Sometimes, the last thing you expect is the very thing that happens.

For Colleen Hazel, a fourth-degree black belt and former Pepsi exec who grew up unapologetically a tomboy, that fateful surprise took the form of a career in fashion – and it came later in life.

“In no way, shape or form did I ever have any inclination to be in the bridal industry,” says the 61-year-old married mother of “lots of furbabies” (a 6.5-month-old German Shepherd, four cats and 25 exotic birds round out the mix).

Yet today, Hazel – who met her husband of 15 years, Wayne, at a karate school where he was one of her instructors - boasts one of the most successful bridal salons in the region: Salisbury, Md.’s Downtown Bridal. She is both intrigued by and well-versed in the fashion and business side of things, making strategic decisions about product and policy that have allowed her seven-year-old salon to thrive.

Granted, Downtown Bridal may represent a departure from Hazel’s other ventures, including her career at Pepsi and the karate school she and her husband now own (they took over after the previous owner retired and each teach two nights a week). However, there is much overlap – including one core component in particular.

“I was brought up with the idea of customer service; that was drilled into me at Pepsi and it’s the same way at the karate school, where it’s very important you do a good job for the kids,” she says. “At Downtown Bridal we really want to provide great service, and I think we succeed in giving a high level to our clients. To me, that’s the most important thing.”

Birth of Bridal

Hazel was actually retired after working 23 years in her family’s Pepsi-Cola franchise, where she’d played every role from route auditor to vice president, when she got involved helping a church friend set up her bridal salon.

At first it was just something to fill the time – after all, although Hazel hadn’t planned on going back to work, she was fairly young to be retired and always figured she’d end up doing something. In the interim she spent most days at her friend’s salon, helping direct employees. After about a year, when it became apparent the bridal business wasn’t what her friend expected, Hazel bought her out and took over the salon in November 2012.

“The fashion and wedding aspect – in particular the art of putting everything together – was intriguing to me, which is odd because I was never a girly-girl,” she says.

She was, however, a smart entrepreneur who enjoyed the challenge of learning a new business and helping it thrive.

At the time, Downtown Bridal was “basically like a little hole in the wall”, located in an approximately 1,000-square-foot space in a pass-through building on the downtown plaza. There was no outside exposure, just small signs on either side directing people in. As a result, despite significant advertising by the salon, customers had trouble finding it.

To remedy this issue, Hazel – who’d also dabbled in house flipping and rental properties with her husband – began searching in the same downtown area for something with better exposure and more space. In 2013, she purchased a building approximately a block down the plaza from her original location. The catch? The abandoned 100-year-old structure had to be totally renovated.

“When I first looked at it, it was raining outside and the realtor brought me in and it was raining inside as well,” she says. “It was in really bad shape.”

The 5,000-square-foot space was more like two old buildings morphed together. A few months later, it had a new roof, new interior and new life; on March 1, 2014, Downtown Bridal moved into its current location.

The salon is basically divided into halves – 3,000 square feet is devoted to a retail area for the bridal suites, dressing rooms and bridal stock, including moms, maids, flower girls and alterations. The other portion includes a Sample Salon with discontinued gowns, offices, breakroom, rest- room and utilities/storage.

As for décor, “We try to keep an eclectic vibe; it’s not modern, that’s for sure!” Hazel says. “We have some antiques; it’s a very laid-back, homey feeling. We have found in this area if you’re too streamlined, people are intimidated.”

While choosing aesthetics was easy, learning the bridal business as an outsider has been anything but. For Hazel, its complexity stands out most.

“Your average person has no idea what’s involved in this type of business,” she says. “Part of our job is to educate customers that this isn’t a department store. Everything. . . is so different from what they’re used to, which has been a challenge.”

And while her family’s business background helped alleviate a fear of the accounting side of things, Hazel still had a steep learning curve.

“Understanding how everything flows, from factory to suppliers to us, is something I never really had a good understanding of,” she says. “And there are all these other pieces, like with the possible new tariffs, that make it kind of fascinating but also a little scary.”

Universal Lessons, Distinguished Approach

As Hazel was brought up understanding the importance of excellent service, giving the best possible to every customer is Downtown Bridal’s primary focus.

“We strive to do that from the first moment of contact through their first anniversary,” she says. “We want each person that walks in to feel at ease and like they are our friend.”

