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Birds Barbershop spreads its wings, heads for Houston

When Michael Portman moved to Austin, people had plenty of suggestions for him – where to eat, where to shop, where to hang out.

But no one could point him to an “awesome” barbershop. So Portman and friend Jayson Rapaport decided to build their own – even though neither had experience cutting hair.

“We spent a year putting together our business plan,” said Rapaport, a former Wall Street trader. “I think Michael and I got about 4 million bang trims that year. I had a list of 100 stock questions I asked each stylist. They probably thought I was in the CIA or something.”

With their research complete, the first Birds opened a decade ago on South Lamar Boulevard, featuring free beer, vintage video games, funky décor and a custom music playlist.

“We think getting a haircut should be something you look forward to, not a chore,” said Portman, who previously worked as a marketing executive at Disney.

It’s a concept that’s taken off, with scores of mentions in national magazines such as Elle and Maxim.

“I love going there because of the atmosphere: the art on the walls, the hip stylists and yes, the cold beer,” said Bao Truong, who has been a customer for the past seven years.

Today, Birds Barbershop has grown to seven locations, with more than 120 employees and revenue approaching $10 million. Each month, its stylists give more than 15,000 haircuts.

“If we had started anywhere else, we wouldn’t have been able to get to this point,” Rapaport said. “Austin gives the local guy the first shot. Always.”

The newest Birds, in the Austinville shopping center near U.S. 183 and Anderson Mill Road in Northwest Austin, opened this month. Another one will open at the Domain this fall.

“We’re very opportunistic when it comes to expanding,” Rapaport said. “We felt a pull to North Austin. This gets us closer to a lot of our customers.”

The Birds at the Domain will be part of Rock Rose, a new development that will feature predominantly Austin-owned shops and restaurants, such as East Side King, Salvation Pizza and Kung Fu Saloon.

“They’re creating this island of local in a bigger mall setting,” Rapaport said. “The Domain is turning into the central business district of North Austin. We felt like we needed to be there.”

With Austin pretty well covered, Portman and Rapaport have turned their attention to Houston. Later this year, they’ll open the first of what they hope will be many locations there.

Portman said they are choosing Houston for expansion because of the number of requests from residents there – more than from any other city. Still, he admits taking the business to a new city is a bit daunting.

“It’s starting all over again,” he said. “I’m going to need to work hard to earn Houston’s trust as a haircutter.”

Additional locations in Houston could open as soon as next year, Portman and Rapaport said, if the first store, located in Heights area, does well.

“The time is right to do this,” Portman said. “Nine years in, you know what you’re doing. We’ve got a great team behind us.”

That team is expected to grow to about 180 people by the end of the year.

“A lot of places lose their originality and their uniqueness as they get bigger, but not us,” said Beth Schindler, a Birds general manager. “Culture is a huge piece for us. We focus a lot of time on it. People can tell.”

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