Tucked in the middle of a row of faded red awnings, it can be easy to miss Burlap & Twine from the street. However, step inside the James St. N shop and one is immediately struck by two things: the beauty of the space inside and the intoxicating aroma of the store’s natural soaps, bath bombs and skincare products.
Karina and Dominika Gerlee first opened the doors of their store in 2013, however the business itself dates as far back as about 2009. In the three years since Burlap & Twine opened, the business has seen its clientele expand and its sales prosper. And with a second location poised to open during the holiday season, the mother-daughter team has plenty of excitement and hard work ahead of them.
In the beginning…
For Dominika Gerlee, Burlap & Twine’s storefront is a lifelong dream realized.
“I’d always wanted my own business. I didn’t know what it was, I was always going with different ideas, but I knew that was the path I wanted to take,” she said.
After a friend gifted her with a set of bath bombs from popular skincare company Lush, Gerlee was sold.
“From that moment on I decided that I was going to learn how to do these, I was going to take courses, do whatever I need to do.”
At the time, Gerlee was attending Mohawk College’s Business Administration program. “I totally wasn’t into it, even though I ended up graduating with honours,” she admitted. “Basically I took my OSAP loan and I opened up the store. I took a chance, and… [although school] was good and I was great at it, I just knew I didn’t want to sit in front of a computer; I knew it wasn’t for me.”
Gerlee moved to Hamilton from Toronto, and said that at first, she did not like her new city. “It took me a while to embrace it… what happened was that I ended up living on James St. when I was going to school… and then I just fell in love with James St.”
Towards the end of her program at Mohawk, the storefront that now houses her store was for lease. “It wasn’t like I had a big plan or anything. I just jumped into it and hoped everything was going to work out.”
At this point, Burlap & Twine had been a home business for a few years, complete with a dedicated customer base that followed the company from their online store to James St. and helped the physical storefront take off right away.
Suds and fizz
By the time Gerlee launched her storefront, that customer base knew they could rely on an extensive range of Burlap & Twine products.
“The only thing that’s different from when I first opened is that I started carrying a lot of local brands, a lot of different Canadian brands,” Gerlee said.
The opening of a physical store meant Gerlee and her mother could expand their options for products such as soaps and bath bombs. Gerlee taught herself how to make bath bombs, however she has taken advanced soap-making classes to master multiple methods of the craft.
“I’m not formally educated… I’ve just sort of picked stuff up along the way. My mother also used to teach skincare and cosmetology at a school [in Poland], so a lot of that knowledge came from her. She does some of the products as well.”
As their product line has expanded, Gerlee has focused on ways to reuse and recycle their products.
“We have soap balls… which come from the bottom of the soap pots,” she explained. “At the beginning I used to throw it away but then I started playing around with [the scraps] and molding them and everyone loves them.”
"I'd always wanted my own business. I didn't know what it was, I was always going with different ideas, but I knew that was the path I wanted to take,"
Owner, Burlap & Twine
Gerlee is also adamant about keeping her company’s products natural. While other skincare companies add ingredients to their bath bombs that can be harmful to the skin, Burlap & Twine avoids adding “foamers”, or chemicals, to their products.
“We do use colour,” Gerlee said. “That’s fun, and everyone loves a little bit of colour. But we do a lot of [products] without colour for the people who want things 100 per cent natural.”
Whether neon or pastel, every item from Burlap & Twine is a miniature work of art. Gerlee’s soaps and bath bombs look delectable, and from a distance her cupcake shaped soaps and bath melts could be mistaken for desserts. The elegant shapes and delicate scents of the products stand out from their simple paper bag packaging, creating a striking contrast and enhancing the brand that helps Burlap & Twine stand out on the James St. N strip.
These are a few of my favourite things
Asking any Burlap & Twine fan to name their favourite product is difficult. Asking the business’ owner is even more difficult. Gerlee has no favourite product, but she does swear by her wares. Her business keeps her on her feet, and while she finds she has less time to try out her own bath bombs, she enjoys the opportunity when she can.
“I’m a freak when it comes to the bath… I joke around with people that that’s my office. I’ll even be on the phone, but that’s the only time I can relax,” she admitted, laughing.
Gerlee loves hearing what products her customers love, however. “That brings me a lot of joy… Because as nice as the store looks it’s not that glamourous behind the scenes… I look like a mess most of the time. That part of it is the downfall, but all that hard work you put in is worth it when people tell you ‘this cleared up my skin’ or ‘I love that,’” she said.
Despite launching her storefront with little planning, Gerlee has figured out her niche market with relatively few missteps. She explained that sometimes she will put more money into a product that does not sell, but added that happens rarely. From her perspective, she, and many other business owners in Hamilton, face the same challenge: the city itself.
“I find that... there’s not enough people street-shopping,” she explained. “If you go to downtown Toronto, you can go for hours, and there’s just not enough of that here. It’s growing, and the vibe is coming, but when is it going to happen– like really happen?”
Gerlee added that over the years she has gained a customer base that extends to the Hamilton Mountain and Burlington, but said it has taken time to develop that base. To do her part, Gerlee said her goal is to create a space where new customers feel welcome.
“I just want it to be a fun environment where you can go to smell stuff and try stuff and all of your senses are aroused in some sort of way, so I think for people [we’ve] been a destination stop… and I think being part of that James St. culture [has been how we’ve contributed most].”
(New) home for the holidays
Following the success of her James St. N location, Gerlee has taken on a new challenge: a second location. Located in Burlington, she is planning on using the space to try new merchandizing techniques and carry more products. “People [in Burlington] really like that sort of handmade, independent business culture,” she said, explaining the reasoning for the location of the new storefront, set to open during the holiday season.
“Christmas is so crazy here. Last Christmas was amazing; it was more than I could have ever expected. And our sales have grown 40 to 50 per cent every year that we’ve been open, so if that’s going to be the case this year, then I’m probably not going to be sleeping at all,” she said.
From Mohawk College student to successful businesswoman in just over three years is an accomplishment, however Gerlee still says she has not felt tangible success.
“I feel really proud. But I’m one of those people who always wants more, and I just want things to grow,” she explained. “I’m always learning, I’m always creating, I just feel like things are getting better and better, but I haven’t sort of reached a peak. I don’t know, maybe ask me in five years, we’ll see then.”
Candy Cane Crème
This sharp peppermint-scented bath bomb is softened by notes of vanilla and coconut for the perfect little holiday indulgence. Bonus: actual candy cane pieces on top.
This woodsy holiday bath bomb is perfect for a cozy night in. Key scents include sandalwood, cedarwood and floral notes.
Cinnamon Bun soap
Coloured with mica, this spicy-sweet soap is a must-have for the winter. Made with coconut oil, palm kernel oil and extra virgin olive oil, your skin will thank you for this treat.
Mention this feature at Burlap & Twine for buy-one-get-one on any regular-priced item. One transaction per customer; offer expires Dec. 24, 2016.