hill country observerThe independent newspaper of eastern New York, southwestern Vermont and the Berkshires


Arts & Culture December 2021- January 2022


Comfort and luxury, born of necessity

Essential oils, scented pillows power a one-woman micro-business


Gina Grillo started her one-woman business in 1996 after becoming a single parent with two pre-teen daughters. She vowed her new career would be something she could do at home while providing a living for her family. Joan K. Lentini photo


Gina Grillo started her one-woman business in 1996 after becoming a single parent with two pre-teen daughters. She vowed her new career would be something she could do at home while providing a living for her family. Joan K. Lentini photo


Contributing writer


On a cold, blustery November day, the air in Gina Grillo’s work studio is vibrant with notes of lemongrass and lavender.

The lower half of her home is where magic happens for her one-woman company, Grillo Essentials. Everything is crafted from scratch. On the far wall, 5-foot-long rolls of unbleached cotton are bolted in place on a commercial spreader.

Soon, she’ll be unfurling the cotton onto a 168-foot-long table to measure pieces of it for her Good Night Pillows (which she measures to standard, queen and king sizes). The pillows’ cotton exteriors will encase fibers infused with lavender, rose and lemongrass.

“The fact that it’s a 100 percent cotton cover vs. polyester brings such a level of comfort,” she explained. “And the fragrance within the fibers helps quiet the mind.”

Holiday orders may be pouring in from around the country, but Grillo’s pace of creation is deliberate and detailed. As she finishes crafting each pillow, she wraps it with a satin ribbon and a pocket-sized, 8-page story, written by Grillo, entitled “The Lost Princess and the Land of Dreams.”
“Every great pillow deserves a fairytale,” she said with a smile.
Not far from the worktable are floor-to-ceiling metal shelves with collapsed shipping boxes for the completed orders. Grillo moves on to preparing a shipment of relaxation pillows (stuffed with balsam and buckwheat hulls), lavender-infused sleep masks, and Pain Tamer shoulder wraps made with moisture-retaining grains, eucalyptus and cloves.

“People love the smaller-sized pillows,” she said. “They’re great for travel or just supporting a particular body part while resting.”

Grillo started her business in 1996 after becoming a single parent raising two pre-teen daughters. She was living in Virginia at the time and, not wanting to be away all day at an office job, she vowed her new career would be something she could do at home while also providing the family a living.

“I always say necessity is the mother of invention,” Grillo said, explaining that the stress of her newfound situation led her to create products designed to calm the nerves and soothe the senses. Her first product was a balsam-stuffed travel pillow.

Sewing was a skill she learned while a high school student at Indian Lake Central School in the Adirondacks. Grillo soon found herself using that skill at full throttle after her pillows were selected by home shopping giant QVC as part of a small entrepreneur contest the network sponsored.

“QVC sold 5,000 travel pillows in six minutes, and suddenly, my townhouse was turned into a production factory,” she recalled with a laugh. “It was an amazing adventure and just grew from there.”


Scented sprays, pillows and sachets are among the creations of Grillo Essentials, Grillo’s home-based business. Joan K. Lentini photo


Scented sprays, pillows and sachets are among the creations of Grillo Essentials, Grillo’s home-based business. Joan K. Lentini photo


Experimenting and expanding
After that initial surge, Grillo said her company’s growth was slow and steady. She sold her travel pillows at high-end craft fairs and sought feedback from customers about what other stress-busting products they’d like to see. She’d file away the ideas and then set about putting them through an extensive development process — experimenting with fabrics, product design and fragrance combinations, testing them on friends and family until she felt they were market-ready.
After relocating her family to Greenwich in 2000, Grillo continued expanding her product line, sometimes again relying on necessity as her muse.

“I began doing research on satin pillows and how they have a smoothing effect on not only the complexion, but on hair as well,” she said. “My skin was cracked and dry from working too hard, and sleeping on a satin pillow made a huge difference. I was thinking of using silk, but it’s too high-maintenance and you have to hand-wash it. Satin, on the other hand, gets softer with each washing.”

The pillowcases, which retail for $24.95 to $39.95 depending on size, come in a variety of pastel colors and a lace border that Grillo sews onto each one.

“I like to add special handmade touches to my products,” she explained.
As her product line has grown, so has her collection of industrial sewing machines. Grillo started with one and now uses four.

The company’s growth, she said, continues to reflect the needs of her customers. Her best-selling product by far, she says, is her Outdoor Fragrance, a proprietary blend of lemongrass, lavender and six other essential oils, each one chosen for its reputation for use in the outdoors.
“I chose the oils for their beautiful scents as well as their efficacy,” she said.