This showcases in numerous ways, from the friendly, knowledgeable consultants to the congratulatory social-media posts and follow-up thank you notes/anniversary cards the salon sends. Having a good software management system is key, so information and communication is always on point.  Although Downtown Bridal utilizes text and e-mail for notifications, consultants still prefer handwritten notes and phone calls whenever possible. They also do a monthly newsletter featuring a “bride of the month”; it’s broken down into four sections, one of which is posted on social media every Wednesday.

The salon keeps good vibes flowing after the sale, too, by encouraging customers to send in their pictures, which are added to a family tree displayed on the lobby wall. Not only does this little touch help keep former customers connected, but it also serves as a subtle form of advertising – new clients often look at the tree and recognize friends, exclaiming, “I didn’t realize so-and-so bought her gown here!”

Also enhancing their ability to provide an amazing experience: going to market to see and touch/feel product they choose to invest in; discussing new ideas regularly; remaining open to change if something isn’t working; and accepting that the bridal business is a never-ending process.

“When people ask when is your downtime, we say we don’t really have one, because if it’s a slower season on the floor, we are slammed in alts or it’s gala season and we try to participate and be involved as much as possible,” Hazel says.

In terms of distinguishing points, Downtown Bridal boasts a full in-house team for alterations, which allows them to truly customize each individual’s wants and needs. They also do a lot with women’s sizing, which not everybody in their area does. In fact, about one-third of their bridal inventory is plus.

“Customers are thrilled!” Hazel says. “It’s like OMG you have plus-size mannequins! That’s the first thing they see because they’re in the windows. . . and when they come in and have a selection of things to try on that they can actually get into they’re just delighted; they perk right up!”

The salon will also happily refer people to competitors if it doesn’t have what a customer is looking for in terms of price point, designer or style.

“I know a lot of other places don’t but I don’t have a problem doing that,” Hazel says. “There’s plenty (of business) to go around, and if they don’t find what they think they are looking for then they’re apt to come back because we were honest.”

There’s another key way Downtown Bridal differs: they refuse to participate in the brick-and-click movement.

Partially this is because successful brick-and-click would require a dedicated staff member exclusively for that, something the salon does not currently have. But it’s mostly because Hazel sees the dress as an investment – something customers who are spending good money want to feel, touch and put on to experience the quality, rather than just buy online.

“I view (brick-and-click) almost like competing with yourself in some ways,” she says. “I feel that it’s almost cheapening what we’re striving for in customer service.”

A Family Atmosphere

One of the main lessons Hazel has learned is the value of having a dependable, well-rounded staff who aren’t just salespeople.

“You really cannot do it all yourself,” she says. “Find your passion of what part of the process is your thing and build on that.  It’s worth your sanity to have other people do the other parts.”

However, in the beginning, Hazel was attempting to handle everything solo, including alterations, bookkeeping and working the floor.

“I prayed to God to send me somebody who could do alterations better than I did,” she says. “I think it was divine intervention.”

In August 2014, a woman wandered into Downtown Bridal and asked Hazel if she could talk to her about doing alterations.

That woman was 47-year-old Maria E. Demetriou, who used to own a bridal shop 2.5 hours away before moving to the area. After arriving, she'd opened an alterations shop until she could figure out the area and what she wanted to do. Today, she works as Downtown Bridal’s operations manager and master seamstress.

“I am basically Colleen’s right arm,” Demetriou says. “I share everything there is in the store except the accounting.”

This includes operational tasks like arranging window displays, meeting with managers, handling employee schedules and marketing. This frees up Hazel to work on projections, evaluate numbers and weigh possible procedural changes. Importantly, the two women work well together, having formed a genuine friendship (“Neither one of us can sit still!” jokes Demetriou, who also has a theater and film background). Additionally, their generation gap adds valuable perspective.“

Maria’s a bit younger than me so she’s able to help with some of the social-media stuff and certain things that I’m just not that familiar with,” Hazel says. “You definitely need somebody that’s going to (do that) because the older you are the less apt you are to be there with that kind of thing. I’ve learned a lot in my lifetime but my brain will only hold so much information.”

As for the rest of the Downtown Bridal staff, which on occasion has included some of Hazel’s five nieces working as sales consultants, “luck, prayer and rewards” are the trick to finding and keeping good employees.

In terms of training, a software system provides video tutorials, and the salon requires new employees to spend at least a month shadowing while learning all of its ins and outs and policies/procedures. They also hold monthly sales training after hours for all staff; dinner is provided and the group role plays and discusses sales techniques. They utilize information gained from Mon Cheri Academy, which they’re now putting into video as well. Employees, who are compensated hourly plus commission, are rewarded with dinner parties, pay raises and end-of-year bonuses if the salon hits certain numbers per category. However, the real benefit – and primary motivation for staying – is intangible.

