This is the second article in a seven-part series interviewing independent small business owners in the apothecary space.
I first read about the Milk Milk Lemonade storefront in Japan’s annual city guide, True Portland: The Unofficial Guide for Creative People, during my first few months in Portland as I got acclimated to my new home and the people that inhabited it. During my initial visit, I found co-owner, Heather Sielaff, alone in the light-filled space quietly packaging samples at the counter. With an air of sincerity and warmth, she quickly struck up a conversation, sharing an abridged version of how OLO came to be, the different scents uniquely catalogued on display, and the apartment she shared above the store with her husband, Jonathan, and their two cats.
Several seasons later, revisiting the space felt familiar, and akin to an old hangout spot from years past. The air was still sweet and fragrant, furniture had been rearranged, and new products were showcased giving evidence to newfound explorations and growth. As if my visit was just part of a typical day in the store, Jonathan made me a delicious bowl of matcha and divulged masterly knowledge on tea processes throughout Asia, and Heather and I later spoke about her theory on interpersonal relations corresponding to different regions in the Pacific Northwest. I was in heaven.
One of my favorite things about the OLO brand is being able to witness the honesty of the makers through the product itself. The consistency and strength of their vision coupled with an amazing daredevil bravery to just “do” what feels right. In short, OLO’s story should be an inspiring testament to anyone looking for a way to mold a new way of life from newly discovered appetites.
Tell us about your background. Where are you from and what was your life like before OLO?
H: I’m originally from North Carolina. Jonathan and I met there, married and then moved to Portland in 2000. I was a licensed massage therapist and Gyrotonic instructor before I started OLO in 2009. I had co-owned a wellness center for a few years that also had a small storefront. I did the sourcing for the essential oils we sold and made blends for clients. That was where my interest in perfumery began.
J: I was born in Miami, but grew up travelling all over the place. I worked in the tea and coffee industries for 15 years before going full-time with Heather a couple of years ago. My work in those fields was often sensory based, so it felt like a really natural transition into fragrance.
In what ways have you two joined forces and how do you collaborate on the brand?
H: We have always kind of collaborated on OLO. I started the business but Jonathan has always given input and feedback on scent profiles and packaging design. He also did a lot of the grunt work when I would get overwhelmed. One of my favorite memories is of him sitting at the dining room table cutting and embossing labels, listening to Robyn. It was just simple and sweet.
J: Our strengths are really complementary. We are together all the time and always discussing and brainstorming. So you could say we collaborate on everything, even if one of us takes the lead on a specific task or project. I might have an idea for a photoshoot for the website and bring multiple ideas to Heather to help refine it or make a specific call aesthetically. Heather will be working on a fragrance but will test each iteration with me to refine the direction and get some suggestions or consensus.
Do your paths ever cross when creating? (E.g., Music and crafting scents)? How do you two inspire one another?
H: Sometimes. Jonathan and Matt Carlson did the music for a silly “commercial” we did once. We talk about doing an installation of sorts but haven’t gotten around to it yet. I would say his knowledge of art, music and design inspires me. And his curiosity about everything. He spends a lot of time researching and looking into a variety of things. I’m lazy in that way. His diligence cuts down on my need to have to look for information. I wish I could absorb as much stimuli as he can!
J: Heather has a tremendous confidence in her intuition. I second guess everything I do and it often holds me back, Heather inspires me to trust my own intuition and direction. She also has a real ability to create balance in her compositions – all the components work together and create a cohesive whole that feels just right. I’m dying to do a sound and scent installation project! We just need to find the right context. The art world is either unfamiliar or afraid of scent for the most part, so I’ve been trying to work with a couple visual artist friends to create an “in.” Fingers-crossed.
We counted a total of 15 different fragrances currently in the OLO collection. What sorts of fond memories come to mind from your top three favorite scents?
