Spotlight: Sweet Lily Natural Nail Spa

Because this site focuses on news, the businesses that have been around awhile—and that make this neighborhood special—don’t get the coverage they should. The photographs for the “Spotlight” series are by Claudine Williams, a contemporary portrait photographer based in lower Manhattan. Her specialty is women’s portraiture as well as personal branding and magazine-style family photography.

Long before there was a nail salon on every corner, there was Sweet Lily Natural Nail Spa, which Donna Perillo opened on W. Broadway in 2002. “When I started out, I didn’t have money for managers, so I did everything, opening through closing, Monday through Saturday,” says Donna Perillo, founder of the Sweet Lily Natural Nail Spa on W. Broadway. “On Saturday nights, I’d be here cleaning. And Sundays were for bookkeeping and accounting.” Sweet Lily has come a long way, with clientele from all over the city—and beyond—and plans for a line of nail-care products and a second location.

How did you get started in the spa/salon business?
It was out of my own necessity. I was living in Soho, and I loved getting my nails done—I still do after all these years—but there was only one nail salon in Soho/Tribeca at the time, Soho Nails on W. Broadway. It was always crowded, and it smelled like acrylics and powders, and I just knew there had to be a nicer way to get your nails done. I bumped myself up to Bliss, but that was too stiff, too spa-like, too quiet. You couldn’t socialize. I kept wondering why there was no middle ground. And then there was the non-toxic factor. I’ve never received gels or acrylics, and I didn’t necessarily want to be around that stuff. I used to go with a girlfriend of mine to get our nails done. She was pregnant, and she’d feel nauseous afterward. That can’t be good! Even now, I can’t see why salons offer non-toxic products along with the regular ones. What’s the point, if everyone is breathing in the toxic fumes all around the room? Anyway, I used to work in the music industry, so this was all new to me. I did three years of due diligence: I went to trade shows, I read the publications. And then I wrote a business plan. Here I was, a single girl walking into North Fork Bank and asking for a loan—and, surprisingly, they gave it to me.

When did you open Sweet Lily? Why here?
We opened in 2002. It was right after 9/11. I wasn’t expecting that to happen! I had been adamant about this neighborhood before 9/11, and I was even more adamant after. I wanted to be supportive of the neighborhood. I looked at many spaces, but when I walked in here—it was D.L. Cerney, a clothing store—I fell in love with the columns, the ceiling, the brick wall…. I remember both my lawyer and accountant asking, “Why here?” They thought it was a bad idea.

What is Sweet Lily known for?
I hope it’s three things. First, a place to get your nails done, where you’re not compromising your health for your beauty regimen. Second, a nice sanctuary for people to disconnect. It’s a sizable space, but even though we have room for more, we only have three mani chairs and three pedi chairs. People want quiet time, so we don’t allow cell phones. Some people just can’t cope, though—they’ll tap their phones with their nose because they can’t use their hands! But when we tell someone they can’t use their phone, the other five people are always pleased. Third, we’ve become a place for special occasions. Last Saturday, for example, the first people in were two girls celebrating one’s 24th birthday. The next four were a bride-to-be with her mom, mother-in-law, and six-year-old niece. They were doing some bonding before her May wedding.

Is it all nails?
And we have one waxing room. Mani, pedi, waxing. I used to go to the best waxing place in the city and I was cringing. You probably don’t get waxed….

Correct.
Well, there’s a container of wax and a stick to apply it with, and the salon would reuse the stick for one customer after another. The wax isn’t boiling, and it’s warm, so bacteria can grow. We never double-dip! There’s never any cross-contamination. Ileana has been here 14 years—since almost the very beginning. She’s phenomenal. She has perfected it.

And of course there’s also a shop component to Sweet Lily.
It’s for one-stop shopping, because women often get their nails done before a special occasion. You can get a manicure, pick up a card and a gift, and be off to your girlfriend’s birthday party.

Most popular service?
Without looking at a report, I’d say it’s the seasonal pedicure—which is currently the Lemon Calendula pedicure. But I’m always surprised when I do look at the numbers, because the lavender cream manicure is always up there.

You also have a small shop. What’s your very favorite item right now?
Do you know Nicki Francis?

