Gato Espinel: Setting up shop in Northern Liberties

Gato Espinel: Setting up shop in Northern Liberties

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Back in 2014, I interviewed hairstylist extraordinaire Marcos Matos; we spoke about his life, his work and his partner, Gato Espinel. The dynamic duo is about to have a baby — a brand-new venue called ME on 2nd Salon in Northern Liberties (ME being their last-name initials combined).


PGN: So G-man, let’s jump in it. Tell me a little about yourself.

GE: I’m originally from Quito, Ecuador, in South America. But I came to the states when I was very young. I had a hard-working mom and dad who wanted a better life for their eight kids. I’m the second-youngest. They had a lot of pride and gave me that motivation to make something of myself.

PGN: What did your parents do?

GE: My dad started out as a farmer but he was very smart and had a lot of heart and eventually got into the contracting business. Later, he owned his own dentistry [business] and then a hardware store.

PGN: That’s a jump!

GE: [Laughs] Yeah, he was great at starting businesses; not so great at keeping them open. He trusted people too much and got hit right and left with unscrupulous people who took advantage of him.

PGN: He still must have been somewhat of a renaissance man to get so many different businesses started.

GE: Yes, he always strived for a better life for his kids, something I didn’t understand as a child; we just wondered where dad was all the time, but now I know he was working three jobs to make sure we had food on the table.

PGN: And with eight kids that’s a lot of work.

GE: That is a lot of work. You don’t appreciate it until you’re older and it’s hard enough to take care of yourself.

PGN: What’s a fun family memory?

GE: One vivid memory comes to mind. When you have so many children, there’s not a lot of money. My dad was a businessman but his businesses were in Ecuador. When we came to the states, he didn’t have a dentistry or hardware store or anything like that. He did the best he could with very little English but it was tough. I remember he had an old white station wagon and we all — eight kids and two adults — packed in it to go to Great Adventure. Nowadays you have seats in the back that flip up, but back then it wasn’t heard of, so we were laying in the back like sardines. That was the event of the year! It was great to have the whole family together for an outing and we had so much fun. It was a great memory.

PGN: What did you think you were going to be when you grew up?

GE: Well, I grew up around beauty. My sister’s a hairdresser and aesthetician and I grew up around her. I always had a big interest in skin and hair. And for a hot second I thought that I wanted to be a stylist, but it wasn’t for me. Then I came to the age where I realized I needed to do something that would allow me to travel and see the world without costing me money. And that’s when I got into the hotel industry. At a young age I got hired by the Marriott and I loved it. I also realized that I’m a big foodie and went to culinary school. But I figured out quickly that it wasn’t what I really wanted. I love preparing food for friends or small personal events or parties, but the idea of pumping out 200 dinners of the same thing every day, that was not my thing. So, my field is restaurant and hotel management. I love it. I’ve worked with great chefs at some great companies.

PGN: Is that what you’re doing now?

GE: Yes, I work for Stephen Starr at Butcher & Singer and it’s great. But I also wanted to do something that would combine my skills in customer service and business with the knowledge that Marcos has from working in the beauty and hair business for so long. I also managed Brasil’s, the restaurant at Second and Chestnut.

PGN: I remember that place. Very popular. They had free salsa lessons.

GE: Yes, I managed that and then I was the maître d’ at La Veranda with Roberta, the original owner, and at the same time I was still working at the Marriott. I really worked a lot.

PGN: The apple doesn’t fall far from the tree!

GE: I know. From there I started at the Ritz Carlton and was there for 16 years.

PGN: You love to travel. What was your craziest adventure?

GE: I think it was when we went to the Cayman Islands. They took us on a boat into the middle of the ocean. I was like, Wow, there’s nothing around us! Then they dropped anchor and said, “You can get off now.” I was like, What on earth? But it turned out that it was a special area where you could feed stingrays. So we jumped overboard in the middle of the ocean and amazingly the water only came up to our waists! They gave us some food and the stingrays started swimming up so we could feed them. Before you knew it there were a lot of them. They weren’t scared at all — I guess they were used to it — but it was a magical moment. Scary, but amazing.

