Mandana Navi likes to cook. Like many a chef she started out in her own kitchen, testing out recipes and sharing her results with friends, before taking the plunge and going into business. But her recipes are a little different than yours. Shampoo. Conditioner. Skin cream. All of it made from natural ingredients. All of it formulated by Navi herself in the lab she designed in the back of her shop.

Navi is the owner of Essentique, a beauty store off Palo Alto’s California Avenue shopping district. Her line of hair, skin and body care products sport playful names like Brazilliant (leave-in conditioner with brazil flower), For-bitten (hair wash with apple juice) and Stud Suds (shampoo with beer). When every week seems to bring word of another decades-old family-run business shutting down, Navi is among a small group taking the plunge and opening traditional retail stores — selling things, not services — on the Peninsula. Essentique opened in September, down the street from photo mecca Keeble and Shuchat, which closed less than a month later after 51 years.

Mandana Navi (top) speaks with customers at her shop Essentique in Palo Alto.

And like many of the new shopkeepers hers wasn’t a straight path. Born and raised in Tehran to parents who had studied in the U.S. she worked as a biologist in Iranian hospitals before moving to Vancouver to earn an MBA. After a series of jobs she decamped to Palo Alto. As a child Navi’s mother wouldn’t let her dye her hair so she’d wash it with apple tree leaves and chamomile believing both would lighten it. “I was making my own products at an early age,” she says. Much like cooking she enjoyed the creative aspects of sourcing ingredients and experimenting with combinations, testing products on herself before asking others to try them.

From kitchen hobby to commercial lab

Her interest blossomed into a serious hobby, then into a business idea that combined her lab experience and business savvy. But opening Essentique wasn’t easy. Navi spent four years tinkering with recipes and two years building out her lab and shop, which features a living wall from the firm that installed SFMOMA’s (the world’s largest) and sleek decor. Moving out of the kitchen and into the marketplace meant both a much higher level of quality control (products, but not bacteria, must survive in a bottle) and a need to recreate what customers expect of beauty products (for example, shampoo that lathers extravagantly) without the synthetic products common in the industry.

Designed by the same firm as SFMOMA’s, Essentique’s living wall is smaller but went up first, Navi is happy to report.

Synthetics, she says, aren’t necessarily toxic, more “like eating packaged food” instead of fresh. Unlike mass market skin and hair products, Essentique’s tend to focus on the virtues of a particular plant extract for a specific problem, so an apple-juice infused shampoo wouldn’t be right for someone with dry hair. She’ll even customize a formulation for a customer’s needs.

Setting up shop to maintain control

Rather than sell solely online or through others’ stores she wanted the physical interaction with customers that she enjoys and control over how her products are marketed and sold. Her clientele is mostly female and 30s and up, though she has male clients. Her products are pricier than what you find in Walgreens, but then her process is, too. Navi still makes most of her products herself and all of them still in small batches.

Do customers notice? One who was recovering from bronchitis and suffered from asthma told Navi that after using the aromatherapy blend Navi recommended for her (clove bud, lemon, cinnamon bark, eucalyptus and rosemary) she stopped using an inhaler. Even if Navi’s products don’t cure what ails you, customers tell her their visits to Essentique are the highlight of their day.

Her next project: formulating products using genomic skin test results from a San Diego company to personalize results. She depends on walk-in traffic, local events and referrals to get the word out. Is she worried about running in the opposite direction of most local retail? “Cosmetics is a huge market. If you get just a tiny slice, it’s enough.”

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THE SIX FIFTY staff

Sometimes our work is a collaborative effort, hence the "staff" byline. The best of what to eat, see and do on the SF Peninsula.

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