There’s no dichotomy between work and play for Leila Bringas
by Virginia Lindauer Simmon
Ten years ago, Leila Bringas opened Lunaroma Aromatics Apothecary in Burlington with a $2,000 tax refund and a belief that she could create fragrance products that were better than any found elsewhere. Last year, she opened a second shop — in Maui, Hawaii — and her wholesale business is blooming.
Leila Bringas can identify the ingredients and their source for every product in her shop. She and her staff handcraft them all in small batches of never more than a gallon and a half.
The founder and owner of Lunaroma Aromatic Apothecary — on St. Paul Street in Burlington and in Paia, on the island of Maui in Hawaii — Bringas compares her work to that of a baker. “Mirabelle’s does not go to another company for baked goods,” she says. “Lunaroma doesn’t do that either.”
Having total control of every ingredient and every process is, she says, the only way to make sure her products stay true to her vision. Her company offers pure organic essential oils and sells about 180 hand-made products, including bath and body care; facial and skincare; aromatherapy blends; spa and home products; pet products; and perfumes — even custom-made, signature scents for individuals. Customers buy Lunaroma’s products online or from one of the two shops, and the thriving wholesale business includes spas in the Northeast such as The Stoweflake Mountain Resort & Spa.
“Describing a fragrance is like trying to describe a dream,” says Lisa Ecker, the company manager and production manager, who has been involved from the start.
Whatever the description, the shop smells so good it’s hard to leave. Making it even harder is Bringas’ penchant for educating her clients. She is a font of information, which she puts forth in rapid, passionate terms. She describes her creations as “symphonies in bottles,”
Fragrances have a long history in seduction, says Bringas. Cleopatra perfumed the sails on her boat with jasmine, one of the most expensive oils on the planet, to seduce Marc Antony. “Scent is a really powerful sense — a mood alterer, an ambience producer — and using the products our natural world has given us is really quite different than using a petrochemical product made in a lab.”
Bringas is not shy about saying her product is high-end. It takes 6,000 pounds of hand-picked petals to create 16 ounces of jasmine or rose oil, she says. “People sometimes get sticker shock when they come in. But everything here is super concentrated, so instead of buying an $8 bottle of mass-produced hand lotion that’s gone in a week, ours costs $24 and will last you many months, and you’ll feel better using it.”
It doesn’t take long to figure out that Bringas is completely dedicated to her work. “My mother, since I was very young, always said to me, ‘You can do whatever you want; you just have to focus on that and do it,’” she says.
Bringas strongly identifies with this charge and is quick to admit that, for her, life and work are one. “I’m not a compartmentalized person, so my job and who I am are the same. When I graduated college, I knew I didn’t want to chase the dream everyone else was chasing — you know, go to school, get a job, get married, have kids, in that order.”
She grew up in New York City the daughter of Cuban parents who had met in New York after migrating to this country. “I feel that being a first-generation American citizen really influenced my work ethic,” she says, citing her parents’ influence.
Following graduation from Hofstra University with a major in psychology and three minors — anthropology, philosophy, and fine arts — she decided to explore the world before finding work. She traveled to Ithaca, N.Y., at the invitation of Marina Asaro, a friend who was in her last year at Cornell.
After Asaro finished the semester, they took off in a car across country, visiting national parks and friends and family members.
Bringas had worked through college and saved money to support herself after graduation. To supplement funds, they made craft items and sold them at festivals. One of their last stops was to visit friends in Vermont.
“It was July, so we found it to be very beautiful. At this point, in 1995, we had finished our schooling, had lived in New York City most of our lives, and we wanted to do something a bit different,” Bringas says. “We both had a holistic natural view of life and found that Vermont, in general, was kind of our style.”
They rented a house in Cambridge, but Bringas soon realized she missed the heartbeat of an urban area, and after 10 months, she moved to Burlington and found a job with a nonprofit that helped people with Down syndrome live on their own.
Bringas also worked as independent representative for a company that sold organic herbal internal cleansing products. She had become interested in herbal medicine in college, she says, “when I was experiencing some imbalances with my health. I went to allopathic doctors, but didn’t feel it was helping.” After a friend gave her a book on herbal medicine, she adds, “it just hit home for me — gave me another perspective on balancing my health. I began making my own herbal medicines.”
