The New York Times Business Section Features By Nieves Body Care

‘By Nieves’ provides handcrafted natural skin care products straight from the countryside of Northern California. Nieves recently sent me a much-needed, replenishing stock right to Berlin.

Nieves Rathbun is one peach of a gal. A sweet-as-nectar friend who I first met in the San Francisco Bay Area, Nieves is the founder of a natural skin care company–By Nieves–which was today featured in The New York Times. Her products are, incidentally, 100-percent animal-friendly and formulated with ingredients as pure as the driven snow.

I love By Nieve’s ‘Face Fix’ mask.

When I still lived in California, I was lucky enough to spend time working in Nieves’ production laboratory, as well as helping develop marketing and PR materials for her company. I’m so thrilled for her continued successes and swear by her products so much that I receive regular deliveries all the way to my new home here in Berlin.

By Nieves is really just that good.

There’s also talk of Veganz–Berlin’s adorable, all-vegan grocery store–beginning to carry her products right here in Germany. Until that fine day, all of you Europeans can easily find her stuff online, as she happily ships abroad. Using her products is as if you’re  taking a walk through a wild California meadow, hiking in the deep Redwood forests of the Pacific Northwest, and taking a dip in the cold waters of the Lost Coast–all at once! Which is to say, heaven.

Congratulations, Nieves! Ich bin sehr stolz auf dich! And, everybody, please read this fantastic NYTimes article featuring her human-scale, ethics-centered small business below.


A Start-Up Dares to Leave the Bay Area and Venture Into the Wild

By Jessica Bruder

Last summer, Nieves Rathbun — the owner of By Nieves, a natural skin care company with a loyal following in the San Francisco Bay Area — decided to uproot her family in search of greener pastures. Her destination was Petrolia, a remote hamlet of 300 people on California’s rugged Lost Coast. “It’s not the edge of the world, but you can see it from here,” her late father-in-law used to say.

Like many parents, she and her husband, a musician, dreamed for years of raising their child far from the urban grind. The trick? Ms. Rathbun is also raising a four-year-old business. She is determined to see it grow and support her family. To make that happen, she will need to maintain strong customer loyalty in the urban area she left behind.

In April, Ms. Rathbun re-established her production and shipping facilities in an airy, 400-square-foot office with sweeping, pastoral views. To hold costs down and keep the family tight, her husband built the new headquarters into the side of an old barn on his 89-year-old mother’s Petrolia homestead.

Employees: Four part-time employees in Petrolia; one part-timer in Oakland. Ms. Rathbun hopes her company eventually will employ four to 20 people full time and diversify the economy in her adopted community, where employment opportunities are scarce outside of Humboldt County’s famous marijuana trade. “I have a fantasy of it becoming worker-owned,” she added.

Location: Petrolia.

Founder: Ms. Rathbun has been in the natural products industry for two decades. She managed the flagship store for V’tae Parfum & Body Care in Nevada City, Calif., and later worked at Zia Natural Skincare in San Francisco.

Her decision to start her own company, she believes, was influenced in part by an iconoclastic childhood: born to a draft-dodger father and a Dutch mother in the Canary Islands, Ms. Rathbun’s family roamed Europe, then traveled around the Pacific Northwest and Northern California, with stops in hippie communes in the Siskiyou and Marble Mountains. In one episode, her father hitched their belongings to a pair of donkeys and set a course for South America. (They never quite made it.)

Pitch: “My extended tagline is ‘Handmade natural body care made with super natural ingredients, sassy sincerity and apothecary style,’” she said. “My other tagline is, ‘everything good, nothing bad.’”

Traction: By Nieves’s five products are distributed to 50 independent stores, mostly in the Bay Area but also in Brooklyn, Denver, Houston, Los Angeles and points in between. They are sold at craft fairs and online, through the company’s own Web site and in Internet boutiques like BeautyhabitEcomomand Beklina. (Ms. Rathbun has also signed a vendor agreement withBeautySage, a new online retailer founded by Dr. Mehmet Oz, which plans to start selling her products next month.) By Nieves was named “Best Local Skincare” by SF Weekly in 2010.

“I may be shooting myself in the foot with this, but I’m committed to working with independent spas and boutiques,” she said. “You’re not going to find my stuff in Whole Foods. For me it’s a branding choice, also. If it goes into a place like that, it just loses its impact. The skin care display is packed; it’s eight feet high and 16 feet wide. I like it so much better when my stuff is in Atomic Garden — it’s a lovely independent boutique and mine is the only skin care.”

Revenue: Sales have been doubling annually and totaled $100,000 in 2011. She hopes to continue apace and top $200,000 in 2012.

