This is the sixth article in a seven-part series interviewing independent small business owners in the apothecary space.
We initially met Taylor Ahlmark of Maak Lab towards the end of 2015, while exploring Portland’s Pearl District for the first time. The shop was fragrant and filled with an immeasurable, beautiful mélange of complex scents from roasted coffee beans to fresh pine needles. The physical space of Maak Lab was equally intriguing and we had a laundry list of questions for Taylor, that he answered quickly, confidently, and without hesitation: we knew we’d be back.
From our most recent visit to the lab, we had the added pleasure of also meeting co-founder, Anoria Gilbert and it became more evident that the duo’s sense of taste was effortlessly complementary. The balance of their veracity, extensive knowledge-base, and unique skill sets was astounding to witness and would easily capture the heart of any true purist. The small team’s openness to countless reiterations and experimentation underscores a type of courage that might be overwhelming for the timid or faint of heart, yet the results are always remarkable.
What’s your backstory prior to Maak Lab and what brought you two to Portland?
We moved here together from Arizona after graduating college — I went to school for psychology and Spanish, Taylor for architecture and design. We found ourselves surrounded by plant life here that we weren’t exposed to in the desert, and started playing around with steam distillation as a way to extract scent from plants in our yard. We wanted to find ways to use those smells in our day to day, which lead us to making it into soap. This opened the doors to our interest in scent, and eventually lead to Maak Lab.
What was it like getting Maak Lab up and running from conception to opening your first storefront in The Pearl? Are you two exactly where you thought you would be five years ago?
It was a hobby to start — messing around with scents we found in the Pacific Northwest, distilling essential oil, studying smells, growing our scent library, making soap. It was a very organic process. We started it out of our basement, and quickly moved it to a studio where we grew our production capabilities and wholesale business. Within a couple years we outgrew our studio and moved downtown. Initially our retail shop was large enough to house production and retail, so we’d be making all the products alongside selling them in the same space. Pretty quickly production was overrunning the whole shop though, so we moved it off-site to a production-only workshop, and downtown we focus on scent development and retail operations. Overall I don’t know that I would have predicted this five years ago, but working together indulging in the sensory isn’t too far off either.
Tell us about some of the largest challenges that come with running your own business and how have you overcome some of these obstacles?
Time is a constant obstacle. We started this as a night/weekend project and it slowly grew to take over our days, until we both had to quit our full-time jobs and are now working on Maak together all day, every day. Having this singular focus now is immensely helpful.
We love your brand mark and packaging. Can you share some of your thinking/inspirations around the brand story and bringing that to life in the physical and experiential sense?
Initially we really enjoyed the idea of ephemera — ticket stubs, postcards, and little nothings that aren’t meant to be enjoyed for more than a short time. And similar to how we enjoy scent: in the moment. But our overall products live on a longer cycle — they’re habitual items, things you use in the first and last 30 minutes of every day. Function also informs the design —e.g., our new bar soap packaging now holds two smaller soap squares which snap apart instead of one large soap. The soap lasts longer divided this way, plus it’s more fun to open it by cracking it in half.
“… We both had to quit our jobs and are now working on Maak together, all day, every day. Having this singular focus now is immensely helpful.”
What do your day-to-day operations typically look like in the lab?
11a-6p we’re downtown manning our retail shop, drinking coffee, developing scents, taking meetings, slanging soap, hanging out. We break for dinner then head to our workshop for the late night shift of production, packaging, sampling, and any other task that requires more unbroken attention.
What does the frequent Maak Lab customer look like?
We get a lot of tourism since we’re in the thick of the shopping districts downtown, and we tend to get more tourists from Japan and South Korea since we have pretty heavy distribution in both countries. Of course we have our usual Portlanders stopping in for the newest volume of magazine and refilling their soap stock too.
What are some ways in which you two collaborate together when creating products for Maak Lab?
We work on everything together but usually Taylor takes the lead on graphics and packaging, and I take the lead on sampling and scent development. Sometimes we swap roles, but we always consult with one another throughout our work and make edits together. We’re both really picky so by the time we reach a conclusion things have been pretty refined.
What types of activities have you adopted when taking a break from concepting or when dealing with creative blocks?
Coffee is an escape we always use. But also movies, reddit, naps.
Besides building the business from the ground up, what parts of yourselves do you feel you’ve been able to personally inject into the work you’ve done so far with Maak Lab?
It all feels like an extension of ourselves at this point. It’s what we live, breathe and dream about. Each scent, each graphic, each product feels personal initially. Over time that fades a little as we move on to the next project, but we definitely get personally tied up in every item we make.
What’s next for Maak Lab?
We have a few collabs launching this fall, in particular a “Hippie Shit” cologne we’re stoked on with our friend Mister Green Shop. We’re also prepping for an expansion of retail products for the winter season, and working on custom amenities with a couple boutique hotels that we’re excited for.
One thing that always irks you?
When we’re out of cream. We drink lots of coffee, but only heavily milked.
Last dance you learned?
We only freestyle.
Princess Bride or Princess Leia?
If you could fluently speak a foreign language for 24-hours what would it be and why?
One fun fact that most people may not know about you?
Many, many, many thanks to Taylor and Anoria for taking time out of their crazy schedule to show us around the lab and thoughtfully answer our most pressing questions surrounding their amazing success with Maak Lab. Their brick and mortar is located at 916 W. Burnside Street, Portland, OR 97209 and open from Tuesdays to Sundays from 11 am – 6pm. Maak Lab products are also available for purchase on their site, and via several stockists in the States and across the globe.