PGN: What’s the farthest you’ve traveled?

GE: I’ve been to Spain, California and Mexico.

PGN: And Ecuador.

GE: Yes! [Laughs] Thank you for reminding me! My mom and dad came to the states when I was 1, so I don’t have any memories, but once I was old enough, they took the youngest and went back to Ecuador to retire; now they’re back. But for the 10 years they were there, I got to visit and it was incredible. The first time I visited, the plane arrived just as the sun was going down and as we approached I saw all these houses hanging from the cliffs. I was like, Oh my God! They look like they’re ready to fall! Are they going to fall? How are they hanging there?

PGN: You are a self-proclaimed foodie. What’s the best meal you ever had, outside of Butcher & Singer?

GE: Wow, there are so many. Probably the best was from Kevin Sbraga, who was the chef de cuisine at The Grill at the Ritz. He won Bravo TV’s “Top Chef,” and on top of being a great guy, he created the best flavors with everything he did. He elevated home cooking. Jennifer Carroll was also on “Top Chef” and one of our chefs. She made the most delicious sauces you could imagine. To this day, I still think about them.

PGN: When did you come out?

GE: In my 20s. It was a rough experience for me. Typical Latin upbringing. I come from a very religious family; my mom especially was a very devout Catholic, Christian now. From a very young age, I was taught that it was wrong, that it was a demon, the devil inside of you, and I carried that in my head for some time. I had a really hard time coming out — until I educated myself about not just Christianity, but other religions as well. That opened up my eyes and got me questioning things. I believe that there’s a higher being helping me out, I can’t deny that, but I’m not devout like my mother.

PGN: Questions such as?

GE: Things are not exactly as I was told. Many people take the Bible literally, word for word, and that’s just not so. The stories have been rewritten and switched around and have deeper meaning other than the surface message you read.

PGN: Who did you tell first in the family?

GE: I was smart enough to tell the person I knew would open up their mouth and tell everybody — which was my younger sister. I knew eventually the word would go out to everyone.

PGN: Are they close by?

GE: Not too far, most of the family is in Connecticut.

PGN: How long have you and Marcos been together?

GE: We’ve been together for about 20 years. We met when we were young. People are always saying, “Someday I hope to meet someone I’m meant to be with.” Well, we did.

PGN: How did you meet?

GE: It’s a long story but I’ll make it short. My job at the time was to open up new hotels; I’d just opened up the Marriott, the big one on Market Street, and was getting ready to leave and go to our New York property. Then, I saw Marcos at a club — Woody’s, of course. I didn’t meet him but I saw him across the room and right away I knew. It was his smile. But he was surrounded by lots of admirers and I’m not the type to fight for someone’s attention so that was it. Then the next day a friend of mine invited me to Latin night at the 2/4 Club. I saw Marcos on the dance floor having fun and doing his thing and at the end of the night he walked past me and we exchanged smiles, nothing more. So the next night I told my friend, “Let’s see if we can find him.” We went bar hopping all night and nothing. Just as I was about to go home, she said, “There’s a new club that just opened, let’s just try that before we give up.” We went and there he was. The story is way longer but to make it short, we talked and danced and ended up closing the place. The conversation moved outside and two weeks later we moved in together. We haven’t left each other since.

PGN: Wow!

GE: Yes, it was meant to be. The first time he came over I told him to make himself comfortable and watch TV while I went to go wash up. I came back and he was watching the Cartoon Network! I love cartoons, but I probably wouldn’t have shown it right away. That’s when I knew he was a keeper. We have so much in common.

PGN: What’s your favorite cartoon character?

GE: Definitely Bugs Bunny. He’s a chameleon. He gets away with murder!

