Opening a small business is the dream for many veterans transitioning to the workforce and their spouses. According to the U.S. Small Business Administration, there is about one veteran-owned firm for every ten veterans.
Here in Moore County, the entrepreneurial spirit flowing from Fort Bragg has become part of everyday life. Earlier this month Gov. Roy Cooper visited two local success stories with military ties — R. Riveter and Southern Pines Brewing Co. — but pick any point on the compass and you are just as likely to find another new business chapter being written.
From small mom-and-pop shops to highly specialized defense contractors operating quietly in our midst, the Sandhills economy has become an incubator of sorts for start ups. In this week’s Business section, The Pilot touched base with two brand-new entrepreneurs, part of the fabric that defines today’s Moore County.
Not Just a Haircut, But an Experience
There is a little slice of Americana here at the crossroads where Whispering Pines and Carthage mix and mingle. Spending his days at the corner of N.C. 22 and Ray’s Bridge Road, James Zell slips comfortably between the past and his future.
“There is a whole community back here that needs haircuts. And where else can you get a haircut and look out the window while they prime tobacco?” he said. “I mean right outside the shop is North Carolina in one picture: we’ve got blue sky, tobacco, and pine trees.”
A military brat with family ties to Carthage, Zell was a fresh U.S. Army infantry recruit at 18 when he left town. After being stationed at Fort Lewis, followed by a 14-month stint in Iraq, his return to Moore County was a happy homecoming.
“It was never a question for me, I was going to come back home. I moved around a little bit and I’ve been to many places, but there was never a place like this,” Zell said.
Nurturing a long-held dream to become a barber, Zell first used up a bit of his G.I. Bill learning the automotive trade before moving on to haircuts.
In August, he opened Headquarters (HQ) Barbershop and Shave Lounge, a military-inspired shop that is seriously kid-friendly. Inside the doors are two vintage barber chairs reupholstered in military green, a small retail and coffee area, a kids’ playroom, plus a pool table and dart board that invite pickup games. Outside the doors, there is a busy hum of traffic in this ever-growing section of Moore County.
“I always wanted to be a barber and I always had my eye on this area,” he said. “Even when I was a kid, I knew this spot needed a barbershop.”
With a Carthage mailing address and locale right at the edge of Whispering Pines’ town limits, Zell sees his new location as neutral ground.
“There is a lot of change going on. There was always military here when I was growing up but I’ve noticed that all of the new construction is military. And there is also this whole older generation here that does not want to drive all the way to town for a haircut,” he said. “I liked this space and lucked out that it was available.”
Renovating what was formerly a hair salon, Zell and his wife took care of all of the interior work themselves — from laying new flooring, to painting the walls, to installing new sinks. The exterior work he bid out to locally owned or veteran-owned businesses wherever possible.
“The lady that made my logo is local. We hired a local guy to do the gutter. The hand-carved American flag on the wall was made by a friend who is a Carthage Police officer,” Zell said. “We hired veterans from Wilmington to tint the windows and I’ve stocked the shop with (veteran-owned) Black Rifle Coffee.”
In addition to the high-end coffee, HQ’s retail area features its own signature shirts, local PINE LIFE brand apparel and Suavecito Pomade.
Zell also started the HQ Wall of Heroes initiative, setting aside a wall of his shop where customers can recognize a hero in their life by bringing in a framed copy of a military photo for display. He also offers discounted cuts for military vets, active duty and first responders.
“We need to take care of these folks. They deserve it,” he said.
It’s not at all surprising that when he went looking for an extra pair of hands that Zell sought out a fellow vet. But don’t be fooled by the pretty head of hair; Michelle Melton is no girly-girl.
“I am a Marine. Once a Marine always a Marine,” she said with a smile.
Raised in a small town in South Carolina, Melton said she was intrigued by the military, especially the Marine Corps. When a friend told her she was too girly to make it in the Marines, she said that is when it became a challenge.
