Peter Bilkey, left, greeted customers Norma and David  Smith of Lanesboro on the recent opening day of his Essence of Lanesboro shop.
Peter Bilkey, left, greeted customers Norma and David Smith of Lanesboro on the recent opening day of his Essence of Lanesboro shop.
The "Opening Soon" banner is gone from the wall at 100 Parkway Ave. S. in Lanesboro, replaced with elegant permanent signs announcing the Essence of Lanesboro.

Located on the corner right in the heart of downtown - in what was Carl John Thompson's home for many years - new shopkeeper Peter Bilkey describes the Essence as more than pleasing aromas. Instead, he is capturing what is his vision of the "whole," the core, the "essence" of Lanesboro.

Bilkey's task is to be a "maker of high quality natural body care products," made "from scratch right here in the shop's kitchen using quality natural ingredients." He makes them often and in small batches, "to ensure the freshest products possible." Bilkey encourages his customers to create their own soaps and products using his natural bases.

Why this location?

Newcomers to the area, especially those who move here to establish a business, always hear the question, "why Lanesboro?" Bilkey grew up in Madison, Wis., but had lived lots of different places. He felt Madison was getting too large, with too much traffic, and changing in a direction he didn't like.

He had criteria in mind for his next home: a smaller community, one that was very involved with the arts. Based on that, he purchased the book "The 100 Best Small Art Towns in the U.S." From that book he selected three towns: two in Wisconsin and Lanesboro. He eliminated the Wisconsin possibilities primarily for financial reasons: the starting home prices in those two were $300,000 and up, higher than in Madison. Comparatively, Lanesboro was more affordable.

He had never visited this part of southeastern Minnesota before, so he made the trip. Like so many he came, fell in love with the scenery and the historical aspect, and instantly liked the people he met.

Change in direction

Bilkey worked for other companies in the biotechnology industry for about five years, constantly on the move. He wanted more stability, so he started his own company and spent the next 15 years in the same industry, but working for himself. He did product development backed by both federal and state research grants on a wide range of projects, always involving plants and plant products, and in collaboration with government and university research labs.

He had earned his bachelor's and master degrees in science, in the areas of horticulture and plant biotechnology within the botany department. In his own words, "I've always been a plant person."

Bilkey describes his store as project No. 12. In addition to other skills and tasks, he is developing technology and products for himself. He also has added the new step of marketing and sales of the products to the public.

He decided upon his product after a vacation to England in 2002 when he came across a store that "stopped me in my tracks." It was selling slabs of soap, freshly made body care products, and it was set up like a deli.

Arriving; research

In May 2005, he visited Lanesboro for the first time. He considered all of the buildings that were for sale. A year later he confirmed his initial selection and its great location.

Bilkey took possession in August 2006, and immediately started the "three R's": repairing, restoring, and remodeling. As he put it, rehabbing a 100-year-old building requires a lot of work, especially when he wanted it to become both a store and living quarters.

He describes March 2005 until August 2006 when he moved as his "hardcore research period," and it was then that he made some trial products for the first time. When he finally got his first good batch of soap, he was pretty happy, and saved one bar as a trophy.

Bilkey and his Essence of Lanesboro only use the freshest and best ingredients that are available, and they all have to be natural; there are no synthetic products or ingredients on the premises.

He even buys his supplies in smaller quantities so that he gets shipments of ingredients more often, and he refrigerates the oils to keep them fresh. He buys herbs locally as much as he can; in addition, he grows some and also has done some wild collecting locally from non-protected plants.

One of his unique products took a year and a half to "get it to work," to perfect his ultra-lotion soap. Bilkey describes the process of making soaps and lotions as "glorified cooking."

All of the products are made in the open kitchen of the store. He already had the equipment for the research lab. He described making soap: when it is ready to pour, it is the thickness of pudding, and he cures it under blankets to keep it warm.

A chemical action changes it overnight from pudding to a solid bar. Then it needs a minimum of two more weeks of curing before he checks the Ph level and other measurements to make sure it is both finished and safe to use.

All in a name

One of Bilkey's goals is to create a shop and products that are "as truly Lanesboro as I can make it." That dream is reflected in the name of the shop, which "came to him" early on in the process. "It encompasses all" of what he is trying to do.

Then he started the search for his "signature blend" for the name. He said the "Eureka moment" came with blend No. 224, and he joked, "Chanel found her signature blend on her fifth try; I had to try 224 times."

When asked to describe what he thought the Essence of Lanesboro should smell like, he quickly responded, "Fresh. Clean. Down to earth. Natural. Herbal with a hint of spice, like this town. It reflects my impression of what Lanesboro is." He used paprika to color the soap a peachy orange to represent one of the school team colors.

He also has other products named after Lanesboro: the Wake-up Lanesboro soap has a lot of peppermint and spices, and is indeed a good wake-up call in the morning. Lanesboro Lavender is a blend of three methods of extraction. Bilkey says it is more herbal than traditional lavender-scented products, and therefore it is naturally a green color. He can do any level of scent because the customer starts with an unscented product and he can add as much or as little as they want.

There is Lanesboro Brown, which is a spicy blend recipe from the 1700s. After getting reactions from customers, he reduced the spicy and increased the citrus. For that one, he used banana extract for the color.

He has a number of unscented products which form the base for not only other products that are already scented, but also can have any of the store's scents added to them. The Lanesboro White Bar Soap is the basic, unscented, all-vegetable oil bar soap that is heavy with olive and coconut oils. It's used as the origin for all of the scented bar soaps.

Other Lanesboro-named unscented products range from liquid, lotion, and ultra-lotion soaps, cleansing cream, glycerin rinse and conditioning rinse, and ultra-light, light, and classic lotions. All can be scented at the request of the customer.

More research

Bilkey loves to do the research and development, and feels fortunate that he can make such a big change - from scientist to shop owner - and still do what he not only was trained to do, but also enjoys so much.

He cautions that because of continual research, things will change in his shop; many of his scents will turn out to be limited editions and not every product that he develops will be continued. In that year of intense lab work getting ready for the shop, he developed 200 products. Obviously not all of those are in the store, but he will add more and more as he learns what sells.

Living 'green'

Bilkey offers a lot of information in his shop for customers, both lookers and buyers. The plant essential oils that he uses are often recommended for aromatherapy, such as the tea tree oil, which is highly anti-bacterial. Lavender is a natural sedative and will help its users sleep. Chamomile is highly anti-inflammatory.

He's creating as many multi-use products as he can, for instance the ultra-light lotion doubles as shower hair conditioner. Customers can return containers for refills, or even bring their own.

In the future, he'd like to offer classes to people interested in making similar products, such as how to make lotion in your own kitchen. When he has a better idea of his most popular products, he'll likely create a Web site through which repeat customers can order online.

That "Opening Soon" sign may have been out there for a long time, but one visit to the shop explains why: in the past, the results from Bilkey's research projects would take up to 10 years to become commercially available products. To him, a few months was an incredibly short time, especially since he is so pleased with his new products, location, and new hometown.

The Essence of Lanesboro, at 100 Parkway Ave. S., can be reached by calling (507) 467-2800. The shop, which is closed Tuesdays and Wednesdays, opens other days of the week at 11 a.m. Initial hours are expected to be Thursdays until 5 p.m., Fridays and Saturdays until 7 p.m.; and Sundays and Mondays until 3 p.m.