Mike Phillips has been slowly helping to clean up the corner of South Saunders and West South streets through his car wash that hires men who have had difficulty getting jobs.
Phillips, 54, has built a community through Men at Work Car Care Center, which moved in fall 2011 to this place many remember for drugs, theft and other crime.
He has now expanded his operation to include a barbershop across South Saunders Street. When the building became empty, Phillips jumped on the chance to put something constructive inside so it wouldn’t become a place of loitering or mischief.
Jay Maxwell, a faithful customer at the car wash, had told Phillips about the closing of his 10-year-old barbershop on Hillsborough Street.
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“What about a barbershop here?” Phillips suggested to Maxwell about the empty building.
The two set to work gutting 600 W. South St. to have Men at Work Barbershop ready for its grand opening last November. Over the past seven months, the shop has hired five employees, including four master barbers.
They follow the same service-with-a-smile mentality as the car wash, yelling a lively “Thank you” as freshly shaven customers walk out the door.
The shop is brightly lit and accented with the gold and red Men at Work theme, with a styling room in the back and a TV for sports – or soap operas – to keep the atmosphere lively among buzzing clippers.
“Even at the barbershop we like drama on TV,” Phillips confessed.
Phillips started washing cars on Blount and Cabarrus streets more than 25 years ago. Coming from a drug conviction himself, he decided to hire ex-cons and other men who have trouble getting work.
“I changed from hustlin’ drugs to hustlin’ car washes,” he said.
Phillips stands more than 6 feet tall and has a gruff voice, but quickly puts people at ease with grins, high fives and an overwhelming heart for community. He has a detailing toothbrush tucked into his sock and a “Professor Mike” tag on his desk in the car wash office.
He taught auto detailing at Wake Tech last summer and, like a professor, he’s always spewing new ideas.
The car wash is by far his most popular venture, but the barbershop is not far behind; Phillips said there are days when each of his eight barber chairs and the row of waiting seats are taken by customers.
Phillips has been feeding off his own customer base, selling convenience. A car wash and haircut in the same morning? “That’s free time for guys,” he said.
After fixing up a strip mall parking lot and gutting the barbershop building, Phillips has transformed the corner downtown long known for drugs and criminal activity. Phillips said he aims to show kids that instead of drugs and prostitution, hard-working men are making a difference.
There’s still work to be done. Employee Ryan Batten said people still often drive past the shop because of the stigma of the location’s reputation.
Dare Blankenhorn operates Sojourn Sailing, a charter yacht business, down the street and watched the gentrification of the corner over the past four years.
“We were glad he came in and cleaned up the corner,” Blankenhorn said. “He put a little pride in the building.”
The city is planning to turn West South Street into a two-way street, which will make it easier to get to Men at Work. Phillips said these two shops are just a start. He plans to launch an apprenticeship program in August, as well as franchise his brand.
He also dreams of opening a sports bar and beauty shop nearby.
“We have transformed a major artery in our city through just barbershop and car wash. I call that amazing,” Phillips said. “There’s nothing like change.”