“They would come to our school in uniform and I used to think they were so put together. The way they carried themselves was different from the way anyone else I knew. Their demeanor was so sharp,” she said. “I thought if I was going to join the military, I would go for the best. Being a country girl, I knew I could handle it.”
These days she is finishing her yearlong apprenticeship from barber college. Married to a highway patrolman, the couple live in his hometown in Hoke County.
“I love talking to people so this is sort of a ministry for me. I am a Christian and, being a barber, this is my way of spreading the Gospel,” Melton said.
And while HQ’s distinctive logo — an eagle inside a star — and military vibe are obvious, Zell also wanted to make sure his shop appeals to the smaller folks in the community. A kids’ zone features a basketball goal, race car rug and plenty of toys to keep little people busy. The pool table and dart board are well-suited for the slightly taller but still young-at-heart crowd.
“I like conversation so that is why we don’t have a television in here. I want people to come in, sit back and relax. That is what I remember from being a kid at the barbershop. I just love the old-timers stories,” Zell said. “So when we fixed up this space, I wanted to encourage people to stay for awhile.”
“If you have to wait for a haircut, it may as well be fun,” he added.
Looking ahead, Zell has plans to expand the shop with a third barber chair and left enough room to continue to add stations as needed. He’s also got a few new ideas brewing that he is hoping to announce soon.
“I’m excited. Our busiest time is when people get out of school and work,” he said. “It’s great when people come to hang out and get a haircut. There is just good conversation going.”
Headquarters Barbershop and Shave Lounge is located at 7341 N.C. 22 in Whispering Pines. Walk-ins are welcome or for an appointment, call (910) 690-4897.
Seeing the Trees Through the Forest
There is an old adage about this area that folks get sand in their shoes, which is why they never want to leave. But the pine trees seem to be equally intoxicating.
For Stephanie Czeklaski, the trees around her home in Pinehurst inspired her to a new level of creativity. A relatively recent transplant to the area, she founded PINE LIFE, an active-wear and outdoor apparel line last month.
“My husband works for the Department of the Army and I’ve worked in the financial services space for 14 years,” she said. “When his job brought us here, I was inspired by the trees to try something new.”
And though she had never dabbled in apparel, Czeklaski has a solid background in graphic design and marketing. Instead of simply making bold and fun T-shirts and branding gear, she also wanted her new venture to make a difference.
“I’ve always cared about the environment. My grandma would say that is the Aquarius in me,” she said.
Partnering with One Tree Planted, her new business helps to raise awareness of the threat of deforestation and encourages people to spend more time in the pines. For every dollar that PINE LIFE donates, a tree is planted. Customers are encouraged to make a donation during checkout and additional donations to the cause are included with every PINE LIFE decal purchased.
“My husband inspired me to come up with the idea. We were driving to the beach and we kept seeing the Salt Life stickers that are everywhere,” she said. “The ocean is a huge draw for people but the pines are another niche for others. We thought it was appropriate to represent this lifestyle that is the pines. I mean we are just a couple of Midwesterners who fell in love with the Sandhills.”
Czekalski said her goal is to inspire others to make the region’s beautiful landscape part of their everyday lives.
“People get lost in their technology and forget to just go outside,” she said. “They need to put down their electronics and go get a little lost in the forest.”
But creating a brand from pure passion for the outdoors has been a journey, she said, noting that new designs will be added as her apparel line matures.
For now the company is primarily a small-town e-commerce venture. PINE LIFE had a soft launch of its pinelife.com website in early September and Czekalsi has stocked her products at a few exclusive locations — including Headquarters Barbershop and Shave Lounge and also Sandhills Shave Shop — while she’s exploring other retail outlets in the area.
“My job has brought me all over the country traveling with financial services but I feel like PINE LIFE will bring me to even better places. I’m looking forward to all of that,” said Czekalski. “People are digging the logo and really seem to appreciate our concept.”