Judi Gunkel’s Nevada City salon, Feet First

Judi Gunkel hated her job. She worked as a legal secretary in Sacramento, and like many, she stayed in what she deemed a “toxic environment” because she was vested in the company and the money was good.

But there was one part of her week she always looked forward to: the nail salon.

“I really got to know my nail tech — she was an inspiring person,” said Gunkel. “It was a real stress-reliever. She’d massage my hands, and we would share stories.”

As the weeks passed, Gunkel began to realize something.

“Whenever I looked at her, I thought, ‘She’s having fun at work — I’m not,’” said Gunkel.

As a result, Gunkel enrolled in cosmetology school, and attended classes five nights a week — while still working full days at the law firm. Eventually, she finished school, passed the state cosmetology license exam and gave notice.

“It was a risky move — it was scary because I was vested in the company,” she said. “But they call it ‘the change of life’ for a reason. I took the money and opened a business.”

Working out of a posh salon in mid-town Sacramento, Gunkel found that she disliked artificial nails and began focusing on pedicures. She began taking reflexology classes, and soon, her pedicure customers were requesting her — asking for longer sessions. Her three-day work week quickly turned into five as she added other services, such as ear candling, a Native American ear canal wax removal process.

Although business was brisk, Gunkel was eager to get out of her urban environs, and on an impromptu weekend visit, she fell in love with Nevada City.

In 2000, she landed a job at the now-defunct Sierra Day Spa on Spring Street and relocated to her larger, current space in 2003. She’s never looked back.

Her business, Feet First with Judi, has long list of loyal customers, many of whom have been coming to see her for a decade or more. Her cozy studio includes a massage table, comfortable chair and scores of her sculpted paintings, which she does under the name “JL Robison.”

One popular service includes reflexology, where — through a questionnaire and consultation — treatment is custom designed for specific problem areas in the body. Therapeutic touch is used to apply gentle pressure and massage on strategic points on the feet, hands and ears. Gunkel also uses a traditional Chinese therapy known as “cupping,” where bowls and suction are used to draw connective tissues away from lymph nodes with the aim of “flushing out stagnant blood.”

But Gunkel’s most popular service is still the pedicure.

“I offer two kinds,” she said. “The Spa Pedicure — which is my signature service — and the Power Pedicure.”

The Spa Pedicure includes a foot bath, massage, exfoliation and a dip into warm soy wax prior to the polishing. The Power Pedicure combines the services provided in the Spa Pedicure, along with a 30-minute foot reflexology session, followed by polishing.

“The full session of reflexology is good for your reproductive, circulatory and nervous systems,” said Gunkel. “People don’t want to leave. Many of us don’t take enough time out to be still.”

Many men come in reluctantly — mostly because their wives give them gift certificates — and leave wanting to book future appointments, said Gunkel.

“I don’t have a foot fetish, but I understand the need to take care of your feet,” she said. “It’s important to take time out for yourself. The most rewarding part of my job is the wonderful people who come in here. This work suits me — there’s no toxic energy here. I’m worlds away from my days at the law firm.”

To contact Staff Writer Cory Fisher, email her at cfisher@theunion.com or call 530-477-4203.


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The Union Updated Sep 24, 2013 12:26AM Published Sep 25, 2013 11:06PM Copyright 2013 The Union. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.