Brothers Artisan Oil produces small batch beard grooming and shaving oils by hand. Their product line is 100% natural, made from simple botanical ingredients. All products are made from start to finish by Owen, Baxter, Wiley and Marie Shea in Boston. We caught up them at an exciting moment in their story. Here’s the scoop.
Owen and Marie Shea of Brothers Artisan Oil are setting up their new studio when we arrive. They are a charismatic pair. Owen is tall, broad-shouldered and bearded, the spitting image of a man’s man. Marie is equally striking, with bright eyes and a welcoming smile. You can sense a warm camaraderie between them. If they have been working long hours lately, it is not conveyed by their easy disposition. The studio has a good vibe.
Owen has spent the last few days laying floorboards and hanging shelves. Brand new file cabinets and storage drawers squat neatly underneath the work table that runs the length of one wall. A few thoughtfully chosen family relics and potted herbs accent the work space. Assorted jars, jugs, bottles and beakers adorn the shelves. Some have simple hand written labels like “Argan Oil” and “Jojoba Oil” but many more are yet to be unpacked. Business is about to commence here, in the first dedicated production facility of Brothers Artisan Oil.
Brothers is one of the first tenants of a curious new undertaking — Market at Casablanc, a self-described “micro-retail environment for makers.” A dozen small studios (in various stages of assembly on the day of our visit) surround a large common area that will function as a shared retail, gallery and event space.
Located upstairs is Casablanc, a collective of creative professionals including artists, musicians and designers. The collective hosts gallery events and live performances regularly. They have created Market with a similar vision in mind: provide a much-needed cultural and commercial venue for Boston makers.
Characteristic of the craft-made industry, where things are constantly reclaimed, repurposed and renewed, Market at Casablanc resides in an former industrial building in a fringe neighborhood of Boston. The bare walls and floors have been slathered in whitewash, giving the place a rather apropos blankness. In the coming months, local makers and artisans will make these studios their own.
For now the tidy Brothers workshop provides a sense of order to the space. It will be a few more days before production here begins. However this is hardly the beginning. Brothers Artisan Oil has already been in production for a year and a half, based in Owen and Marie’s Brookline home. To date, they have sold tens of thousands of units.
That might seem like putting the cart before the horse, but for the Shea family it’s pretty standard. They don’t tend to waste much time sitting around drafting plans. The Sheas are agents of action.
Brothers Owen, Baxter and Wiley Shea, along with Owen’s wife, Marie, founded Brothers Artisan Oil in 2014. They came together at the Shea family home on cape Cod that June, when their mother, Meredith, suffered a severe stroke. Half of her brain was affected, leaving her immobile. She couldn’t walk, speak or even swallow. Chances that she would regain her mobility were bleak. In the following months, her fight to recover inspired the Sheas to found a family business.
The boys stood by as Meredith began a long and uncertain road to recovery. While they tended to her, they grew their beards out in a show of solidarity. They could only wait. Owen recalls a “breakthrough moment” that came after the first week. Marie played “Bridge Over Troubled Water” on the stereo one night. To everyone’s surprise, Meredith began to sing along! She sang every word. They took the early sign of progress as a good omen and looked ahead with hope.
Before long, the brothers found a need to tame their burgeoning whiskers. Nothing they found in stores seemed to do the trick. They started mixing beard oils at home. Shaving was not, after all, an option.
Owen’s experience as a cocktail bartender came in handy for blending botanical extracts and essential oils. He began to share their product with friends and regulars at the bar, refining the recipe from their compliments and critiques. Owen cites this early, sincere feedback as crucial to developing the finished product.
Meredith labored in physical therapy through the summer, while the brothers worked on their blends. By September, Meredith had achieved the astounding. She could walk and speak again. The boys had their mother back.
A lot happened in a dizzyingly small amount of time after that. It was clear that Brothers Artisan Oil was making real traction. Owen was working full time as GM of Vintage Restaurant and Lounge in Boston. He continued to develop the product in his free time, and reflect on the experience that had brought the family together. Marie was due to give birth to their first child in November. A new branch of the family was about to sprout and Owen felt it was time for a life change. The timing was right for it.
Owen approached his friends at Ball & Buck, a Boston retailer of American-made craft goods, in September. They encouraged him to present Brothers Artisan Oil at American Field, a major craft goods trade show, in November. Attending would require an unprecedented amount of production and preparation, and Marie was due two weeks before the event date. It was going to be tight.
As fate would have it the baby was two weeks late. It gave them just enough time to prep for the show. Marie was designing labels on their home computer when she went into labor, three days before American Field. Nova, the newest member of the Shea family, was born.
Had Nova been on time, the Sheas might have missed the trade show and their first sale. Birchbox, an online retailer of boutique cosmetics, placed an order for 5,000 units shortly after the trade show. Brothers Artisan Oil was officially in business.
“That really kicked us into gear,” recalls Marie; all they had to do now was traverse a tangle of legal paperwork to certify their business, finish designing their branding and fill the order by hand, in a few short weeks.
They hit the ground running. Owen left the bar and went full time producing Brothers Artisan Oil at home. Marie left her job as an events coordinator at a non-profit a few months later. A former design student at MassArt, she applied her skills to their fledgling brand.
