Small Town Salon: 1ON1 with Craig Foltos

A second-generation small town barbershop owner with a big story to tell.

If I’m ever traveling out of state and get asked where I’m from, my immediate response is usually, “I’m from Chicago.” It’s just easier than explaining the sprawling northwest suburbs and approximate distance from the city. But to be precise, I’m from Kane County, an area known as the Fox Valley. It’s picturesque, quaint and has an amazing amount of charm and detail. It also has a lot of long-standing barbershops.

Foltos Tonsorial Parlor is a family-owned, second-generation barbershop in Batavia, Illinois that has been in operation for almost 65 years. It is located on Wilson Street, the main drag of the city with a population of 26K and it is one of the oldest remaining businesses that still has its doors open. Due to the rise and fall of the economy over the past six decades, many shopfronts have had to hang their “closed” sign permanently, but not Foltos.

You’ll soon learn in this interview that Craig Foltos is quite the character. Actually, he’s charming, entertaining and loves what he does. He also has one helluva sense of humor. He was a carpenter who took over his family’s business after his father died. Craig hung up his hammer and picked up his shears to continue on his father’s legacy and the Foltos name.

This is his small town salon story:

So tell us, how long have you been here?

Since 9 o’clock this morning [laughs].

Oh, Craig, we are so off to a good start you and I [laughs]. Okay, let’s try this again. How about you tell me the history of the business.

I’ll give you the timeline because one day I want to create this timeline as a piece of art and display it.

In 1951, my father came to Batavia as a barber.

In 1963, he got the chance to buy this building that we’re in.

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In 1976, he got sick and died. And I bought this building from my mother and continued this business on because I just really didn’t want to bury him. It was important to my family.

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In 1979-80, the interest rate went from 7% up to 19%. I was developing property at the time and said to myself, “Boy, this is not fun. Owing all this money and not making a living.” So I came here, to the shop. I had a license and decided to see if I could figure out how to make a living here.

By 1983, I came here full-time and then everything turned successful.

Tell me about the name, Foltos Tonsorial Parlor.

Barbershops really didn’t do much business after the Beatles came to America. It really changed things. My dad taught me how to give really good businessman haircuts. So I changed the name from Foltos Barbershop to Foltos Tonsorial Parlor so it would have a different connotation.

Let’s talk about your father, his background and his education.

My father’s family came here Romania and his parents never learned how to read or write in any language. My father had a hard time in Barber College in Chicago because he didn’t read very well and it was very challenging for him. And the way he really learned is how we all learn,  by being on the job. He learned how to be a barber and also learned how to be an honest person.

He was also an Auxiliary Policeman during the same time and he loved it. This was back in the day when there were no cell phones. When there would be a wreck, a traffic accident out in front, he would call it in to the police station and then go out and direct traffic. Here’s one of my most favorite stories of my dad, especially now since I’m also a dad. When the bank would get robbed [there is a bank located kitty-corner from the salon] it would set off an alarm. The police would call my dad here at the shop and say, “Joe, there’s a robbery in progress!” And one day someone tried to rob the bank. He got the call and he kept a gun down there [points to area below the old-timey cash register]. He grabbed the gun, walked outside and started to cross the street. I followed behind so I could watch what was happening. He stopped, turned around and said, “Why don’t you get back inside. There might be shooting. Now, I won’t really care, but if you get killed your mom is going to be very pissed off at me.”

So why Batavia, Illinois? What brought him out to the suburbs if he was going to school in downtown Chicago?

He came to Batavia because he grew up in Aurora (the city north of Batavia) and was given the opportunity to buy into a partnership here in town. A year later, his business partner wanted to move so my dad bought him out.

Is it safe to say you grew up in the shop?

Oh yeah.

When you were a teenager, did you rebel against the idea of taking over the family business?

It never even entered my mind that I would be doing this. There was never that pressure. I wanted to be a school teacher but the Vietnam War changed everything. You had a choice: you either got drafted or you went to college. A lot of kids got student deferments and there became this glut of teachers because of it.

So when did you get your license?

I didn’t get my license until I was around 30 years old. I’ve known how to cut hair since I was a little boy. I was responsible for cutting my older brother’s hair and he would, in return, cut my hair.

You mentioned earlier about your father teaching you how to do really good “businessman haircuts,” and you touched on how The Beatles changed barbershops. I’d like to talk about how the evolution of almost 65 years of male hair trends have affected this shop?

In 1967, Batavia had 8,000 residents and 12 barbers. When my brother and I turned 18, he let us cut our hair the way we wanted it to be. He used to say, “I have two boys and two girls. Now I have two girls and I don’t know what the hell you two boys are now.” The Beatles changed everything for barbers because men were adapting to longer hairstyles. And then in 1984 it changed back. Wayne Gretzky was named ‘Man of the Year’ by the North American Hairdressers and he was really popular playing for the Los Angeles Kings. He had a short haircut. Then Jim McMahon who was playing for the Chicago Bears got a short haircut. Athletes were the influencers and everyone grabbed onto that.

In the last 65 years, there’s been a number economic shifts that you and your father have experienced. How did you two go about surviving the rise and fall of the economy and tailor your strategies to flow with the flux?

Back then, my father marketed to a very small market. Today, there aren’t a lot of salons that do just really good men’s cuts and just really good women’s cuts. We wouldn’t be successful today if we didn’t do both men’s and women’s and hair color. That’s one of the reasons why I changed the name of the shop to Tonsorial Parlor.

I believe in order to be successful you have to have marketable skills. You have to look at the demographics of the area surrounding your business.

What are some things you just absolutely love about the day-to-day?

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Every 20 minutes I get to change the channel. Someone new sits in my chair. For me it fits. It works for me. You find what people need and you can help them.

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When I was growing up, one of my idols was Leonardo da Vinci and I don’t know if you know much about him, but his brain was this big [opens his hands up wide]. My brain is like this [shrink his hands in]. Like him, I like building things. I look at hair like sculpture. It’s like studying design. Eyes track to the widest and lightest part first. Think of a picture frame. Hair color is like the matting on a picture frame. It brings out the focal point.

It’s like this. A guy asks, ‘How do you carve an elephant?’ It’s easy, you get rid of everything that doesn’t look like an elephant. That’s what hair design in like. You get rid of everything that doesn’t look good.

How are you giving back to your community?

In 1990 we did the “Chop Around the Clock” fundraiser where we cut hair for 24 hours straight and give it to the Ronald McDonald House. We’ve done it now for almost 26 years and have raised over $300,000.

My dad carried two hankies in his pocket, one for himself and one for somebody else. When you grow up with someone like that, and you’re able to give back like that, it makes your job so much better.

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Foltos Tonsorial Parlor is located at:

7 East Wilson Street

Batavia, IL 60510

(630) 879-5253

Photography: Justine Rivard