Outdoor Fragrance comes in a roll-on bottle, which Grillo says is perfect for backpack storage and for anointing the body’s pulse points.

“I’m careful not to make claims, but I get feedback from hikers around the world who tell me it’s effective in keeping bugs away,” Grillo said. “What I can say is, it’s citronella-free and smells wonderful. Hikers on the Appalachian Trail affectionately call it ‘trail perfume.’”

“I have a nose for fragrance,” she added with a smile. “It may be my greatest business asset. I use it to test and research all my products before they hit the market.”

As an example, she cites her lavender mist, which in addition to lavender contains bergamot (known to help relax nasal passages) and rose-geranium for hormone-balancing properties.
“It’s pretty all-purpose,” Grillo said. “It can be used as a room freshener, or as a body spray, or on sheets and clothing.”


Supplying local retailers
Jennifer Lamb, the owner and supervising pharmacist at Menges & Curtis Apothecary and Compounding Pharmacy in Saratoga Springs, said that when she learned about Grillo’s products seven years ago, it was love at first scent.

“I tried her Outdoor Fragrance and was very impressed with its effectiveness and fragrance,” Lamb recalled.

When Lamb and her husband, Scott, bought the century-old apothecary the following year, she knew she wanted to carry Grillo Essentials products. She said Grillo’s satin pillowcases and lavender mist spray are some of the store’s best sellers.

“The satin pillowcases are beautiful quality and finer than any silk pillowcases I’ve seen,” Lamb said. “I have very curly hair, and they really control the frizz. They just feel so luxurious against the skin.”

Lamb said she was so impressed with the brand’s fragrances that she asked Grillo to expand her line of essential oils.

“We previously had sold a national brand and wanted to get away from that for various reasons,” she explained. “There’s no comparison to Gina’s essential oils -- they have both a richness and lightness to them.”

Grillo said that with her growing inventory of products, and with orders coming in from around the world, expansion is inevitable. In 2017, Grillo Essentials was selected as one of three national winners of the annual American Small Business Contest funded through Sam’s Club. Out of a pool of thousands of national candidates, Grillo Essentials was one of three grand champion winners selected to receive a $25,000 grant.

“I think what the past two years have taught us is that micro-businesses are more important than ever,” Grillo said. “They drive the economy and help sustain communities. Shopping local is about supporting one another.”

Grillo ships to customers in places as far-flung as Belize, Thailand and Scotland, and she sells her wares in shops nationally. Regionally, her products are available at Menges & Curtis, the Adirondack Salt Cave in Glens Falls, St. Andrews Hardware in Queensbury, Old Saratoga Mercantile in Schuylerville, and Rad Soap, the Shaker Heritage Christmas market and Honest Weight Food Co-op, all in Albany.

In the coming months, she plans to move production of her larger bed pillows next door to a small building on her property.

“I know someday I’ll probably be looking at a larger manufacturing space, but I want to keep it local for as long as I can,” Grillo said. “I moved to Greenwich when my daughters were teenagers because of its hometown environment. It was great to have a village as a single parent.”
Grillo enlisted graphic designer Shawn Soares-Kern of SSK Designs for branding design and strategy, and he recently helped redesign Grillo Essentials’ website. After working closely with Grillo for seven years, Soares-Kern said he’s not surprised at the success of her business.
“Gina’s products are fantastic,” he said. “She responsibly sources everything she uses and does a thorough vetting process — and manages to keep it all at a reasonable price point.”
Operating the business on her own means Grillo is free to follow her own tastes and conscience — and to set her own limits.

“I can’t sell a product unless I really believe in it, and there are certain things I won’t do,” she explained, pointing to a bottle of her lavender mist. “See how the oil floats to the top? That’s because there’s no chemical emulsifier in it, just witch hazel, water and essential oils. All you have to do is shake it.”

Grillo said she has seen a definite spike in sales in the nearly two years since Covid hit, and she believes it reflects customers’ increased need for comfort in trying times.
“You don’t need Grillo Essentials to survive,” she said. “But they’re little luxuries that add to your life.”


Gina Grillo will be at Menges & Curtis Apothecary, at 472 Broadway in Saratoga Springs, for the store’s “Meet The Maker” event on the afternoons of Dec. 3, 4, 10 and 11. Visit grilloessentials.com for more information on Grillo’s business and its products.