The Wild World of Penny Frances Apothecary's Sarah Craig
It's one of those dreary, soggy fall Vancouver afternoons as Sarah Craig, owner of self-run apothecary brand, Penny Frances, welcomes me warmly into her West Side home. Within moments she offers to make tea in her bright, plant-filled kitchen and begins telling stories of her character house: how she and her neighbours above and below once threw wild New Years Eve parties, and how she had would have never guessed that her husband's film job relocating them to Vancouver from Scotland would eventually turn into a West Coast life. Now, nearly 10 years later, she divides her time between raising her two young sons, Luca and Otto and working on her small-batch line of botanical serums, mists, creams and masks.
Penny Frances was launched around 2009 (the exact time she can't quite remember) and as she later explains, almost by accident. Craig has enjoyed many lives and adventures prior to this one: she originally trained as and chef and has worked in places from Scottish castles to alternative schools for children. She even worked a (brief) stint behind a cosmetics counter. She explains why it's important to escape our ordinary lives, even if it involves a five-minute shower with Dr. Bronner's eucalyptus soap - and why the women in her family have been a huge inspiration to her.
Photos by Andrea Fernandez
Tell me the story of how Penny Frances Apothecary came to be. Did you always know you wanted to do this?
“It was very organic; I can’t really remember a major time that it launched. If someone had said to me, you’re going to be making skincare when you’re 40, I would not have believed them. I trained as a chef, so I’m all about food and I love to cook. Cooking was my main thing, and that has helped me with my skincare. You’ve got to be organized and know about good quality ingredients.”
“Before it started to grow, I wasn’t pushing it, I wasn’t shoving it in people’s faces because I had babies, so I didn’t want it. It terrified me. It sounds funny but I was really protective of my potions. Friends told me, ‘you need to put these in shops.’ I would have these potion parties. A lot of my girlfriends would be here and I would sell to them and make custom serums. I’m not a beautician, but I have read so much, I know all my essential oils and what they do.”
Can you think back to the moment you decided to do this full-time?
“When it really became big, my first son was in preschool and I had a bit more leeway to get it done. My friend was touring with Alanis Morissette and I was pregnant with [my second son] Otto. I met Alanis and her assistant and she asked me to make Alanis a load of potions. She posted my serum on her Instagram and I think through that it was just…poof! It was huge. Then I started having to get my act together, getting nicer photos for my Instagram, etc.”
What was it like working as a chef?
“I worked all over the world. I lived in Sydney, Hong Kong. Being in Australia was amazing. I worked with these Italians and they’d be like, ‘try this piece of bread with just olive oil and a sardine.’ It was so simple. I remember that taste, that explosion. That was really inspiring. So I decided I was going to train as a chef in Edinburgh. I met this great Australian private chef who said, ‘I’d like you to come work with me.’ We worked in castles and cooked for all these rich people. Some of the places where I stayed, I can remember just thinking, how many pots and pans does one need? But some of the places where I went were amazing. It really opened things up for me.”
What other jobs have you done that have led to before this?
“When I came home from traveling, my friend who worked at the Benefit makeup counter asked me to come work with her. I thought, makeup? Sure, okay, whatever. I made a lot of commission, I think because I was honest. You’d get women coming in saying, ‘I need to change my lipstick’ and I’d tell them, ‘well I actually love the lipstick you’ve got on.’ Kate would be behind the counter, looking horrified and tell me later, ‘you need to sell them three things!’ But these ladies would come back and want to buy something because they liked my honesty.”
“After that, I got a job cooking for children at the Rudolf Steiner School. At the time I didn’t really know a lot about Rudolf Steiner, bio-diverse farming, planting the vegetables at certain times, or any of that. I learned a lot about what your putting into your body, because I must admit I wasn’t a shrinking violet. I was having a good time. I wasn’t having smoothies and doing yoga when I was in my twenties.”
How did you go transition into making beauty products for a living?
“When we moved here, I think I was pregnant, I didn’t really have any money and no work visa. My husband Alex was very encouraging. I was obsessed with lip balms and nice body oils, so I made myself a body oil when I was pregnant. It was my ritual - rubbing it and talking to my baby. It’s so lovely, I still make it. It’s a mandarin lavender body oil. He said, ‘you should make some lip balms for Christmas presents.’ So that’s what I started to do. I thought, lip balms? I can’t do that! But he said, ‘you can cook. It’s the same chemistry.’ And once I started I just loved it.”