In 1997, Bringas took a job at Star Root Aromatherapy, then owned by Wendy Dorsey. “She was one of my first aromatherapy teachers in person,” she says, “although by then, I had taken some online and correspondence courses and had self-taught with a lot of books.”
When Dorsey sold the business and left the area, the new owner, who also owned a spiritual book store, offered Bringas the opportunity of managing the aromatherapy shop. “For me, it was a great opportunity to be running a business completely under my control,” she says. She received permission and began crafting products of her own for sale at the store.
In 1999, Bringas and her partner, Matthew Brand, bought a home in Burlington. When she became pregnant, seeking someone to train to replace her as manager, she connected with Heather Mallory of Green Seed Herbal in Hyde Park, from whom she still buys materials. Mallory suggested she contact Lisa Ecker, a woman living in Homer, Alaska, who had friends here and was seeking a job in her field in Vermont. Ecker was an aromatherapist and massage therapist and had worked in the spa industry a number of years.
After speaking with Ecker, says Bringas, “I recommended her, she faxed her resume, and a couple weeks later, she was here. That was the beginning of a lifelong friendship.”
Bringas continued to dream of having a business of her own. In early 2000, her daughter, Alia, was born; Bringas carried her to work in a sling.
When Alia was 8 months old and wanting to crawl, Bringas made a proposal that she and Matthew — a software designer — buy into the business and set up a website, and Bringas would make products from home. She was turned down and, after much soul-searching, she took her mother’s advice and decided to move on. She quit and launched Lunaroma on the Web at www.lunaroma.com, using a $2,000 tax refund and operating from a spare bedroom.
The early years were spent selling product online and making the rounds of farmers markets and festivals. “I knew the next step was to open a retail shop because, with what we do, you need to touch things, have someone explain things to you, and online that’s difficult. And to pack the car at 6 in the morning, set up with hundreds of bottles — and when it’s really hot out, it’s not the best thing for the products — it’s really hard.”
The farmers market routine was not without its victories. “The Spa at Stoweflake learned of me through the Stowe farmers market and has been my best wholesale account since 2003.”
2003 was also the year she took the Women’s Small Business course through Mercy Connections and opened her Burlington store. Serendipity came into play when she announced to Ecker that her store would open on July 14.
“Lisa was silent for a moment,” says Bringas. “Then she said, ‘Leila, I just learned that, on July 14, we are closing Star Root and moving it into Spirit Dancer, and I said I could no longer work there.’” A few months after Lunaroma opened, Ecker joined Bringas.
“Suddenly, we had exactly what we wanted: We had our own store, and I had this kind of ‘other me,’” she says, laughing. “Lisa’s temperament is lots different from mine in that she’s softer and doesn’t talk as much. I’m the visionary owner, and Lisa is the quiet one.”
Things have gone well — so well that in June 2009, Bringas opened the Maui shop. She had fallen in love with Hawaii on a 2004 visit to two former employees, who had moved there separately. She found lots of similarities between Maui and Burlington. “And for me,” she confesses, citing her Cuban roots, “although I really enjoy the internal thing that winter provides — the meditative aspect — I do not enjoy negative 20.” Maui provided a good compromise.
She and Lisa take turns visiting the store and its three employees for training and refining the operation. The six-hour difference in time zones means that Bringas’ Vermont work day doesn’t end until after midnight, so she can be available for questions or orders. The Burlington store has five employees plus Asaro, who’s studying law, but occasionally helps with administrative work.
“Opening the store in Maui was like a breath of fresh air,” says Bringas, who is active in several associations such as the Natural Perfumers Guild, the National Association of Holistic Aromatherapists, and the Indie Beauty Network. “It’s helped me remember how important it is, what we do.”
“I want to smell great every day; I want to work here because it’s a mysterious art. Who knows how to make perfume? We do! Who knows how to make a chest rub that’s all natural and effective? Nowhere else, at least on the East Coast that I know of, can you walk in to somewhere and have a two-hour consultation and have a customized, signature perfume made for you. That’s couture, something special, a boutique!” •