A Spa’s Journey From Family Recipes to Whole Foods to ‘Survival Mode’

A Spa’s Journey From Family Recipes to Whole Foods to ‘Survival Mode’

This article is part of Owning the Future, a series on how small businesses across the country are coping with the coronavirus pandemic.

As a little girl, Yolanda Owens would soak in warm bathtubs filled with collard greens, garlic and onions to help soothe her skin. “I had eczema, and my grandmother would go out to her garden to find all kinds of vegetables and make up this remedy for me,” Ms. Owens said.

Today, Ms. Owens, 55, owner of the Atlanta-based Iwi Fresh, produces and sells a line of preservative-free skin-care products, including Squash-It-Out Cleanser and 14 Carrot Glow Moisturizer, which are created from her own recipes that blend fruit, vegetables, herbs and essential oils.

Iwi is Ms. Owens’s abbreviation for “it is what it is.” “There’s no mystery behind my products,” she said. “They are simple, raw ingredients like my grandmother’s remedies.”

But a recipe she could not have anticipated needing was how to navigate a shutdown and a reimagining after the pandemic was declared in March. With some creative thinking, she created a plan for that, too.

Ms. Owens spent nearly two decades working as a software and network engineer, but in 2003 she started her business after creating lotions as a hobby in college, selling to friends and family. She left behind a six-figure salary and her position as a senior manager at SunTrust Bank to focus on her fledgling company.

Ms. Owens, a single mother with three young children, was also juggling child rearing. “It got crazy for me,” she said. “I decided that if I wanted to have a successful business, I was going to have to do it full time.”

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Credit…Ben Rollins for The New York Times

She sold her house and her car, and moved her family into a smaller, rental home. To fund her business, she withdrew about $10,000 from her 401(k).

Ms. Owens turned her garage into a warehouse, and she juiced and mixed at home. “I had a couple of friends who volunteered to help me out, and even my children were lending a hand,” she said.

She spread the word though old-fashioned, grass-roots marketing efforts, setting up tables at community expos, art shows and exhibits as a vendor to demonstrate her products. She taught classes at local spas to introduce her wares and demonstrate to their employees how to use her products in facials and massages. In 2010, she opened the 2,500-square foot Iwi Fresh Farm-to-Skin Spa to offer massages, facials, manicures and hot shaves for men.

Today, she operates a small farm and partners with a handful of local growers. “On Mondays, I go out and hand pick and harvest fruits and vegetables with my staff,” she said. “Then we come back to the kitchen at the spa where I juice and make the products.”

Three years ago, she got a big break: Her Instagram posts (the company now has 28,700 followers) caught the attention of a Whole Foods buyer, who stopped by the spa to check it out. Soon, Iwi Fresh products were selling briskly from refrigerated shelves at a local Whole Foods store. Last year, Ms. Owens said, her company had revenues of $600,000d.

The popularity of the products did not go unnoticed by the Whole Foods local buying team. Ms. Owens was selected to become a regional vendor, pending the approval process. That effort, however, stopped when the pandemic hit. “My buyer told me to put it on hold for later rather than sooner,” she said.

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Credit…Ben Rollins for The New York Times

On March 19, Ms. Owens closed the doors of her spa because of the pandemic. “In my mind, I thought, ‘We are going to be fine,’” she said. “But that didn’t happen. It kept getting worse and worse and worse. We had to go into survival mode.”

Ms. Owens took a proactive approach. She badgered the buyer at Whole Foods and asked what the company was doing to help small minority-owned businesses during the pandemic. It worked: Although the full rollout is still pending, she sells her products at three additional stores in the Atlanta area.

She delayed until September the opening of a larger facility, Farm Oasis, a 12,000-square-foot center that will offer wellness and beauty services.

She laid off eight of her dozen employees, including aestheticians, nail technicians and massage therapists. “That hurt,” she said.

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Credit…Ben Rollins for The New York Times

Then she swiftly began applying for more than 20 grants and loans offered by federal, state and local governments, corporations and city foundations, aimed at financial relief for small business owners affected by the coronavirus.

Iwi Fresh has received around $25,000 in local grants from Invest Atlanta and Village Micro Fund. Ms. Owens used the bulk of the funds to pay her employees for two weeks of back wages they were owed before she officially laid them off. She is still, however, on the hook for the $4,000 monthly rent on the spa. As for paying staffers still on the payroll, she is “making it work with a little juggling.”

