Local plants, vintage bricks and mortar a perfect balm

Northlore’s offering of handmade soaps, scrubs and serums on Albert Street is one of a dozen new businesses in the Exchange District

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What began as a “nerdy” teenage hobby has snowballed into a booming business and new storefront in Winnipeg’s Exchange District.

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Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 27/11/2021 (261 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

What began as a “nerdy” teenage hobby has snowballed into a booming business and new storefront in Winnipeg’s Exchange District.

While other kids took to sports after school, Natassia Bezoplenko-Brazeau was drawn to soap-making. She’d read related books and began experimenting in her Saskatoon home.

“I had some cute, nerdy hobbies like that,” she said in her company Northlore’s 75 Albert St. shop.

JESSICA LEE / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS Northlore products are made with local ingredients, mainly from Manitoba and Saskatchewan.

Young Bezoplenko-Brazeau didn’t plan for a career making body care items. But here she is, in 2021, with two downtown Winnipeg locations, a much-clicked company website and products in places like the Winnipeg Art Gallery and the Four Seasons Hotel in Beverly Hills.

Northlore opened its first street-level shop in the Exchange District on Oct. 30. There was no advertising or promotion — Bezoplenko-Brazeau and her partner, Lucas Brazeau, wanted to ease into in-person sales.

“Just being able to let the light in and feel like we’re finally settled has been very gratifying,” Bezoplenko-Brazeau said.

photos by JESSICA LEE / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS Natassia Bezoplenko-Brazeau and Lucas Brazeau are making and selling their Northlore body care products in their Albert Street shop.

Homemade soaps, scrubs and serums line shelves and tables. In the back, large mason jars filled with herbs and rose petals sit waiting for use in Northlore’s latest batch of goods. A shock of colourful ingredients — including turmeric, spirulina and ultramarine — are kept on a counter by the retail space.

Bezoplenko-Brazeau plans to make products while customers shop nearby.

“I became really interested in the ethics behind products,” she said.

JESSICA LEE / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS Natassia Bezoplenko-Brazeau started the Northlore line in Saskatchewan and landed in the Exchange District. When the company took off, Lucas Brazeau went from part time to full-time production manager.

She sources local ingredients, mainly from Manitoba and Saskatchewan.

It started in Saskatoon. Bezoplenko-Brazeau and her partner had just moved back to the province; she’d finished her political science degree at the University of Winnipeg. Bezoplenko-Brazeau dove into books on folk herbalism and incorporated local plants into her products, which she was making while waitressing and working at a bakery.

“I had a source… for tallow, just (from) a local farmer,” she said. “It would end up in the landfill anyways, so I started experimenting with that.”

JESSICA LEE / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS ‘I became really interested in the ethics behind products,’ says Northlore founder Natassia Bezoplenko-Brazeau.

She and Brazeau would search forests for spruce tips and poplar buds.

“It’s a bit of a gold rush,” said Brazeau, who’s a general contractor by trade. “They’re such short seasons sometimes. It’s fun for us to monitor.”

Bezoplenko-Brazeau attended her first market in 2014, armed with soaps, poplar bud skin sticks and a rosehip serum.

JESSICA LEE / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS Mixing tea in her Albert Street shop, Natassia Bezoplenko-Brazeau Bezoplenko-Brazeau plans to make her Northlore products while customers shop nearby.

The markets kept coming — in Winnipeg, in Edmonton — and Bezoplenko-Brazeau’s line reached store shelves. After a year, she quit her other jobs and focused on Northlore.

She expanded her product line as she read more about herbalism, and she continuously loaded her vehicle with goods to hit the road.

“I remember actually pumping gas halfway between Edmonton and Saskatoon — it was like -42 C, and I was like, ‘This isn’t even safe. I’m alone and I’ve got a car full of stuff,’” she said.

JESSICA LEE / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS ‘Choosing a brick and mortar is like,”We’re here to stay”,’ Northlore partner Lucas Brazeau says of the Exchange District location.

She stopped markets shortly after. But, she had connections, an online presence and wholesale customers. So, when she and Brazeau returned to Winnipeg in 2018, Northlore was well established.

Bezoplenko-Brazeau rented a studio on the sixth floor of 290 McDermot Ave. There, she’d create her goods; they’d mainly ship across Canada and the United States.

Then COVID-19 invaded.

“(I) just felt like there’s a bit of a thirst we’ve had… for physical connection, and the physicality of a place,” Bezoplenko-Brazeau said. “I just wanted to create a place that would be inviting.”

She and Brazeau live downtown. He’d been assisting Northlore part-time, but when the company took on the Albert Street shop in June, he stopped contracting and became the full-time production manager.

It’s just the two of them — they have no plans to scale back online or wholesale markets; the new shop is an addition.

“The sturdiness of the building is a metaphor for the sturdiness of the companies that were in them, and how they chose to be in these direct locations,” Brazeau said. “We’re bringing this stuff down to the people… Choosing a brick and mortar is like, ‘We’re here to stay.’”

The couple will soon hire retail staff.

Northlore is one of nearly a dozen businesses to open in the Exchange District during the pandemic, according to David Pensato, executive director of the Exchange District BIZ.

Two restaurants closed, but foot traffic has been picking up since September, Pensato said, adding he has “cautious optimism” for the future.

The Exchange District BIZ is investigating why more places have opened than closed, but Pensato attributes it to “strong entrepreneurs,” a high level of walkability and supportive customers.

“We have a neighbourhood full of fighters,” he said, adding the Exchange District is one of Winnipeg’s hubs for local retailers and eateries.

Shops need their regular customer base, plus more, to recover from the pandemic, Pensato said.

Bezoplenko-Brazeau said she’s “charmed” by the community.

“We love it and really want to invest in busy streets,” she said.

gabrielle.piche@winnipegfreepress.com

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