Eight years ago, when bar manager Ann Thai announced she was moving to Oakland to join the Police Department, her mother cried. She describes her move from hospitality to law enforcement as a whim. She knew she didn’t want to work in nightclubs for the rest of her life, “it was a transitional time,” and Ann’s friends thought her experience behind the bar would make her a great cop.
She knew how to talk to people, she wanted to work hard, “and you know, as a bartender, you’re not really afraid of anything!”But when the pink slip came on the heels of her successful academy training, she went back to hospitality and back to asking herself the same questions. “What is it that I really love to do? What is the common denominator?”
Ann’s success is due in part to how she has handled these transitional times. She loves creating special occasions and taking care of people and she has found a way to combine these loves in her two businesses, LUX Premier Events and Concierge, and the recently opened Rock and Polish salon, in Jack London Square.
Ann graduated with a degree in marketing and business management from San Jose State, but her first experience in an office job was unpersuasive. “It took me about three weeks to go back to bartending. I was sitting in a cubicle, I couldn’t talk to anyone, it was miserable!” During the dot-com boom, she says, bartenders were clearing nearly three times her starting salary.
Later, on a trip to visit family in Vietnam, Ann turned a conversation with hotel staff into a position as the food and beverage director for Asia Pacific hotels, based in Ho Chi Minh city, near her grandparents. “I was young, I was in my early twenties, and I knew I might never get that chance back.” She spent the next two years working in hotels all over Asia. A wonderful experience, she says, but she missed Mexican food! And she missed the lifestyle of home.
Back in the Bay Area, and her transitional time with the OPD, Ann helped open Era Art bar and Lake Chalet Seafood Bar and Grill in Oakland. In 2011, Ann took the ten-week business course offered by the local non-profit Women’s Initiative, and launched LUX Premiere Events and Concierge, a natural extension of her experience in the hospitality industry.
Ann’s first event was planning a friend’s wedding in Santa Barbara. At the end of that night, when her friend thanked her for making it all happen, she said, “THIS is what I want to do for the rest of my life.”
LUX’s weddings and corporate events showcase the beautiful spaces and local talent of her chosen home. Ann and her team threw a launch party for the business at the Lake Chalet Seafood Bar and Grill, drawing on her experience with Asia Pacific. “ After working these events all over the world, I saw how Tokyo partied, I saw how Switzerland partied, I’d seen how events were done in Kuala Lampur and I was ready for this. I wanted to throw a party where people would know, okay, we’re here.”
She rented out the dock and transformed it. The guest list was a Who’s Who of Oakland, former clients and executive admins from companies around the area. “We proved you don’t have to go to San Francisco to find a really good event planner.”
The growth of LUX mirrors the trajectory of the Jack London neighborhood where Ann made her home for six years. And the timing coincided with a watershed moment in Oakland. “Almost overnight things changed.” The atmosphere in the city for women entrepreneurs has been enthusiastic. “Everybody is rah-rah Oakland!”
I met Ann in her new salon, Rock and Polish, at 127 2nd street. “Oakland’s Very Own Pamper Bar.” The corner location used to be the leasing office for the Aqua Via apartments, and Ann always admired the space. There are 2500 apartments within a three-block radius, she explains, adding that new lofts and businesses are planned and a boutique hotel will open soon on the waterfront.
Ann’s family is in the salon business, but she never saw herself there. “It was in and out, turn and burn, the kind of nail salons where you go in and pick a color and no one talks to you. When I created this space, I wanted it to be so much more.”
When Oakland designer Michael Friedes selected the delicate white and turquoise upholstery for the club chairs in Rock and Polish, Ann worried that they would look “too girly,” but now she admires how they hold their own and complement the rest of her favorite materials: painted concrete, wrought iron and reclaimed wood. Another secret of Ann’s success is knowing when to trust the vision of her talented collaborators.
Delegation is not simply about assigning work, but sharing the spotlight. There is nothing worse than a wedding planner who upstages the bride. Ann will say she defers to the vision of her team, but her employees insist that she’s just being modest. Kathryn Vidal, an event planner who joined LUX as an intern when the business was doubling and tripling in size, admires Ann’s hands on approach. “She took me under her wing. She showed me how to open a bottle of wine! ” Sharing this simple knowledge makes everyone feel more assured, more taken care of, and events run more smoothly. Vidal and teammate, Ann- Marie Pawlicki say they are learning from the best.
The salon is a showcase for select retailers, jewelry from Urban Antiq and soy candles by Penelope Co. And the space is available for events, which overlaps with the needs of LUX clients. Ann recently hosted a thirtieth birthday party here, with dj and dancing under the five-foot birdcage chandelier her friend and iron worker Tim Soman built just for the salon.
As Ann intended, Rock and Polish is much more than turn and burn; it feels like a place to connect with friends and to celebrate. It is its own kind of bar and happy hour. Whether she is making a cocktail, or extending your lashes, Ann Thai is getting to know you and your quirks, “At the end of the day that’s what I like to do.”
Rock and Polish had a soft opening in December, the slow time of year for salons, but business has been growing and reviews solid. Rock and Polish does waxing, nails and lashes. The salon will take walk-ins, schedule permitting, but appointments are recommended. Weekends are booking two weeks out and it’s open toed sandal season, ladies.