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Chester County Press

The Phoenix rises: A treasured business returns, stronger than ever

02/02/2021 02:22PM ● By Richard Gaw

By Richard L. Gaw, Staff Writer

As generally told through Greek folklore, the story of the Phoenix describes a bird that through the power of the sun is able to cyclically regenerate itself, obtaining a new life by rising through the ashes of its predecessor. Some legends associated with the myth have believed that the great and colorful bird is destroyed in its blazing nest, and from the flames, a new egg forms and subsequently, the new bird is reborn, gifted to spread its wings and fly once more.

At about 1 a.m. on the early morning of Jan. 3, 2020, Anthony DiFrancesco, the owner of Nicholas Anthony Salon & Day Spa in Unionville, was awakened by the sound of his alarm system.

At first, DiFrancesco thought the alarm had signaled a break-in. He booted up his home laptop and watched what was happening on the salon’s security cameras. There they were, he thought, figure images in the salon’s lobby coming to rob the place, but almost immediately, there was something different about what he was seeing. Each person the camera was catching had a light on their heads. Behind them, he saw flashing lights and then, billows of smoke that partially obscured what he was seeing from his home.

Within minutes, DiFrancesco contacted his son Dario – the salon’s general manager – and then Nick Farrell, the owner of Sovana Bistro, the successful restaurant next door to the salon. Driving through darkened roads at speeds he had never driven before, DiFrancesco arrived at the Willowdale Shopping Center and saw his entire livelihood engulfed in flames and thick plumes of smoke. The parking lot was filled with fire trucks and firefighters from several local stations, each of them emitting jet sprays of water in an attempt to reduce the damage that had begun at Sovana Bistro earlier in the evening and was now sweeping through the salon.

Hours after the fire was extinguished, Dario posted an update, informing the salon’s clients about the fire and that Nicholas Anthony would be closed indefinitely.

By noon, the fire trucks had all left and been replaced by remediation experts, a few of the salon’s long-time staff and Anthony and Dario, who looked up from the many cell phone calls they had to make to peer inside the smoldering rubble of their business. 

A week later, Dario posted photos of the ashen ruins on the salon’s social media page, which was quickly followed by sentiments of sorrow and expressions of faith by hundreds of clientele who had become the equivalent of a second family to the DiFrancescos.

“There were times soon after the fire when I questioned whether or not I wanted to continue to do this,” Anthony said.  “After talking with Dario, my wife Deborah, our staff and our long-time clientele, I knew that there was just one way to go, and that was to make it happen and build it the best way we could and give it such an upgrade.

“By taking these steps, we were able to do things that made the quality of our salon even better.”

A pop-up salon emerges

Anthony quickly arranged for payroll protection plans to provide for his staff during the salon’s closing. He negotiated with the shopping center’s owner Morris Stroud to temporarily move the salon to another location in Willowdale while the permanent salon was being reconstructed. Quickly, Stroud found one that was about to become available, but just as the DiFrancesco’s were about to set up shop, the gods of misfortune decided they weren’t satisfied with just a devastating fire.

Due to the COVID-19 shutdown, all plans to relocate a door or two away were put on hold, but by the end of June, they had retrofitted the business – essentially, creating the Nicholas Anthony Pop-Up Salon – in a nearby building that had previously been a clothing store.

When they weren’t developing their temporary space, Anthony and Dario were redesigning their permanent one. Over the next several months, they worked with Tim McKinney of the Art of Business in Reading, Pa; SCA Construction in Wilmington; Fred Snyder, who equipped their temporary salon with plumbing and electricity; sought guidance from Donegal Insurance Group and friend and attorney James Maron; and consulted with the salon staff and friend, client and interior designer Ronal Fenstermacher.

“We not only took ideas from them, we pulled ideas from different stores and different folders of ideas, in order to answer the question, ‘How can we put our ideas together in a way that makes this work?’” Anthony said. “We also talked to our staff, with the idea of possibly creating less space while at the same time still being able to generate as much – or possibly more – revenue.”

“I never gave up because I knew that we would eventually reopen,” Dario said. “Every day became part of a surreal year, where I didn’t necessarily have a job, but I got up every day and did what I needed to do, drove to wherever we needed to drive to, met with whomever we had to meet and picked up whatever we needed to pick up.”

Welcome to the new/old salon

Piece by piece and space by space, nearly every crevice of the former salon has been transformed, while still retaining its stunning high ceilings. The former 3,600-square-foot salon has now become a more intimate, 2,400-square-foot space, redone with new insulation, new shampoo bowls, new mirrors at each of the 11 new stations, a brand new floor, stainless steel counters, a pedicure station with new copper drainage sinks, two spa rooms, Italian couches in the waiting area and a front desk that features a corian counter.

In preparation for the salon’s reopening on Dec. 28, every area was equipped to meet all COVID-19 safety standards, and its hours of operation were extended to provide more socially-distant service.

“We wanted to renovate the entire place, and wanted to modernize it, and as terrible as the fire was, it accelerated the process of our being able to improve everything,” Dario said. “My father had a vision to recreate this salon as a well-lit, clean place, and so we looked at this as an opportunity to start from scratch and to really purge what had been here before in order to achieve what he imagined.

“It gave us an opportunity to start again from nothing.”

Rising above the ashes

While nearly every detail of the reborn salon is new – painstakingly selected by Anthony -- there is one understated finish that reminds Anthony and Dario of the year gone by. Prominently displayed above the welcome desk at the front of the salon is the metal sculpture of a black Phoenix that raises its arms above the front desk.

To the DiFrancescos, the bird’s flight symbolizes that from the ashes, new dreams can emerge.

“We gained a certain level of confidence over the past year – me, my dad and our staff,” Dario said. “I would have never thought that we would be able to open two salons. We opened a small shop and got it up and functioning, and then proceeded to manage the redesign, reconstruction and the reopening of our permanent salon.”

“I feel that I am ultimately responsible for the people who work here, and their families, and that’s the reason why I decided to push forward,” Anthony said. “I knew that this was something we could pull off, even with the pandemic.

“This past year reinforced my belief that if I put my mind to something, there are no limits to my determination and what I am able to do, with others – together.”

To contact Staff Writer Richard L. Gaw, email [email protected].