How two 20-somethings built Ace High Co., a successful hair-product company out of a coffee-shop kitchen
By Patrick Dunn
Photography by Viviana Pernot
In 2016, Nate Hamood and Christian Kettenbeil spent many late nights drinking beer, eating Taco Bell and enjoying each other’s company like any other pair of 20-something friends. But their hangouts took place in an unusual venue — the kitchen of Hamood’s family’s coffee shop — and included an unusual activity: brewing handmade pomade (as in the hair product) in a modified Crock-Pot. “We’re kind of nerds,” says Hamood, 24, of Ferndale. “That’s what was fun for us.”
It’s fitting, then, that he and Kettenbeil, 25, of Waterford, are the co-founders of Ace High Co., a small-batch hair products company based in Ferndale. Their product line, which includes pomade, shampoo, conditioner, beard balm, and more, is available at many Metro Detroit barbershops, in national retailers like Urban Outfitters, and in countries ranging from China to the Netherlands.
But the story of how they got there starts with coffee. When Hamood’s father, Jamal, a business attorney, started Dessert Oasis coffee shop in Rochester in 2009, Hamood immediately started brainstorming ways to take the business to the next level. Using skills he’d picked up from a high school business class, he presented his dad with spreadsheets showing the profit margins the shop could realize if it roasted its own coffee.
“[He said], ‘The numbers are awesome. But you don’t know how to roast coffee. You’re a 14-year-old kid,’” recalls Hamood. “So I saved up some money and bought this little [chicken] rotisserie oven that was converted to a drum roaster, and that’s what I got my start roasting on.”
Dessert Oasis became Dessert Oasis Coffee Roasters (DOCR) in 2011, and Hamood — whose coffee-roasting experiments finally won his dad over — became more involved in the company as he got older, dropping out of business school at Wayne State University in 2015 to help launch a location in Detroit. He met Kettenbeil when the latter started working for DOCR in 2014 while completing his bachelor’s in business administration at Oakland University. Whenever he had an assignment that required a case study, “Dessert Oasis was my project,” says Kettenbeil. “And that very quickly turned into … real-world projects and applications.”
Hamood says he and Kettenbeil became “fast friends,” bonding over a shared interest in all things vintage. Kettenbeil had a passion for classic cars, while Hamood was fascinated with midcentury furniture, advertising and — most crucially — hairstyles. The two began trading knowledge on their respective specialties and landed on a common frustration: mainstream hair products, which weren’t conducive to replicating well-coiffed 1940s and 1950s hairdos. “There isn’t a lot of hold, and where there is a lot of hold it feels like cement on your head,” says Hamood. “It’s not very easy to live in and get a lived-in kind of look.”
The two began trying out more natural alternatives, and it didn’t take them long to realize that those products all had many of the same simple ingredients, like beeswax and shea butter. Hamood ordered some of those ingredients in bulk from Amazon and they started brewing. They found their Crock-Pots on Etsy, and Hamood admits that their early attempts at pomade looked a lot more like what the devices were originally designed to make: candles. But they eventually arrived at their dream formula, which they began marketing to local barbers in 2016. “A big focus for us was a natural formula … that had a lot of hold but applied super easily, like a lotion,” Hamood says. “It’s really creamy.”
A 2017 review from The Pomp — a website for pomade enthusiasts — was particularly influential in exposing Ace High to a wider audience and brought the company its first international order from a Chinese distributor. The business has grown steadily since then, with sales volume doubling every year. Hamood and Kettenbeil still brew their products in what Kettenbeil describes as “essentially just a big Crock-Pot,” turning out 200 jars at a time, compared to the 25-jar batches they started with.
When it came time to move out of the building that had housed them from the start, the duo wanted a location that could house their modest production facility and one full-time employee, but would also provide a public-friendly space for product demonstrations. The Ferndale spot proved ideal, but COVID-19 hit before they could even hold a grand opening. The pandemic temporarily upended Ace High’s business, as salons and barbershops closed worldwide. But the pair adapted, introducing a hand sanitizer to their line, and Ace High’s business has stabilized as hair-care routines have returned to normal.
Despite the ascent of Ace High, Hamood and Kettenbeil are still very much involved with DOCR: Hamood is now an owner, and Kettenbeil is the company’s director of finance. The pair have “just given up sleep schedules,” jokes Hamood. “If we didn’t love what we did, it might be kind of a different story,” he adds. “If we were working for what we felt was more of a soulless cause, it might feel different.”
Ace High Co.
22016 Woodward Ave, Ferndale