At first, Owen printed labels on his home printer, hanging them from clotheslines in the yard to spray them with waterproofing. Marie, Owen, Baxter, and Wiley all mixed and bottled batch after batch of beard oil, one gallon at a time. Not much has changed.
“There are no machines. We are the machines,” Marie explains. “Everybody does the thing that they really like to do.” Owen and Marie manage day-to-day operations. Baxter manages Boston retail accounts and Wiley helps out filling larger orders (referred to as “Big Pours”).
Sometimes a roster of trusty friends pitch in to help. On the very day of our visit, long-time pal Matt Noonan, the person who first introduced Marie and Owen, is helping them move into the new studio. They are grateful for their support network.
“Our friend Nick Ciocca has been helping out a ton lately,” says Marie. Pals Bob Brown and Dione Mariani accompanied Owen to American Field so Marie could stay home with the baby.
“It’s important to let people fall into those roles,” explains Owen, who has a seasoned sense for human resources. “We can do a couple hundred bottles in a day without killing ourselves, but 10,000 a month if we have the order.”
The team is still working from handwritten recipes, complete with the requisite coffee stains.
More impressive still is the fact that the Shea family started Brothers Artisan Oil completely out of pocket. No investors, no crowdfunding, no fundraising.
“We’ve made some risky decisions” Marie reflects. “We had to learn to business and adult at the same time. It’s nice to have these [interview] questions, it gives us a chance to reflect on why we’re even doing this because we are doing this.”
When I ask them what their greatest challenge to date has been, Owen echoes Marie — “Starting a business and a family in the same week.” His deadpan response is not hyperbole. It is fact. The Shea family has no need for embellishment.
The notions of risk, enterprise and family are reflected proudly in the Brothers imagery. Owen discovered a set of vintage stamps that suit their story perfectly. A 1920’s series featuring the landing of the Mayflower provided Brothers with three images, one for each scent of beard oil. The stamps depict the Mayflower at sea, the famous landing at Plymouth Rock and the signing of the Mayflower compact.
The ship itself represents the Sheas’ earliest roots, since Meredith traces her family’s heritage back to the Mayflower crossing. The subsequent images — the landing at Plymouth Rock and the forging of New World’s oldest governing document — epitomize the promise of a new beginning, the risk of adventure and the unity of a familial covenant.
Plus, the classic images look sharp perched on a bathroom shelf. “We want it to look like it belongs [in your bathroom], not some flashy gold bottle or something,” says Owen. “We wanted it to be simple and masculine” adds Marie.
The main logo hits even closer to home. You might not catch it at first glance, but that strange shape next to the “BAO” is a bird skull. Half of an Osprey skull, to be specific. Why an Osprey? Because they nest in the trees around the Shea family home on Cape Cod. Why half? To commemorate their mother’s triumph over the force that cast a shadow on half of her brain.
Brothers has already expanded their inventory to include a unisex shaving oil, two styling pomades and a grooming kit consisting of a beard oil, a pomade, a wooden beard comb and a carrying pouch. All of their products are made in small batches, from nourishing plant-based oils and extracts, in keeping with Owen’s motto that “a healthy beard comes from healthy skin.” They aren’t stopping there.
“We plan on extending our product line, including more pomades, shaving products and tools, washes, soaps, salves and much more” says Owen. He and Marie both cite the significance of their new space in Market as a catalyst and a source of inspiration.
“There are makers popping up everywhere” says Owen with excitement. “There are Boston brands now.
“You genuinely feel like you’re a part of something, a movement, and you’re making [a living],” says Marie happily. People in the maker world tend to be very supportive of each other. There is a sense of community here that is rare in any retail environment. In some cases brands that might be competitors in the same arena team up instead, to increase their collective reach to consumers.
The Brothers grooming kit is a clear example of this kind of symbiosis. The Valkyrie Project, based in Boston’s South End, manufactures the canvas curio pouches that Brothers uses for the kit.
The set’s beautiful two-tone wooden combs are purchased from a mysterious woodworker on Cape Cod. He makes each one by hand, one at a time, and claims to be “the only full-time wooden comb maker in America.”
Encounters with such characters is not unusual in this industry, where eccentricity and obsession are driving forces.
The Brothers team is excited for 2016. Retail hours for their new Market studio will begin in May. They have plans to appear at several craft trade shows, including Boston Made and American Field.
Their goal for the year is to expand their shelf presence beyond New England. Eventually they want to see Brothers Artisan oil sold in every state. They are already on shelves in ten states, including at half a dozen retailers in Boston alone. Direct retail orders from all over the country come through the website daily.
Just two days before our visit, Brothers received their first order from France. Naturally curious, Owen did a little online sleuthing and discovered, to their great surprise, that Brothers had been featured in an issue of Vogue Paris.
Owen smiles. “Mom was psyched to hear about that.”
“We thought you had to pay for that sort of thing,” says Marie.
The brand’s momentum seems to be taking care of itself.
“We always felt like the Shea Family had a brand already, there were just two things missing, a product and a plan,” explains Owen.
The Shea family finally has their product. Maybe soon they will get a chance to sit down long enough to write out the plan.