A cut aboveJan 06, 2023 12:06PM ● By Darrell Kirby
Seni Po’oi cuts the hair of regular customer Ismael Delgado-Delacruz at Oish Barber Shop in West Valley City (Darrell Kirby/City Journals)
Step into Oish Barber Shop in West Valley City and there’s something different.
It’s not the sterile barber shop from your grandpa’s day where the barber wore a white smock and a red, white and blue barber pole rotated out front.
Oish, at 3666 W. 3500 South, is not overly fancy but has the feel of a hometown barber shop or a bar “where everybody knows your name.” (Apologies to “Cheers.”) The conversation among patrons from different backgrounds and life experiences is good and so are the haircuts.
“I like the vibe,” said customer Ismael Delgado Delacruz of West Valley City as he was getting his black hair trimmed by stylist Seni Po’oi. He’s been coming to the shop since it moved to its present location in 2019. “It’s so inviting. You can get all the types of great hairstyles, too.” Fueling the vibe is an eclectic mix of music ranging from soulful contemporary to country that fills the room, handpicked by Seni Po’oi. “I’ve gotten to know a lot of different music just by being here, and I like it all,” Delgado Delacruz said.
Oish, by the way, is Tongan slang for “awesome.”
Oish doesn’t specifically cater to any one group, but it has developed a steady customer base among the area’s Polynesian community, owing in part to the fact that Seni Po’oi and his father, Lopi, who started the shop, are Tongan. However, Oish is open to anyone.
“We’re a family-oriented business. Moms and kids are always welcome,” Seni Po’oi said. Oish does most of its business cutting men’s and boy’s hair in its eight chairs, but it can do simpler cuts on girls and women. The more detailed hair styles for females are better done at salons that cater to them.
Lopi Po’oi took an interest in barbering mainly because of Seni, who was 8 years old at the time and the oldest of what are now six children. Lopi had let Seni’s hair grow out until he was 5. His wife said it was time for the kid to visit a barber shop. “I said, ‘No, you’re not,’” Lopi recalled. “It’s a big deal. It’s his first haircut.” So he cut it himself and continued doing it. Others noticed Po’oi was pretty good at it and a cousin requested he start trimming his locks. “It gave us an excuse to hang out and talk,” Lopi Po’oi said.
Not liking the job he had at the time and having just bought a house, Lopi Po’oi decided to develop that budding talent by going to The Barber School in Midvale in 2013 to learn the trade for a career change. Compared to his previous job, a barber’s daytime schedule would also allow him to spend more quality time with his family and “be a dad.”
Six months later, Lopi Po’oi graduated and began applying his skills on real customers—first, in his mom’s basement in 2014. Then he leased what was a small office space on 3500 South near 2700 West. That lasted a few months until he felt the need to move into a place a little further west because the music he played in the shop, while not loud, bothered the people who lived on the other side of the wall. The new location was in the back of a building away from the street. Therefore, foot traffic was sparse and so was business. Lopi Po’oi then moved the shop again in 2019 to its present location near the busy intersection of 3500 South and Bangerter Highway.
Another unique “vibe” about Oish is the mural covering the outside of the east wall of the strip mall-like building, which also houses a pet store. The two people depicted in the painting are the late Los Angeles-based rapper known as Nipsey Hussle and Alfredo Darrington Bowman, who also went by “Dr. Sebi,” a self-proclaimed herbalist healer who promoted natural cures for cancer.
Hussle was a teen gang member turned rap artist, entrepreneur, and community activist until he was murdered outside his south-central L.A. clothing store in 2019. Although from totally different upbringings, Lopi Po’oi said he shares a similar goal of Hussle in wanting to give back to his people. He does that through barbering and creating a small sense of community within the walls of his shop.
Adding to the vibe of Oish is its line of clothing. Hanging above the chairs are a variety of sweatshirts and hats with the Oish logo. Lopi Po’oi says the popularity of the merchandise has generated revenue that sometimes exceeds that of haircuts.
According to IBISWorld, which does market research for a variety of industries, there are about 107,000 barber shops in the U.S., down from nearly 140,000 in 2013-14. That includes independently owned “mom and pop” shops and outlets that operate under the big chain banners like Great Clips, Supercuts, Sport Clips, and Fantastic Sam’s. Many of those are locally owned franchises.
Lopi Po’oi will enter the fifth and final year of his lease at his current location in 2023. “I love that area. I don’t want to leave, but if we have to move, I’m going to stay in West Valley,” he said. He said lease negotiations and the planned construction of an overpass taking Bangerter Highway over 3500 South later this decade and its impact on traffic patterns will factor in his decision on whether to stay or go elsewhere.
But the bigger picture for Lopi Po’oi right now is that his shop is a cut above the others. “It’s more about delivering the experience for the customers versus standing there trying to make money all day.”
To learn more about Oish Barber Shop, visit www.oishmerch.com.