H: I’ll always have a fondness for Nationale 6/7 and Victory Wolf. Those were my first two perfumes. I had no intention of starting a business so the process for me back then was very organic. I was just playing and experimenting. I miss that freedom sometimes. There are expectations now so it’s difficult to let go and explore. Wyeth also reminds me of a simpler time in life. We used to go to the coast almost every week. I need that ocean mist and the smell of the trees to balance myself. It’s been a busy couple of years but we are going to hopefully start getting out there more often!
What do you do to unwind and give yourself a mental break?
H: I get acupuncture if possible, maybe a massage. On the daily it could be something as simple as a cup of tea and sitting quietly or taking a short walk. Napping with our cats, Britches and Hoover, usually chills me out.
J: I need to get out into nature regularly. It feels like a reset. Seeing the ocean or mountains puts all my little city problems into perspective.
Between when OLO was established and where OLO is today, how have challenges from being a small business owner evolved? What’s easier/harder now than before?
H: We’ve been really lucky that OLO was allowed to evolve gradually. The business was started with a few hundred dollars. I reinvested for years before I paid myself. I’d buy myself a gift every now and then but I stayed really focused on the long term and being smart with the money coming in. It’s easier now in that regard because we are a little more established and have a loyal customer base so we can actually pay ourselves consistently. Thanks OLO customers!
It’s harder in terms of time management. It’s just the two of us for day to day operations. I still blend and bottle every perfume. It’s a lot of work. But, I actually like working and have a hard time taking time away. I am currently cultivating a healthy work/life divide.
How do you share the inspiration and narrative behind your scents with customers and OLO fans?
H: Scent is really personal and subjective. I purposefully keep the text minimal for the perfumes. People are easily influenced by the descriptions, which of course is the point, but I prefer to offer the perfumes up on an almost blank canvas. I want OLO to be special to each person and for customers to attach their own meaning to whichever scent they select for themselves.
“We’ve been really lucky that olo was allowed to evolve gradually. The business was started with a few hundred dollars. I reinvested for years before I paid myself.”
What’s your process in developing new scents? How do you know when you’ve created a keeper?
H: It’s different for each one. Sometimes there are ingredients I want to use, like with Toji. I was intrigued with yuzu so I created a perfume around that ingredient. Wyeth and Forêt were both inspired by specific places that I wanted to capture the essence of so I could teleport there anytime. A perfume is finished when it’s finished. You just know.
What advice would you give to young entrepreneurs starting out?
H: I would say have real expectations. There are a lot of sacrifices in exchange for the privilege of getting to do what you love as a career. Put in the work, continue to put in the work once you start reaping the rewards. It never stops. You always have to be innovating and pushing to do something new.
What’s next for OLO?
H: We are working on soap, shampoo and lotions. Stay tuned!
J: We also have a new collaborative fragrance line in development. Probably available in very limited quantities by this fall.
Carrie Brownstein or Fred Armisen?
H: Neither. They did no one any favors.
Black tea or green tea?
H: Green. Unless I want a baked good then black with cream and sugar.
J: Both, depending on mood or context. Also, oolong, pu-erh and white teas.
In your opinion, what was the best year for fashion?
H and J: 2016 / right now. With every new year we have so many more ideas to draw from and build on.
In one word: first reaction to Amy Schumer’s ‘Milk Milk Lemonade’ video.
H: WTF? (Is WTF a word? It’s not, is it)?
J: No words, I was just laughing.
What fragrance(s) do you NOT like?
H: Cheap, fruity body mists or shampoos. Garnier Fructis.
J: The locker room at our old gym had this really strong Iso E Super based scent that now just makes me think of old man balls and foot fungus.
Any secret talents?
H: Cat photography.
J: I love baking fruit galettes.
Special thanks to Heather and Jonathan Sielaff for having me in their gorgeous space, the matcha, and the great intellectual conversations. OLO Fragrances can be purchased on the brand’s site or through several retailers throughout the country. And if you happen to be in Portland, definitely pencil in a visit to Milk Milk Lemonade at 1407 SE Belmont Street, Portland, OR 97214, open Thursdays-Fridays from 11 a.m. to 6 p.m.