When she started cutting hair at Willy’s Barber Shop in 1999, Gladys Cañas enjoyed working at a family owned business where the proprietor, Ricardo Zamudio, treated his employees well.

The barbershop even gained a little reputation in 2008 when Zamudio’s son, also named Ricardo, took over the shop and attracted a strong clientele. Willy’s became one of the most popular barber shops in the Mission and it even ran a financial surplus. 

“There were lines going out of the door. Everyone wanted to get their hair cut by him,” the younger Zamudio, Cañas said in Spanish. The producers of HBO’s Looking used the shop as a backdrop in scenes from the 2014 series.

But by sometime in 2017, the good days had evaporated. The younger Zamudio stopped cutting hair. The elder Zamudio died in 2011 and Cañas, and 71-year-old Javier Rodriguez, who started in 1998, became the only enduring barbers. Rodriguez, who suffers from childhood polio and uses a mobility scooter, worked full-time. And 67-year-old Cañas, who has a heart condition, worked on the weekends. The younger Zamudio dropped by only occasionally but he remained on the lease and in charge of taking care of the bills. 

That did not go well. 

On May 29, 2019,  San Francisco sheriffs arrived at the shop to evict Willy’s for non-payment of rent.  The sheriffs forced everyone out and changed the locks. Cañas and Rodriguez said the eviction followed years in which Zamudio demanded money from the two barbers and then failed to pay the rent. 

Cañas said that Zamudio had always taken 60 percent of the money she earned, but that for the past two years Zamudio regularly demanded more. The final insult, Cañas said, came when Zamudio and his wife Lori, barred her from entering Willy’s after the eviction to retrieve her equipment — worth several hundred dollars — and her license.

“What really hurts is the way he’s treated us. We’ve poured so much energy into helping him, it’s sad,” said Cañas, who has known Zamudio, now 33, since he was a teenager.

Most of all, she said, she’s scared to talk to the Zamudios alone and accuses them of using intimidation tactics.

Zamudio and his wife Lori denied ever trying to extort money from their workers, or taking their equipment, and instead expressed a desire to take them to civil court for money they say they are owed. Zamudio said he suffers from Crohn’s disease. 

Regardless of the reasons, it is clear that paying the rent became difficult.

Three times, court documents show, Zamudio had to go to court for nonpayment of rent — once in 2018 and twice in 2019.  

Rodriguez said he sometimes gave Zamudio the $2,500 for rent just to keep the shop open.  

“Whether or not he paid for it, I can’t say. The rent was under his name,” Rodriguez said in Spanish. 

On one occasion, Rodriguez even sought the help of Zamudio’s mother to pay Willy’s rent. 

Zamudio’s mother, Martha Sanchez, would not comment on the recent troubles at Willy’s. At various points she says she assisted in paying the shops’ rent. 

Nowadays, Sanchez and her son are not on speaking terms even though they live together, she said. 

As the shop’s business became increasingly precarious, Rodriguez and Cañas tried to keep it open. 

Eventually, the property manager, Makras Real Estate, would no longer forgive the establishment’s missed payments and filed illegal detainers against Zamudio.  

Once the locks changed, Cañas tried to get her tools back. Zamudio sent her a  text message on June 8 that said she would only get her property back after she paid Zamudio his percentage from her last shift. 

Gladys Cañas, a former worker at Willy’s, said that the shop’s owner often tried to use intimidation tactics to suck money of his employees. Photo by Abraham Rodriguez.

Cañas said her last day was on May 24 and she cut nine heads for a total of $234. She says she kept $90 and gave the rest to Zamudio. 

She says the owner, however, insisted he was owed more and told her he had the video proof to back up his claim. 

“They want money, they keep saying that we owe them money because of the cameras recorded us making extra money. But those cameras haven’t worked in forever,” she said.  Lori Zamudio said they had the proof, but tossed the video. 

Cameras at Willy’s, photographed here on July 2018, didn’t seem to work, employees said.

On June 28, once the management company finally agreed to let the former barbers into Willy’s, Cañas said Zamudio’s wife refused her entry. 

When Cañas returned with a police escort she says Zamudio and his wife were both at the store. This time they purportedly told police they did not know Cañas. Police pressed the couple and finally Zamudio allegedly said it didn’t matter because everything in the shop belonged to him. 

Rodriguez, who now works a few stores down at Anita’s Beauty Salon, disagreed. 

“They never bought us anything. Maybe the chairs, sure, and sometimes they would buy supplies. But all the tools and the licenses were ours,” Rodriguez said.

Rodriguez was able to retrieve his tools and said that he also picked up Cañas’s equipment, but the Zamudios grabbed it from his lap. 

“He saw me trying to leave with them, but took them away and said, ‘You have your things. Now get out of here,’” Rodriguez said.

Zamudio denies this claim, then said Rodriguez couldn’t “reach for stuff” because he’s in a mobility scooter.

In a recent phone call, Cañas said she suffers from high blood pressure and a heart condition, and was advised to avoid stress. 

What she wants the most, she said, is her business license. She last saw it inside Willy’s and is considering seeking legal help. 

When asked why he had tried to force Cañas and Rodriguez to pay up to get their equipment back, Zamudio said he only wanted what was owed to the shop for the month of May.

“This was a very stressful experience, for all of us. We don’t need this,” Lori Zamudio said.

Rodriguez said he wants to be done with that chapter of his life too.

“I’m old, if I hang on to this stuff it’s only going to ruin my life,” Rodriguez said.