Financing: Bootstrapped. “I meet other small- or medium-sized business owners, and they’re like, ‘I can hook you up with investors,’ but I don’t want to get hooked up with investors,” she said. “I would be trading away my independence, the ability to make my own business decisions if I had to be answering to just the bottom line, rather than my moral inclinations.”

Marketing: “Word of mouth, to me, is gold,” Ms. Rathbun said. A part-time public relations staffer responds to sample requests from blogs and magazines. Otherwise, her strategy is mostly reactive; she’s skeptical of ventures that focus heavily on advertising. “I think a lot of companies spend too much money on marketing when they could treat their employees better,” she said. “I kind of like it when I hear that a company doesn’t do advertising. It’s one of those things I’m grappling with right now: Do I try to take advantage of that machine?”

Competition: The market for natural personal care products is vast and growing. In 2011, global sales hit $26.3 billion, up nearly 11 percent over the year before, according to the research firm Kline & Company. The domestic market is dominated by heavyweights like Aveeno, a subsidiary of Johnson & Johnson, and Burt’s Bees, which was bought by Clorox in 2007; whether their products have actually remained “natural” is a point of contention among industry watchers. But Ms. Rathbun isn’t interested in going head-to-head with the big brands. “There’s plenty of room in the market for lots of little companies,” she said. “There’s a real freedom in being smallish.”

Challenge: Making the move work. “The thing I’m nervous about is that I don’t know how much being in Oakland influenced the business,” she said. “I know I can talk about the business better than anyone. I don’t yet know what the opportunity cost is that I’m going to pay.” So far, her clients seem to be responding well; she sent them all letters and received a “warm and wonderful send-off,” Ms. Rathbun said. “So many people have a dream of maybe moving to the country someday.”


New York Times Publishes ‘(Vegan) Brunch Options Abound in East Berlin’

I first published this for The New York Times ‘In Transit’ section. 

Photo Credit: Roland Anton Laub
Photo Credit: Roland Anton Laub

Germany’s traditional gastronomic portfolio is as meat-centric as they come, but Berlin’s contemporary food-culture has started shrugging off its carnivorous past in favor of, well, plants. An enduring bohemian spirit and newfound cosmopolitanism have cultivated fertile culinary ground for the city’s emergence as the continent’s vegetarian capital. Here, cruelty-free cuisine holds special sway for weekend brunchgoers — in Berlin, where you dine for Sunday morning das Frühstuck carries as much social import as where you partied on Saturday night. Three East Berlin establishments offering vegan brunch options rise to the occasion.

Kopps, a new kid on the block in the much-hyped Mitte district, is an upscale dining spot specializing in plant-based versions of historic Deutschland dishes. The head chef Björn Moschinski’s innovative re-creations include Veganer Hackepeter (sans minced pork) and Kräuterbutter (with coconut oil instead of cow’s milk). His kitchen emphasizes quality, regional produce sourced from small farmers in nearby Brandenberg. (Brunch buffet served Saturday-Sunday, 10 a.m. to 4 p.m., at 10.90 euros ($14.25).)

Café Morgenrot is a last-stand workers’ collective in the now gentrified Prenzlauer Berg neighborhood, where the current proliferation of designer baby strollers rivals that of Park Slope in Brooklyn. Morgenrot, however, holds true to East Berlin’s socialist roots — with bric-a-brac décor, radical politics, a weekly feminist knitting circle, and a mostly-vegan weekend brunch where patrons pay according to a sliding-scale system. (Brunch buffet served Friday-Sunday, 11 a.m. to 3 p.m., 5 to 9 euros sliding scale.)

Ohlàlà Tartes Shop, nestled on an unassuming street in punk-inflected Friedrichshain, features enlightened vegan interpretations of classical French fare — from crêpes and quiche, to pain au chocolat and pain perdu. The mauve-painted cafe is the creation of the Parisian ex-pat and burlesque dancer Clarissa Orsani, who constructed Ohlàlà’s spacious open kitchen with her own two hands. (Brunch buffet served Saturday, 11:30 a.m. to 4 p.m.; seating unlikely without reservation.)

Glass Is Greener


All the Lovely Layers
All the Lovely Layers


As much as possible, I maintain a disposables- and paper-free kitchen. It’s mindless to clean counter tops with paper towels; it amounts to nothing more than throwing trees in the kitchen trash. Instead, I use a dish cloth that I wring out and dry on the clothesline. Lately, I’m also feeling a sense of urgency to eliminate my kitchen plastics. It seems I’ve been too self-congratulatory for bringing my own coffee mug to the cafe or carrying lunch to work in a reusable plastic container.