But the game is far from over. Ms. Owens and her skeleton crew set out to reshape their business model.

“One advantage a small-business owner has is the total freedom to change, adapt, pivot and completely rethink their businesses in order to suit them for now and the future,” said David Sax, author of “The Soul of an Entrepreneur: Work and Life Beyond The Startup Myth.”

The initial step for Ms. Owens and her team was to dust off the Iwi Fresh virtual storefront. “We had a website and an online presence, but there was a lesson learned in gearing things up,” she said. “We took the e-commerce site for granted and had put more energy into our in-house spa services, so while we didn’t have to start from scratch, there were glitches — technical issues that we hadn’t expected.” Now rebooted, online sales have been steadily climbing.

Next, she rebranded. “How do we re-create as a no-touch service?” she said. “I had to think about what we really do — we provide self-care and wellness. We now have to give our customers what they were always getting hands on from a digital perspective.”

To do so, Ms. Owens started the Zero Waste Save Face campaign via the Instagram account. “I host online self-care spa parties and tell people, for instance, how to save fruits or vegetables that may be too ripe to eat and make them into masks for their skin,” she said. “It makes our people feel that we’re still there for them, and these are techniques they can do at home on their own.”

And she and her team created pandemic-related promotions, including quarantine self-care home kits for curbside pickup and delivery. Finally, Ms. Owens offers virtual consultations with clients for $35 for a half-hour session, and is starting fee-based online courses on the elements of skin care.

Although Georgia has permitted the opening of salons and spas, Ms. Owens is holding off until at least mid-June. “I care too much about my staff, clients and their families,” she said. “I didn’t think it was a good idea.”

When Iwi Fresh does open its doors, Ms. Owens will be following state safety guidelines, including no walk-in appointments, an approved sanitation process on tools and equipment, temperature checks, gloves, face masks, and a customer medical questionnaire.

Industry observers are guardedly confident that business and revenues will eventually bounce back. “Skin-care, hair-care, and bath-and-body products appear to be benefiting from self-care and pampering trends, and a notable trend is the rise of do-it-yourself beauty care,” according to a report from the consulting firm McKinsey & Company in early May.

That bodes well for Iwi Fresh. Ms. Owens anticipates that her prices will likely increase, and she will employ fewer people in the months ahead. Her business model, too, will be different. “My focus will continue to shift to product retail sales and e-commerce sales from in-person spa services.”

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Credit…Ben Rollins for The New York Times

It is possible for small businesses to come out even stronger, said Scott Shigeoka, an entrepreneurship coach. “There will be small operators like Iwi Fresh that walk away from this time with a more diverse customer base, stronger business model, new partnerships and resilience to future crises or pandemics,” he said.

For Ms. Owens, the survival instinct has not wavered since the early days of the pandemic. “As an entrepreneur, you can’t choose giving up as an option,” she said. “You have to pivot. You have to make some changes. You have to adjust, but you can’t quit. The key is to run as lean as possible without sacrificing quality.”

But creativity will not get the job done without a dedicated customer base. “During these times I received an incredible amount of support, love and compassion from our clients,” Ms. Owens said. “My strength as an entrepreneur is faith.”

The future of the spa is still uncertain. “It is all about risk reduction,” said Catherine Troisi, an infectious-disease epidemiologist at UTHealth School of Public Health in Houston. “You are never going to get rid of all the health risk, so you want to do what you can. Physical distancing and masking as well as washing your hands, or hand sanitizer, are the three bedrocks that we have for prevention right now.”

At Iwi Fresh, you can minimize contact with some services, “but a facial, that’s going to be hard,” she said.

There are things Ms. Owens can do to reassure the clientele such as temperature checks and signs reminding people how to properly wear a mask, Ms. Troisi said. “The question is whether clients are going to come.”

  • Expand online e-commerce sales to offset the decline in in-store services and sales. “Digital continues to rise,” the McKinsey & Company report said. “Direct-to-consumer e-commerce, such as brands’ websites, shoppable social-media platforms and marketplaces are becoming more important.”

  • Shift brand messaging to redefine your service or product in a virtual world. Ms. Owens changed from promoting a hands-on spa service to marketing retail products for home-based self-care.

  • Reach out to your clients. Provide free advice to add value, build loyalty and a sense of community.

  • Seek out sales opportunities. Provide visibility and potentially attract new customers, as Iwi Fresh has done with Whole Foods.

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