I do!
Her Khushi Natural Healing Balm is the bomb. A woman turned me on to it, and I’m hooked. I love it. I use it for everything. I use it for hand cream—it’s at every sink that I own. I have a customer who puts it on her face at night, as a mask; she says it’s amazing. I put Khushi healing balm on my son’s tush, and he never got diaper rash. People use it for eczema, burns…. It’s a hands-down staple, and it flies off the shelf. We even designed a Healing Hands manicure around it: We use the balm to massage the hands, make the skin nice and creamy. For the treatment, Nicki agreed to make the balm in half-ounce jars, so your container is only used on you, and you get to take the rest home.

Where do you source stuff for the shop?
I go to trade shows, even though I’m not their biggest fan. More and more, people come to me about products they’re launching. And I find small brands when I travel. Everything is from small companies in the U.S., and I’ve rigorously tested it all. You have to. Sometimes a product will look great and have the right ingredients, but it just doesn’t perform.

Tribeca has obviously changed a lot. Any changes that have surprised you?
Not surprised, really. I do miss the old Tribeca a bit. El Teddy’s was so much fun. And Franklin Station Café—I loved Marc and Mei. We had a camaraderie.

How has your business changed?
We used to cater more to Citi and AT&T, and that has dropped off a little—the companies laid people off, and I think the atmosphere at work is probably different. People don’t want to leave the office in the middle of the day. At the same time, our business has grown beyond Tribeca. We’re known outside Manhattan: Clients come from all over the city, and beyond. The birthday girls I mentioned earlier were from the Upper West Side, and the bridal party was from Staten Island. We have girls from Boston who come whenever they’re in town. It’s 80% repeat business.

What percentage of your business is local?
I’d say 70% local, 30% from outside the neighborhood. People will start coming here when they live in Tribeca, and they keep coming even after they move away.

Do men come?
That’s a much smaller percentage! Usually older, more established men. They’ll come on their own, or with a girlfriend or wife. One couple comes every other Saturday: They read the paper, get their nails done, and go out to dinner.

Tell me a crazy customer story.
Every two weeks or so, someone wearing skinny tight jeans will come in for a pedicure, and she can’t pull the jeans up to put their feet in the water. So she just takes the jeans off and sits there in her undies! We had to get a robe. But most of the crazy stories I have are about people off the street.

Let’s hear them.
Two incidents come to mind. A woman came in once because she was having a heart attack—that was scary. Another time, a nice older lady walked in, lost and half-confused. I called a number I found in her wallet. It was for her brother. “She’s supposed to be in the insane asylum,” he said. He wanted nothing to do with her and told me to call 911. An ambulance came and took her away.

I guess it’s nice that she thought Sweet Lily seemed like a safe space.
And I wanted to help her!

But you had her recommitted.
I did. Oh, this is my favorite story! I used to have four big, beautiful whiskey barrels outside with plants in them. I treated them like a garden. Some of the old-timers used to warn me that people would steal plants, and they do, but I can deal with that. One Mother’s Day weekend, however, I came in and realized one of the barrels was gone. Someone with a hand truck must have taken it! I can just imagine it: “Happy Mother’s Day, Mom, here’s a planter.” I had to start chaining them to the concrete.

Where do you eat/drink/shop around here?
There’s only one place to eat in my book. Café Clementine! Barbara has been feeding me for 15 years, and the food is so good. I shop all over the place. Calypso. Stella for bedding and stuff like that. I used to love Bu and the Duck, but it’s gone…. Balloon Saloon. I’m a mom, so I’m always getting something or balloons for parties. And my husband’s entire wardrobe is from the Liquor Store.

What does the future hold?
I have one of the best staff teams in a long time. They’re amazing and so creative. We’re working on our digital image, and—this is long overdue—we’re starting our own non-toxic nail care line. I’m also exploring a second location, but not in Tribeca.

What didn’t I ask?
My dog, Lilah, is still alive and well! She was just a puppy when we opened, and now she’s about to turn 18. I used to bring her in every day—she’s so tiny, she could sleep on the front desk. Customers really loved her, but now she’s too old to come. It’s too hard on her. But people still ask about her all the time.

Previously in this series:
••• Floratech
••• Steven Sclaroff
••• Roc
••• Estancia 460
••• Boomerang Toys
••• Antiqueria Tribeca
••• Real Pilates
••• Church Street School for Music and Art
••• Kings Pharmacy
••• Church Street Surplus
••• New York Nautical
••• Lance Lappin Salon
••• Joseph Carini Carpets
••• Donzella
••• A Uno
••• Balloon Saloon
••• Fountain Pen Hospital
••• Abhaya
••• Chambers Pottery
••• Square Diner
••• Langdon Florist
••• Tribeca Upholstery & Draperies
••• Double Knot
••• Philip Williams Posters

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