PGN: One of my favorite cartoons is when Bugs becomes a hairdresser, the “monsters are such interesting people” scene. Speaking of interesting people, tell me about ME on 2nd Salon.

GE: We’ve been wanting to open up our own place for a while. We owned a building at Second and Bainbridge, which was a big learning experience. We learned about city regulations and red tape, about the law and we learned a lot about bad tenants. We sold it and moved on and now we have this place.

PGN: What are the best and worst parts of being a business owner?

GE: The best part is watching something grow that you personally created. You start out with a shell and end up with a beautiful finished product and it’s like, Wow, we did this … together. It’s an awesome feeling knowing you did it your way and it looks the way you want. The worst thing is irresponsible people. You would think that people would show up on time and do the job they said they would but it doesn’t happen a lot. You really have to be on top of it. And that old saying, “You get what you pay for,” is true. When you’re opening a new business, you want to make that budget stretch as much as possible, but in the end you find out it was worthwhile to spend the extra dollar and get it done right the first time.

PGN: So what makes ME on 2nd Salon special?

GE: The salon represents the best of me and Marcos; it is us. The person who helped us with the design has known us for years and knows us well, so it’s incorporated the color and wildness of Marcos with the classical, earthy style that represents me. So we have a salon that’s fashion-forward with a lot of energy and with the customer-service levels that you would find at a luxury hotel. You don’t just come in and sit there. It’s an experience.

PGN: What else should I know about you?

GE: I’m a big animal person. Ridiculously so. If the ship were sinking, my dogs would probably come first. I have two Welsh terriers, Zeus and Hercules. They’re like our children. One has allergies, so we’re constantly having to wipe his eyes, give him baths, make sure he has his medicine …

PGN: Ha. I’ve heard of people having allergies to dogs, never the other way around.

GE: Oh yes, he’s allergic to everything. We had him tested.

PGN: So, what’s your favorite candy?

GE: I like all sweets but M&Ms with peanuts is a favorite!

PGN: What is an occupation you would not want to do?

GE: Prison guard. I think that the negative atmosphere would be hard and would eventually change you.

PGN: A trait you inherited from your mother or father?

GE: My mom’s patience and my dad’s stubbornness.

PGN: What zodiac sign are you?

GE: Taurus. May 1.

PGN: That’s my mother’s birthday. I’m an April Taurus. I knew I liked you! Last time you cried?

GE: It’s funny, we were just talking about this. I don’t cry. It’s a long story, but there are very thick walls you’d have to penetrate before I’d show that kind of emotion. I’m very protective of myself. I’ve been lucky that I’ve never lost anybody that I loved. The closest I came to feeling that pain was when my original terrier, Hera — mother of Zeus — died. She was in an accident. For the first time, I felt what it meant to lose something that you loved and it was an ugly feeling. And that was a dog, so I can’t imagine … I did lose a brother but I was too young to know him. He was 16 and went for a bike ride. He lost control and hit his head on a tree. When my dog died, I immediately called my parents and said, “How did you do it? How do you cope? I’m feeling this way and it was a dog. I can’t imagine the pain of losing a child.” Especially the way they lost him. When it happened, they took him to the hospital and the hospital made him wait. They made him wait and wait ’til he died from internal bleeding. These days, that would have been a massive lawsuit, but they didn’t know any better. They didn’t speak much English and trusted the doctors to do the right thing.

PGN: That’s horrific. First boyfriend?

GE: I was 20. I’ve only been in three relationships. The first was one of those “opposites attract,” but I learned quickly that opposites are not compatible. You need to have things in common, to like at least some of the same things, so you can go to the movies without fighting.

PGN: Maybe it’s a Taurus thing; I don’t understand totally opposite couples like Mary Matalin and James Carville. How can you be with someone who disapproves of everything you believe in?

GE: That’s what’s great about me and Marcos. We’re like the same person!

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