Detroit retail concepts offers fragrances by day, cocktails by night

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The restored Victorian home on the corner of Second Avenue and Alexandrine Street in midtown Detroit sports tasteful landscaping and abundant signs of life — a clothing store, an Airbnb on the second floor and a most unique shop on the garden level. A half-dozen steps off the sidewalk is the entrance of Sfumato (pronounced sfoo’MA toe), a source for original unisex fragrances crafted from all-natural ingredients.

At night the shop transforms into Castalia, a cozy cocktail bar. But this is no timeshare arrangement between creative types and an average bar owner. Rather, the two businesses exist in tandem, sharing an aesthetic connection — the universality of the sense of smell and the fashioning of unique products that appeal to that sense most linked to memory.

For the husband-and-wife team of Kevin Peterson and Jane Larson, owners of both ventures, the path to becoming fragrance entrepreneurs took an unexpected route, spurred by Peterson’s innate curiosity.

“I previously spent time in the restaurant world after attending culinary school and gained an appreciation for the link between flavors and the scents from fragrance products,” Peterson says. “Many of the same ingredients in the culinary world are the same used in the scent world — nutmeg, rosemary and the like. They behave in similar ways in either environment. The world of cocktails represents a halfway mark between the two.

“When we find a combination of ingredients that produce a certain flavor in a cocktail, we try to imagine what would go into making a corresponding scent.”

Or vice versa. The idea is to move the sensory idea from one realm to another.

Peterson ran with the concept and began making samples of scented colognes and body oils inspired by the flavors familiar to him. He crafted each from natural ingredients and began giving them away. At the same time, he brainstormed ideas for complementary cocktails.

An example is the Siren Song combination: The fragrance uses floral ingredients with clove and pepper to produce a sensation marked by “sharp wit with rosy sweetness.” Its potable counterpart, Siren Song Sangria, is a blend of white wine and brandy mixed with rosé, clove, black pepper and nutmeg.

“We started it as a hobby, and friends asked why we weren’t doing it as a business. They’d say, ‘People would pay for this,’” Larson says. “New businesses are starting up all over Detroit, so we decided to go for it and started thinking about how we might brand and market the products.

“We started by doing ‘experience’ events at various locations. One was a meal we served at our own house where each course was a different fragrance produced by a dish and cocktail pairing. Another was at Bon Bon Bon, a downtown chocolate shop where we offered a chocolate-based fragrance alongside their candies,” she says.

Just like a well-developed flavor, a quality fragrance gradually reveals itself, which is encapsulated in the shop’s name. Sfumato, which comes from the Italian, refers to the way fragrance unfolds to vapor when leaving its bottle. The same theme is reflected in Larson’s design for the packaging: When opened, each unfolds like an artful piece of origami.

MELDING CONCEPTS

The two began to market their fragrance products online and through third-party retailers while doing their creative research; their list of partners has grown to over 20, including over a dozen independent stores throughout Michigan. But they realized their desire to offer an experiential presentation called for a dedicated location. At the same time a landlord they knew mentioned his plan to develop the lower level of a property he owned.

The now graceful building resides in a burgeoning area of Detroit. Once known as the notorious “Cass Corridor” — a reference to the next major avenue to the east — the neighborhood serves as perhaps the most palpable example of Detroit’s resurgence. As recently as a decade ago the area was desolate and crime-ridden, a place unlikely to attract new investment. Today it’s home to upscale restaurants, innovative stores and new residential developments.

“When we find a combination of ingredients that produce a certain flavor in a cocktail, we try to imagine what would go into making a corresponding scent.”

Working in a collaborative style, the landlord arranged to have the floor dug down several feet for sufficient height — a move that exposed much of the original stone foundation walls — and installed plumbing and electrical outlets.

Larson and Peterson used a great deal of ingenuity in designing the interior, right down to the fixtures. Wall-mounted display cases that showcase product are hinged, swinging inward to reveal a beautiful teak finish with the evening switch to cocktail bar. Other wall fixtures can be quickly stripped of merchandise, then swing down and form a cantilevered table. A larger table serves as a counter to demonstrate product and as a bar after hours.
Completing the transition are custom-designed ceiling lights, with a design modeled after three molecules — one alcohol and two water — the essential ingredients for both fragrances and cocktails.

The melding of the two concepts has proved successful.

“We get people that come in for a fragrance, and mention that at six o’clock we transform into a cocktail bar, and then show the drink that relates to what they just purchased. Often, they end up staying,” Peterson says. “And sometimes it works in reverse.”

The store also offers a few miscellaneous items such as cocktail bitters and books.
While their new retail venture is the couple’s primary focus, the ideas they developed also lend to inquiries for various special projects.

“We’ve done custom scents for different stores and restaurants to capture a certain mood for their spaces,” Larson says. “Doing more of those is on our radar.”

One request came from the Detroit Symphony Orchestra. “They were performing a piece by a Russian composer from the early 1900s,” Peterson says. “The music was slated to be played in India and was designed to touch all five senses. We created a paired scent and cocktail for them that used ingredients native to that country.”

Larson and Peterson see potential for growing the wholesale business to more stores nationwide. “We want to find more independent retailers who want to carry our brand while continuing with local consulting projects,” Larson says. They’re also gradually expanding the product line to include natural incense; scented candles are also a future possibility.

The success of Sfumato is an example of the power of creative thinking — revealed in a sweet scent from Second Avenue.

Detroit-based Paul Vachon writes for various trade publications, in addition to feature stories for consumer magazines and books on Michigan history and travel.

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