The cause of my concern is BPAs (Bisphenol A). A component of plastics production, BPAs are receiving a recent surge of media coverage, and the news is grim. BPAs are in everything from plastic water bottles to the lining of canned foods. It’s attractive for being durable, lightweight and neither absorbing nor changing the flavor of food.

But it turns out that BPAs leach into food and liquid. Scientific evidence indicates that BPAs can disrupt the hormonal system, cause early-onset puberty, increase the incidence of cancer, diabetes, and heart disease—not to mention that it affects neural and behavioral development in fetuses and children. Gross. It’s evidence enough to cut out canned food and find a different conveyance for my workday lunch.


125-years-old Ball Jars
125-years-old Ball Jars


Enter an under-acknowledged hero, the mighty glass Ball Jar. Around since the mid-1800s, Ball Jars are the perfect vessel for toting to work or saving leftovers from some of my autumnal favorites—like roasted root vegetables and pumpkin soup. When transporting, I wrap the jar in a dish towel and store it in my backpack. Punky plastics, be gone.

Most delightful of all, it makes a fantastic pitcher for my recent forays into homemade sangria. Effervescence and ripe fruit are the perfect antidote to cheap white wine. Cheers!

Is Dirt-Under-Your-Fingernails the New Sexy?

We call these "ground cherries." Tart seeds, tomato-like, and soft skin.
"Ground cherries." Tart seeds, tomato-like, and soft skin.

There’s no time like summer’s hot, hot farm-harvest season to reflect on natural resources, carbon footprints, and environmental integrity. These considerations inevitably raise the question of food security—the availability and accessibility of food—and food justice—the notion that communities have the right to cultivate, sell, and consume healthy food. Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) organizations attempt to address these issues through alternative food-distribution systems.

The Basics
CSA members purchase a “share” of small-plot family farms located within their neighborhood, and in return, receive a regular allotment of the week’s harvest—it’s either delivered in a box to their doorstep or available for pickup at a central location, such as farmers’ markets. Depending on the farm, “shares” might be gained through monetary exchange, a labor contract, or a combination of both. In the US, the annual average CSA “share” costs between $500 and $800, according to The New York Times. Alternately, many CSA farmers offer work-trade options, allowing members with fewer financial resources to earn their keep by visiting the farm to till, plant, water, fertilize, and harvest. More often, members opt to pay and farm.

CSAs operate under the premise that the investment and risks of farming should be shared among the beneficiaries of the crop yield. A customer’s payment provides farmers with the capital to cover the annual costs of maintaining a farm. When customers pay in full at the beginning of the season, farmers have more resources to invest in the land, which translates to a more productive, healthier annual harvest. Traditionally, small-plot farmers are doomed if inclement weather or infestation ruins the crops; however, when a CSA community shares financial responsibility for food cultivation, farmers have economic security—everybody bears the burden of a bad crop by not getting as much food that harvest. Eating with the seasons means being at the whims of nature, which is part of the bargain when investing in a CSA.

Ellen and me at the Free Farm Stand.
Ellen and me at the Free Farm Stand.

The Deets
According to The New York Times, the CSA system first developed in Europe and Asia as a progressive means of reviving small-scale farming—a practice that has become cost-prohibitive in the modern mega-farm era of food production. During the past 20 years, CSAs have become a popular alternative to an unsustainable agriculture system. Academic experts following the phenomenon say that fewer than 100 CSAs existed in the US in the early 90s. Today, Local Harvest, a comprehensive grassroots directory of CSAs, reports more than 2,500 in its database. What’s more, the individual farms themselves are expanding through increased membership.

The movement allows consumers to buy and spend locally, while minimizing the environmental degradation and high costs that accompany the storage and shipment of goods grown outside of one’s region. Bill Duesing, a national leader of organic small farm organizing, says that shipping makes up 80 percent of the cost of food. Through CSAs, farmers and consumers are given a unique opportunity to connect with one another as like-minded people joined by a common cause. People discover new connections between habitat, annual seasons, land, and food production. Many CSA members learn to emulate the work of their ancestors by canning, pickling, and even freezing foods to preserve for the scant produce available during the winter months. So, go ahead! There’s never been a better chance to reconsider our culture’s food-production paradigm—and to do something positive to address its systemic problems.

Are any of you members of CSAs or volunteer farmers? In San Francisco, there’s a great people-run urban farm called Alemany Farm, where you can volunteer on the farm in exchange for some of the day’s harvest!

*A version of this article has appeared in Elephant Journal and