LUTZ For Franca Bell, the road to success was anything but smooth. Like many small businesses, her barber shop endured economic woes, rising rent and shrinking profits.
The Italian immigrant and single mother of two cleared those hurdles and others while surviving nearly a quarter-century in a male-dominated trade -- a mom-and-pop business minus the pop, if you will.
She gave new meaning to “labor pains” when she traded her full-service salon and its high-maintenance employees for an old-fashioned barbershop, recruiting both of her sons to work at her side.
The name of her business, Frankie’s Barbershop, has some first-time customers making false assumptions about the sex of the namesake owner, but the operation is totally “a man’s shop, when I’m not here,” Franca said with a laugh, pointing out the satellite TV tuned to shows like “Top Gear.” The magazine rack includes “GQ” and “Golf Digest” for the male clientele, which accounts for 98 to 99 percent of the shop’s business.
Bell and her then-husband, a medical school student, launched the business in 1991, renting a storefront on Fowler Avenue near the Museum of Science & Industry, employing several additional cosmetologists.
“But it brings nothing but headaches,” including employees with drug and alcohol problems, Bell said. “I didn’t care for all that.”
After two years, she moved her business to Lutz, selecting a small shopping center on the southeast corner of Livingston Avenue and Sunset Road.
“After 11 years, they wouldn’t renew my lease,” she said of property owners assuming the Hess Express gas station/convenience store planned for that corner would consume the entire property.
She learned of the availability of her current shop, 18849 U.S. 41 N., and made the move in September 2002. “I put $30,000 into this baby,” she said of the former motorcycle store she converted into a four-chair barbershop.
“Once I got established here, my sons came in, and it’s been us for about 10 years,” said Bell, 56, who was born outside Rome and came to America when she was 14.
Her youngest, Luke Bell, 28, got an ultimatum after graduating high school: “You can’t stay home and play video games,” Mom declared. “So either go to work at Burger King or go back to school.”
The teen returned to school – barber school in Zephyrhills, with guaranteed employment in the family shop.
“They do a good job here,” said Lutz snowbird Bob Comeau, getting a haircut before driving north for six months in Saratoga, N.Y. “It’s gotta be 10 years” as a Frankie’s customer, he said.
“We’re just his temporary caretakers,” quipped his barber, Dereck Backhurst, 37, Frankie’s eldest son. Backhurst jokes that he might have ended up a professional skateboarder if he had not joined what evolved into the family business.
“They love it,” the matriarch interjects about her sons. “They never miss a day unless they’re really, really sick.”
Frankie recalls when Dereck announced his intention to become a barber, she asked why.
“Because you always come home happy,” her son replied.
“It’s nice for our family to have this,” said Frankie, whose sons work different days with mom.
“I get to see my babies at least twice a week,” she said with a smile. “They’re right next to their momma, so I’m proud of that.”