Walk into the barn at Sunny Window and it's a safe bet your olfactory system will think it's died and gone to aroma heaven. The intoxicating smells wafting through the pre-Civil War workshop arrive compliments of the French lavender, French soaps and a host of other fragrant products sold by this Southborough online retailer and wholesaler.
Walk into the barn at Sunny Window and it's a safe bet your olfactory system will think it's died and gone to aroma heaven.
The intoxicating smells wafting through the pre-Civil War workshop arrive compliments of the French lavender, French soaps and a host of other fragrant products sold by this Southborough online retailer and wholesaler.
Owner Nancy Engel purchases many of her products on annual trips to the Provence region of France famous for its lavender. Suppliers provide other products while Engel makes the rest. About 40 percent of Sunny Window's products are handmade.
The product lineup includes such soaps as lavender, sage, lemongrass, mango and shea butter, coconut, Cali olive oil, fig and mint, hand-cut rosemary and lime, hand-cut cinnamon and oatmeal, lemon and aloe, lemon verbena, linden, tangerine, peony, seaweed and citrus.
Its lavender products include teas, bunches, body lotions, shampoos and conditioners, body sprays, sachets, dryer bags, creams, herbal bath powder, pillows and essential oils.
The company also sells other types of lotions and sprays, teas, candles, incense, heat wraps, aromatherapy and facial products, gift sets, corporate gifts, men's products such as an after-shave balm and accessories such as a soft wool powder puff.
The company also arranges trips to Provence and Costa Rica, where Engel's daughter Nicole lives and runs her own tour group company.
In addition to its products, Sunny Window offers classes in aromatherapy and skin care, taught by Engel. The Southborough resident also speaks at garden clubs and the New England Flower Show. She'll be at the Newport Flower Show taking place at Rosecliff Mansion in Newport, R.I., June 27-29. The event is being run by the Preservation Society of Newport.
Engel launched Sunny Window in 1981 in Framingham. Her motivation? "Poverty,'' she says. "I started the company with $30 from my last welfare check.'' Her upcoming marriage would halt those payments.
The money was used to purchase the minimum order of a company's herbs and spices. "It was the biggest risk I could take,'' says Engel.
She named her company from the sunlit windows in the kitchen where she made her products. "I also wanted a name that was upbeat,'' she says.
In the beginning, Engel sold her natural products from a card table she set up at a flea market. From there, her company grew to the point where she needed more room, such as the kind found in a barn. "The business was taking over my house,'' she says.
Such a facility was located in Southborough and Sunny Window moved there in 1985.
During travels to such countries as Brazil, Venezuela, Costa Rica and Mexico, Engel learned about different herbs and flowers. On a trip to England about 10 years ago, her learning curve would head in another direction.
"While I was staying with my stepmother in London, something in Provence was calling me and I really didn't even know where Provence was,'' says Engel, "but it was just calling my name.
"I went back to the States and within three months a woman I knew who was a soap maker invited me to go to Provence with a group of soap makers from all over the United States. So, Provence is calling my name and then someone asks me to go there with this group and I thought, 'You know, I think I better do this.' ''
The experience changed Engel's life. While in Provence, she studied with Dr. Daniel Penoel, a medical aromatherapy pioneer.
"What impressed me about Provence is they appreciate the little things in life,'' says Engel. "For example, there's so much meaning in a gift. A gift would be wrapped beautifully. And whole towns close down at lunchtime and you sit for two hours and have a slow lunch with a glass of wine or a bottle of wine. You enjoy life and you enjoy your friends and family. It seemed to me that's something we could use more of here so I try to impart some of the things I've learned there through my business.''
Case in point, Summer Window takes care in wrapping its gift box packages. "I lightly spray the box with lavender and on the top of the box will be lavender tissue and a little bunch of lavender so when you open the box, the whole scent comes out,'' says Engel. "Then you get the goodies. ... I think the whole presentation should be part of the gift.''
Sunny Window's owner also collects antique dishes and customers can buy soap wrapped in these dishes. Lavender and Limoge make a nice combination, says Engel, who went to design school to learn floral and product design.
"Quality is of the utmost importance,'' she says. "That's the case in Provence - quality in food, quality in wine, quality in body care products and essential oils.
"They don't have the knock-off mentality in the United States just to make money. It's a terrible problem with aromatherapy here because the big companies try to make you think they're using essential oils and it's a total lie.
"I am a purist and I was trained to be a purist in Provence. When customers come to my barn or my booth at the Flower Show, they can tell immediately that this is not what they smelled in the supermarket or the chain drugstore. There is something very, very different about this.
"And the difference is purity. In one of my skin-care classes, I teach people to read labels, and when there are so many things on the labels that you can't understand, I suggest you walk away fast.
"Also, if you're buying a product in a big superstore and it's still looking good after three years, that means it had too many preservatives in it. Do you want that on your body? Things are supposed to go bad. When things never go bad, you better start wondering what's in it. We use only natural preservatives.''
Engel has parlayed her $30 investment into a business with an customer e-mail list exceeding 1,200. It ships products all across the country and all over the world. "When you give people the best quality, they always come back,'' she says.
Sunny Window now sells more than 100 different products, and Engel keeps adding new ones, or more affordable ones.
For example, she'll be traveling to Turkey later this year to bring back rose oil and rose water. A supplier now provides Sunny Window with these products. "But rose oil cost $45 for 1 milliliter,'' says Engel. "That's like 10 to 15 drops. I'll bring back rose oil at a reasonable price, which will be at least half that cost.
Engel also plans to bring back "some unusual things'' from Turkey. "I love to surprise my customers with new products,'' she says.
On the subject of essential oils, Engel points out there's more to these products than just a beautiful smell. "All essential oils are anti-bacterial and some are even anti-viral,'' she says. "Studies in Europe are going on now about using essential oils to replace antibiotics one day. Everything we really need comes from plants. You just need to find the right ones.''
Lavender has its own advantages, Engel adds. "It's very calming,'' she says. "You can take a lavender bath and drink a cup of lavender tea to reduce stress. ... I give people a little cotton ball with lavender oil on it so when road rage comes on, they can take a whiff of it and relax. A little lavender oil under nose and on your chest before you go to bed can help you sleep at night.''
For her accomplishments, Engel has not gone unnoticed. She was Massachusetts' first recipient of the U.S. Small Business Administration's "Welfare to Work Entrepreneur of the Year'' Award in 1998. In April, Engel and her daughter will be co-recipients of the Andrea Silbert Rising Star Award from the Center for Women & Enterprise.
With Sunny Window, it's clear Engel has not only found her calling but her passion, and she credits Provence.
"Before going to Provence, I thought I could never do what I really, really wanted to do - sell these products,'' she says. "After going to Provence, that totally changed. Now I do what I love to do and hope other people will like it and buy it. There's no other choice for me.''
Sunny Window hosts a spring open studio and tea tasting May 3 and 4 from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. at its 4 Pearl St. location.
It will also conduct a fresh and natural skin care class on Saturday from 9:30 a.m. to noon. Seating is limited and the cost is $40.
Contact MetroWest Daily News writer Bob Tremblay at email@example.com or 508-626-4409.