“Because I’m obsessed. Because I could talk about it all day. It is a lot like when you’re cooking. I’m going to make this salad, and I think that saltiness is going to taste good with a little bit of sweet. I spent a fortune and wasted loads of beautiful oils because there would be too much of this or that. I think I just rolled with it. Sometimes I’m so tired, and I feel teary. It’s just all bit much. But now, I think as you get older, you become more chill and more confident. Just knowing your limits and learning to say no to certain things. I’ve had lots of advice from women like Crystal from Harlow and Josie from Reassembly – it’s really lovely. There’s no competition.”
How do you know which oils and ingredients to put into your products? What is your process?
“Things are always changing and evolving. I go with my feeling and I just trust it. When I made my eye serum, I wanted it to be light. Sometimes when you put things on your face, you want it to really feel plump and moisturized. But for me, since I make these products for myself in mind, I wanted it to sink in instantly. And when I think about putting something over my eyes, I think of cucumber – I remember my mom put slices on her eyes.”
What do you think sets Penny Frances products apart from other apothecary brands?
“Hmmm, I don’t know if I’m the person to answer that, I think people who buy my products might have a better answer! I don’t know. I’m very small batch. I don’t have products in 70 stores. I make every single product, no one else is doing it.”
You mentioned earlier to me that you don’t want the brand to grow any bigger? Why is that?
“I’m pretty happy with where it is right now. I mean I’d like to study more plant stuff, keep the brain inspired. But as my children get older, there’s more homework. I’ve got to balance it. I’m not about to get a nanny to look after them so that I can work on this. I’d like to travel. There’s other things in life. I’m dealing with most of it and I can manage it and I’m in control. If it got any bigger, it would just be too much. It’s taken me a few years, but I think I’ve got it down.”
What inspires you?
“I grew up in a little village in Scotland and my mom was a model. There would be Vogue lying around. To be able to escape into the pages of Vogue was amazing. When I was 14, I remember going down to London to see the Monet exhibition, and being more excited about seeing Italian Vogue on a newsstand. It had Christy Turlington on the front with an Afro, and I remember we were all in this hostel, flipping through it. I appreciate those photos still, all those photographers – it was so beautiful and inspiring and it stayed with me.”
“My mom was a single mom and we didn’t have lots of money, but she was very glamorous. She would hate to be called that (laughs). She thinks I need to brush my hair or put a little blush on. She left a tiny bit of her Chanel perfume here and sometimes I put it on when I miss her. I remember all her little square Chanel bottles, and that’s what inspired me to keep [Penny Frances packaging] classy.”
Your Instagram feed seems to be a huge source of inspiration for you, filled with tropical beaches, art and photographs of beautiful (real) women.
“I have fun with Instagram and don’t take it too seriously. I follow a lot of photographers, people who travel and cook. I don’t need to read about other moms and their kids because I’m already in it and sometimes I want to escape. I’d like to go and drink a bit of tequila every now and then and not talk about my six-year-old. I’ve got a bit of wild left in there.”
“I want my products to make you feel like you’re escaping. Every morning I have a shower with Dr. Bronner’s eucalyptus, it’s my spa. It takes about five minutes, but that shower time for me is amazing. My children aren’t allowed to come in the bathroom, it’s my time. Spritzing my rose mist, it kind of takes you away for a little bit. When you’re looking at my Instagram, I kind of want you to escape with me.”
Why is it important to you to reflect real women in your feed?
“Because I’m not perfect, I don’t have perfect skin, I’ve got sun damage, I’ve got a wrinkly chest. I go in the sun and I’ll keep going in the sun. I have never said ‘anti-wrinkle’ in my products, what does that even mean? I hope that I get to 70. I think women should be able to wear whatever they want, just having a laugh and having fun. I was visiting a friend in L.A., and we were having such a giggle. There were so many women, sitting so still, serious. I’m not judging these women, but it’s like, lighten up. Have a laugh. It’s not all about how you look, is it?”
