Dennis Ratner co-founded the Hair Cuttery in 1974. The inexpensive strip mall staple is starting a social media push to restyle its image and attract millennial customers. (Marvin Joseph/The Washington Post)

The scene in the vacant Tysons Corner Center store on this late summer evening is everything Hair Cuttery co-founder Dennis Ratner was hoping for. As a Top 40 soundtrack pounds in the background, a slew of beauty bloggers, social media influencers and assorted guests — an inordinate number of whom look like Kim Kardashian — wander through his low-lit pop-up Instagram museum, making full use of the Hair Cuttery-provided selfie lights. One Kim poses before a wall of fans, her hair flying behind her like a black cape. Another plops beneath a hair dryer topped with a Marge Simpson-like blue wig. Still another sits in a salon chair while a stylist imported from a Hair Cuttery in Salisbury, Md., affixes a long pink hair extension just behind her ear. And when the event winds down, each Kim departs with a swag bag bearing a button with the message “Change Is Here.”

It’s a good bet that most of the attendees have never stepped a Louboutin-heeled foot in one of Ratner’s more than 850 Hair Cuttery salons — but the drop-in suburban strip-mall staple, which offers cheap haircuts for $21, is aiming to restyle its image. One week after the pop-up party, Ratner enters a chromed-out conference room in the Ratner Companies’ corporate offices in Vienna, Va., wearing his own Change button, fastened navel-high on a black V-neck sweater. In addition to Hair Cuttery, Ratner owns and operates salon chains Bubbles, Salon Cielo, Salon Plaza (bringing the total count of Ratner holdings to more than 1,000 salons nationwide) and the Cibu hair-care brand. At 75, he is remarkably fit, owing to a daily routine of cardio, weights, golf and hiking, the last of which his third wife excels at. (He still runs the company with his first wife and co-founder, Ann Ratner; daughter Kelly Ratner Mistretta also works for the company.) He talks at the decibel level reserved for motivational speakers and often springs across the table like a jack rabbit to make his point.

And right now, his point has been repositioned — he has moved his Change pin since sitting down — from his bellybutton to just over his heart. “You have to change,” he announces, retaking his seat for what won’t be the last time, “or you have to leave the industry.”

It’s advice gleaned from watching his father, who in 1947 decided that the time was right to open Louis, a salon in downtown D.C. that offered high-end service at affordable prices. “He was known for the $5 permanent,” a radically innovative concept at the time, says Ratner, who initially plied his trade working for his father. In 1974, he was ready to open his own salon, where customers both male and female (“No one was doing unisex salons!”) could walk in with no appointment and get a new look. Instead of the $5 perm, Ratner introduced the $1.99 shampoo and set. “I reengineered [Louis] in my own way,” he says. It wouldn’t be long before he took his father’s small chain of local salons and turned it into his Hair Cuttery empire, with salons up and down the East Coast and in Chicago.

His latest initiative is dedicated to capturing — who else? — millennials. The “Change It Up” campaign launched at the Tysons pop-up is the first step in a multipronged effort to convince this mercurial, media-savvy bunch that if they want instant (and Insta-) gratification, they can head into Hair Cuttery and completely change their look at a fraction of the cost of other salons. (It’s not an unwise approach, since, as experts say, those thrifty millennials would rather spend their income on experiences than on things.)


“You have to change,” says Ratner of his plans to take the Hair Cuttery upscale, “ or you have to leave the industry.” (Marvin Joseph/The Washington Post)

Enter chief operating officer Phil Horvath, the super chill yin to Ratner’s frenetic yang. Despite his bald pate, Horvath, 54, descends from a line of shear royalty: His grandfather was a hairdresser in Vienna; his father, a top stylist at Elizabeth Arden Red Door Salon in New York, counted Arden and Audrey Hepburn as clients. Before he joined Ratner Companies in 2016, Horvath was instrumental in doing a makeover for Ulta Beauty, taking it from the down-market era of Almay and L’Oréal and turning it into the darling of millennial editors at the Cut and Jezebel with such cult brands as Flesh and Tarte.

“How do you deploy to younger customers?” he asks, taking off his black sport coat to reveal a shoulder-to-elbow tattoo. “You go to the space where they play.” Meaning Snapchat, Instagram, Twitter and the world of hashtags. To help conquer social media, the brand’s 10,000-plus stylists, under the tutelage of an “internal social squad,” will be tasked, according to Horvath, “to up their game in the social space,” posting “before” and “after” photos with #MyHCLook. “Don’t sell me B.S.,” says Horvath, “show me.”

Can a 40-year-old business with a staid clientele remake itself into an Insta-worthy Hair Cuttery for a new generation? That remains to be seen. But it’s not a worry for the man whose business card reads CBO. “I call myself the chief belief officer,” says Ratner, springing up from his chair and pulling a harmonica out of his pants pocket. After a few bars of a vaguely bluesy tune, he reveals that he’s been taking lessons. “I’m 10 months into it,” he says proudly. “I can learn anything.”

Cathy Alter is a writer in Washington.