In business for 22 years, Candace Combs moved her In-Symmetry spa to San Francisco’s Mission Creek neighborhood 11 years ago. One of the first businesses to open in the then-emerging residential neighborhood, Combs found ground-floor space in a new mixed-use development on Florida Street to rent and convert into a tranquil setting for massage services. and other treatments.
As other businesses opened in the area between the Mission District and Potrero Hill, Combs founded the Mission Creek Merchants Association to help foster bonds among new store owners and advocate for their needs with various officials and departments. from the city.
“We were among the first things here. I could see how the neighborhood was changing,” said Combs, 51, a lesbian from New Orleans whose gay brother also lives in San Francisco.
While the spa’s move didn’t result in any downturn in business, it did give Combs an education about the city’s tough rules and conflicting positions regarding massage practitioners. It was only through her “tenacity,” Combs said, that she was able to navigate the headache-inducing permit process in less than five months so she could open the doors to her new address.
“Even to find out if I could do massages here, it was like an act of God. I called everyone,” recalls Combs, who noted at the time that she mostly dealt with male employees. in town who were “sexist and didn’t understand massage”.
Negative attitudes were rooted, she said, in viewing all massage businesses as “massage parlors” where male clients would receive a “happy ending”. Considered to be connected to the so-called red-light districts, Combs explained, there was little understanding of how a massage spa like his worked.
“We’re not a massage parlour. We’re a spa,” she said. “We are a results-oriented day spa.”
His experience navigating the city’s Byzantine licensing process and restrictive rules for massage businesses led Combs to take on a local industry advocacy role. Due to rules enacted over the past few decades aimed at ensuring that massage businesses are not fronts for human trafficking and prostitution, legitimate massage practitioners have struggled to operate in San Francisco. Many did so without permits or chose to settle in nearby towns.
“Massage laws are archaic in this town. We’re still lumped into sex work. It has nothing to do with massage and bodywork, nothing,” Combs said. “We’ve all been herded into a little box. The road to hell is paved with good intentions and that’s San Francisco. San Francisco said, ‘Let’s deal with this human trafficking problem,’ but they did it basically by crushing the massage industry.”
Combs and several other massage practitioners founded the San Francisco Massage Community Council to urge city officials to re-examine their approach to the industry. She became its president and helped lead the discussions that resulted in an easing of restrictions on legitimate massage practitioners, who are state-licensed, to operate in the city.
In 2021, city leaders relaxed zoning controls around massage providers so they could partner with other medical providers and work from their offices. This year they extended the new rules to include chiropractic and acupuncture offices.
“Massage is now part of health, which is amazing,” Combs said. “It opens up a lot of things for massage therapists.”
Still, challenges remain for massage practitioners wanting to operate in the city and follow licensing rules, Combs said, because the fees charged by the city are high. Just this month, she contacted the city leaders on behalf of a solo practitioner who had difficulty obtaining the necessary permits.
“It’s really difficult,” Combs said, for masseurs, most of whom are women or immigrants with limited financial resources, to get the necessary permits and approvals from city agencies to open a business in San Francisco. “San Francisco has no idea what small business is.”
COVID disrupts business plans
The ongoing COVID-19 pandemic has been another source of frustration, Combs said, as it has led to month-long closures for businesses providing massage services in 2020 and lingering concerns among customers about returning every day. times there is an increase in COVID cases.
Combs closed her spa from March to October 2020 and was able to secure various government loans, grants, and donations from longtime clients to help her cover bills, pay staff, and never miss a rent payment.
“I wanted my employees to know we weren’t closing,” recalls Combs, who posted videos online and spoke to national news outlets to continue her advocacy for the massage industry during the shutdowns. forced. “I made it work enough to say, ‘OK, we’re not going to go broke. But I’ve exhausted my savings.”
The massage council has teamed up with representatives from other affected industries, such as tattoo parlors and hair salons, to work with local, state and federal health officials on how they could return to safely work with customers.
“I was working harder than ever, but for zero pay,” Combs recalled.
When it reopened, Combs ended up abandoning its reception staff. She now uses online scheduling tools to book appointments and also lets her employees manage their own scheduling.
From a maximum of 15 employees, the spa now employs six massage therapists and an esthetician who offer facials, peels and hair removal services for women and men.
“We do the full nine yards,” Combs told BAR in terms of the areas of the body, particularly the genital area, clients may have waxed.
Last January, due to another wave of COVID cases, was her worst month she’s ever had in business, Combs said. Many clients chose not to book appointments and stayed home due to the winter surge.
“People were just scared,” Combs said. “My poor staff was getting really depressed.”
Since February, business has steadily picked up, she said. But its overall earnings are down 50% from pre-COVID levels, and Combs doesn’t expect them to return to those totals anytime soon.
A new service she offers is a 30-minute session called “Real Talk With Candace Combs”. It is both a massage and a life coach session.
“We’re really here to balance your mind, body and spirit,” said Combs, who plans to wed partner of four years, Marianne Doyle, in a small ceremony over Pride weekend.
The couple are raising Doyle’s 10-year-old daughter in the city’s Bayview neighborhood. Engaged since July 2020, they are planning a bigger ceremony in England where Doyle’s family is from this July.
As for her spa business, Combs plans to continue to fight to keep it open to both customers and employees.
“I do it because I love my staff. I love having a spa in San Francisco. I love my clients,” she said. “We’re the only place doing what we do, so I’m not going to let it go.”
The spa is open by appointment seven days a week from 9:00 a.m. to 9:00 p.m. It closes annually on July 4, Thanksgiving, Christmas, and New Year’s Day.
To make an appointment for its many services, .
Local businesses offer Pride promotions
To mark her second birthday this month, Kokak Chocolate owner Carol Gancia has whipped up six “Pride-versary” treats for sale throughout June. The queer Filipino chocolate maker opened her first store at 3901 18th Street in San Francisco’s LGBTQ Castro neighborhood and recently announced she was expanding with a second location in the city’s Japanese Quarter.
Among the special treats on offer this month are the Say it Louder Truffle 16-piece collection ($47.95), featuring flavors like hazelnut praline, strawberry, raspberry (vegan), and 70% single-origin chocolate from Ecuador, and the 2022 Birthday Heirloom 70% Dark Chocolate Bar ($12.95), decorated with a splash of rainbow paint and made with cocoa, berries, macadamia, and molasses.
In honor of his heritage and June 1 celebrated as Philippine Independence Day, Gancia has also created the Freedom 1896 Artist Palette Heirloom 70% Dark Chocolate Bar ($12.95). Her signature chocolate frog sits on a chocolate water lily decorated with several shapes in the colors of the Philippine flag. The Love x 3 Lollipop ($5) is a three-tier heart-shaped lollipop celebrating the store’s anniversary, Pride Month, and Philippine Independence Day. It is available in dark or milk chocolate with cocoa nibs and rainbow sprinkles.
For a complete list of specialty items and to order them online to ship to the continental United States, visit www.kokakchocolates.com
Queer-owned Barb, who created a pomade specifically for women, transgender and non-binary people with short haircuts, is donating 20% of her Pride shirts purchased this month to GLSEN, the national organization nonprofit that strives to foster an LGBTQ-inclusive environment in K-12 schools.
The Bay Area-based company is offering two unisex Pride SAY GAY shirts for sale ($40 each) in a tri-blend tee or tank top. Both can be ordered online here.
Do you have any advice on current LGBTQ affairs? Call Matthew S. Bajko at (415) 829-8836 or email [email protected]
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