“The group of people we have working here we treat like family; they’re more than just employees,” Hazel says. “Typically, if someone isn’t a good fit they don’t stay long. The people that tend to work here care about the business and want to be part of the Downtown Bridal family.”

Secret to Prom Success

While acknowledging it’s a work in progress, Downtown Bridal has been undeniably successful with a niche many salons struggle with: Prom, which makes up 20-22% of their sales.

That’s significant enough, in fact, that the salon has rented out a 1,600-square-foot space this year one-half block up from its main location exclusively for prom and tuxedos. It isn’t an ideal space – ultimately, they’d love something larger that can accommodate everything separately under one roof. However, it has provided much-needed breathing room.

“We really wanted to break our prom out away from bridal because we’d be so busy during the prom season because, of course, it overlaps with bridal and I’ve found that brides and prom girls don’t play nice together,” Hazel says.

Moving prom out not only gave the salon more room for its wedding gowns, samples line and bridal appointments, but it has resulted in lots of good feedback from prom girls excited to have their own space. And it’s what happens in that space that further entices them.

“We like to try to make sure we have price categories for everybody so that if a group of girls comes in and some of them just don’t have quite the pocketbook they still have something to look at and try on, and don’t feel left out,” Hazel says of the salon, where prom dresses range from $200-$800.

“We also like to make sure we have our category for our plus-size girls because they very often come to places and are very disappointed because they just don’t have anything to try on,” she says.

Additionally, Downtown Bridal takes a “Say Yes to the Dress” picture exclusively for prom girls, which gets posted on Instagram (the girls all love sharing that, Hazel says). They also give away reusable Swag Bags that say “Prom” on them, which are filled with goodies like a coupon for their date’s tux and a prom t-shirt, among other things.

“Some of the bags we get from our designers and it’s a great use for them because otherwise they’d be sitting in your back room,” she says. “So that’s kind of a helpful thing and it’s advertising for the designer.”

Finally – and this is a big one! – Hazel says one can never have too many dressing rooms.

“That’s for God’s truth!” she says. “Nothing’s any worse than when people have to wait for a dressing room. And, sadly, these prom girls aren’t very considerate of people waiting. . . they don’t really care!”

Bright Future, Big Plans

Moving forward, Downtown Bridal, which has already experienced tremendous growth since Hazel took over, has many exciting plans on the horizon.

They’re scouting out new, larger locations, which would allow them to put everything back together under one roof but compartmentalized in a space that’s easier for clients to access. They also plan to have an open area where they can conduct community benefitting activities like sewing classes, DIY make-up, weight loss, putting together an emergency kit and other non-bridal related topics as well.

Additionally, the salon recently launched its “Platinum Experience” for after-hours private appointments with all the frills. And they have started the process of making their own TV show geared toward educating brides on local public television, which will be transcribed into a blog as well. Ideally, they’d like to air it at least every other week; its primary benefit will be increased exposure.

“Truly, it’s amazing how people still don’t realize we’re here,” Hazel says. “With all the different avenues of advertising and marketing we attack. . . we’re in an area that’s not hugely populated and a lot of people who want really nice apparel automatically think they have to go over the bridge, so I think it’s really going to be more of helping to get awareness across all spectrums of economic levels.”

And anything that helps the salon ultimately helps the community of Salisbury, which is important to Hazel, who was born and raised here.

“This is my home,” she says. “If you’re going to hope the community supports you, you want to give back to that community as well.”

Along those lines, Downtown Bridal works with a local group called Women Supporting Women, which assists women who had breast cancer; and donates dresses to Prom Promise, which helps girls in need acquire prom attire. Personally, Hazel is involved with a local homeless shelter, which has a thrift store the salon donates to occasionally as well.

As Downtown Bridal continues to grow and expand, Hazel will continue to do these things, while enjoying the rewards and challenges of the unexpected path her professional life took.

“The best part (of being a salon owner) is helping others, whether it be a client feel beautiful, guiding them through a difficult situation or seeing staff grow into something they hadn’t thought they could,” she says. “I enjoy the fashion, people I’ve met and getting to know more about the business. I’m constantly trying to figure out what do we need to do to make everything work better so it’s a bit of a challenge but I think having something like that keeps me going; it keeps me young.”