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Waterloo Man Needs A Change In State Law Before Taking His Barber Shop On The Road

Pat Blank
William Burt and his Kut Kings mobile barber shop. He's awaiting a possible change in state law that would define barber shops to be mobile as well as in fixed locations.

The inscription just above the sun visor in William Burt’s mini-bus reads, “Life is a journey, and only you hold the map.”  Burt’s journey began when as a child, he moved with his family from Mississippi to Iowa.  He became a father for the first time at the tender age of 14 and was soon in his words, “making money the easy way” by dealing drugs.

He was eventually arrested and sent to prison.  At the Fort Dodge Correctional Facility, Burt gave haircuts to the other prisoners, and realized he had pretty good skills.

“Watching those guys, 1300 inmates literally fight to get to my chair was not only an honorable thing, but it was very humbling, very exciting to see that, 'hey maybe I have something here,'” he said.

Burt lives in Waterloo now, and the road to his career plans to be a licensed barber has taken several turns because he was in and out of prison three more times. He had enrolled briefly in the College of Hair Design in Waterloo, but had to give it up to spend even more time behind bars. After being released for the fourth time, he believed he was ready to make an honest living.  After spending a considerable time behind bars, Burt said he wants to give back some of what he’s taken from the community. 

“I came back home again and I stopped down at the College of Hair Design to let the guys know that I was back home,” he said. “They wouldn’t let me enroll right away, they made me stay out a year. They shot me down, hurt my feelings a lot but I knew they wanted me to prove myself, so it was something I had to prove to myself I could be out.”

During that year while he waited to hone his barbering skills, Burt enrolled at UNI and now holds a bachelor’s degree in Leisure, Youth and Human Services.

“You know I’ve taken so much from the streets drug dealing and you know committing everyday crimes that this would be the perfect way to get back in,” he said. “Having four or five felonies, going to prison four times, I was really at a disadvantage, so I had to figure out a way. I can’t go and become a cop, I can’t go and become a social worker, there’s a lot of fields that’s not gonna let me in.”

Once he got BA, he began work on his master’s degree with an emphasis on nonprofit management. So here is where Burt’s journey takes a giant leap forward, sort of.  He is combining his barbering techniques and his management skills to create Kut Kings --  a minibus that would allow him to take his trade on the road. 

“My goal is to be a non-profit organization, so these guys who are not able to get the cuts regularly, I can get donations for providing them free haircuts,” he said. “I’ll still get paid, thank God some kind of way, but the target people that I’m looking to serve will receive free services.”

The only problem is, it’s against the law.

Credit Pat Blank / IPR
Burt hopes a change in state law will put customers in this chair.

“Barber shop is defined as an establishment in a fixed location where one or more persons engage in the practice of barbering,” said Susan Reynolds, the executive offier for the Iowa Board of Barbering. “I would have to say the intent of the law, the way it was originally written was to take into consideration sanitary precautions.”

The mobile barbershop idea has caught the attention of state lawmakers, who last week advanced a bill that would change the definition to allow mobile barbershops, but not the health and safety standards.

Burt says he’s encouraged by the forward motion of his dream to serve people who can’t come to his brick and mortar shop.

“These guys tell us their deepest secrets, you know their darkest sins, you know so we could be pastors, we could be counselors, we are so many things behind that chair that we’re more than barbers, That’s kind of my pitch to the barbering community that we have to start thinking outside the box.”

Burt says his Kut Kings mini-bus is fueled up and ready to go as soon as he gets the green light from state regulators.  While he waits, he says he has a thesis paper to write.

Pat Blank is the host of All Things Considered