worked and learned for 28 years in three different states before I started Chicago II. If I do my job right, then the next generation will move ahead and be even better than I am. I’ve always looked at it this way. The store manager, Ken Allamin, has been with me for well over 15 years. He is on top of things. He is the best. He takes care of everything when I’m not here. Really, when I am here, too. Today a great young barber, Jibari, has joined us. On we go and we’ll all see where life takes us from here.

Two photos of Chicago II Barbershop.
1. Hard, and safely, at work on the main floor.  2. Rob welcomes the next generation to his team. Photo Credit: Kit Castagne, kitcastagne.com

We thank Rob and the entire staff at Chicago II Barbershop for their dedication to keeping our community safe and looking sharp. Find out more about Chicago II Barbershop and perhaps make an appointment at chicago2barbershop.com or 415.921.1303. Chicago II Barbershop is located at 1000 Divisadero Street on the corner of Golden Gate Avenue, San Francisco, CA 94115.

Although the safest thing for you to do during the COVID-19 pandemic is to stay home as much as possible, it is fine to go out and visit our vital retail businesses as long as you follow safety protocols. Wear a mask, maintain safe social distance, keep interactions short, wash your hands frequently or use hand sanitizer, and don’t share food or other items. As of Thursday, January 28, many San Francisco businesses and services reopened (with appropriate health and safety protocols). Go ahead and finally get that haircut, manicure, or Bernie in mittens tattoo that you crave. You can finally sit down outdoors and be served delicious food from diverse cultures. Our unique local businesses have been waiting to share their services with you. Give them a visit. Stay local, shop local, and give local. Support the City you love. Together, we will recover from COVID-19. sf.gov/WeWillRecover, shopdine49.com