Do you find that it’s easy for you to switch off from work when you’re with your sons? How do you find balance?
“Absolutely. I’m so strict. I feel lucky that I work from home, because I can get it done when my children are at school, it’s the best. When I’m in the zone, I’m listening to my music and my podcasts, making 60 Ibiza balms or whatnot. It’s kind of like I’m a chef again. But I have a good time with my kids. I absolutely switch off. On the weekend, we’re out. I have boys, so sometimes Luca is standing in the end of our bed when it’s pissing rain and he says, ‘ok, what are we gonna do?’”
I’m sure it changes all the time, but can you walk us through a typical day for you?
“I wake up, go and cuddle my boys to wake them up, get into the shower. There’s no chill or incense going on. It’s crazy! Feed them, get them to school and then the minute I get home I ‘m preparing batches of my potions. From 10 ‘till 2: that is my window. It’s not that much time but I can’t do it when my children are here. So it’s full concentration: labeling, ordering ingredients, emailing. I’m really good at lists. Then I pick my children up and make lovely but simple dinners.”
“I’ve been trying to slow things down lately - well, trying. I always laugh when I use #theartofslowliving hashtag because I think, who is doing that! I’m not slow living, I’m on speed. I’m addicted to adaptogens. They keep me calm because I’m pretty edgy.”
Do you have a ritual that keeps you grounded, allows you to escape?
“I have a bath most nights in the winter, that’s my luxury. I get into a salty bath and put candles, rose or lavender. I drink loads and loads of tea. I do have a glass of wine every night with my meal. It’s all about enjoying your food. Sometimes my husband will hurry my youngest son to eat his food, and I always say, ‘please don’t rush him.’ I really want dinnertime to be a joy.”
What is the most challenging part of being an entrepreneur?
“I think just trying to juggle it all. I don’t want people to think that I’ve got this amazing life and that I’m perfect and make potions and look like this every day, and I’m also a great cook and I travel the world. Ugh, puke. Some days I’m in track pants and I’ve got a spot, I’ve got my period and I want to cry because I’ve got a million orders to do and I just want to run away. But I have to put it into perspective. I have been watching these sad documentaries on BBC3 about women on the street, on heroin, prostitutes, people far less fortunate than us. I think we’re all okay just to give and help as much as we can. We’re very fortunate where we live. We can buy nice herbal supplements and pay rent and wear nice clothes and go have drinks.”
“[My son] Luca went to the art gallery recently and said, ‘Mama, I saw something sad. I saw an old man who didn’t have legs and he was on the street.’ And I said ‘yeah, it is really sad.’ I say to my children, ‘You have a very nice life.’ I really have to install that, because they live in Kits and they go to a nice school. And they tell me, ‘I know, Mama, I know.’ I think it’s important to give back and not get too caught up in my world. I want to keep it real.”
What would you say are some of the most rewarding aspects of running your own business?
“Absolutely the emails I receive. I get notes from women saying how it’s become their ritual, or how they’ve put a little onto their children. I’ve got an older lady who orders huge amounts from me. She writes me these lovely emails, we’ve really become kind of friends. I’ve never met half these people but you email back and forth, and you take care of them. I put a little extra in their packages. When you have women saying, thank you, I just love my serum it’s my special serum. That is the most rewarding, I love it. Yeah it’s nice to be in the Financial Times and all that stuff but it doesn’t really matter, does it?”
Do you have any mentors, people who you look to for guidance or advice?
“I come from a family of very strong women, who are all inspirational to me. They were my mentors, without a doubt. When I was growing up, my auntie Mattie was a huge deal for me. She was into the organic food and green beauty movement before it was even a thing, and introduced me to Dr. Hauschka and to Weleda, when at the time I’d never even thought about it. She’s very cool and ahead of her time.”
“My Grannie would always stop and appreciate the nature around her, we'd laugh as we stopped at pretty much every flower, rose, plant while she sniffed it and marvelled at its beauty. She had so much joy in the little things and that was so inspiring as a little girl.”
“My husband is pretty much my best friend. He’s helped me a huge amount with my business. When I was juggling babies, he’d take my photos and help with things like PayPal, get my labels sorted out for me and do the graphics. He works really hard, he’s very driven. He’s a good Dad too.”