Iva Sebestyan, our NJMOMpreneur of the Week, always had a passion for herbs and flowers, having spent many summers helping tend to her grandmother’s garden in the Czech Republic. But it wasn’t until a home herbal remedy cured her extreme case of childhood eczema that Iva began to see the power of how herbs could heal and help. And though it would take many decades and a few career changes later, her dream to help others discover herbal skin remedies became Flora’s Cottage, a European style, organic day spa located in Ridgewood, NJ. In the beautifully appointed boutique, Iva treats clients to her signature facials, sells niche organic skincare from Europe, and hosts public and private workshops where clients learn how to cook up their own skincare and body products. We chatted with this Ridgewood mom of two to talk about how she knew it was finally the right moment to move forward with her spa, how the early days of the pandemic made her rethink her business plan, and the Ridgewood spot where eating the light, buttery croissants are like taking a trip to Paris.
featured image via Claudiq Photography.
Tell us a little bit about your family.
I was born in the Czech Republic and came to the United States when I was 28, where I met my husband, Ladislav, who is also originally from the Czech Republic. We have 2 children, 14-year-old Mattias, and 5-year-old Flora, who is the namesake of my business.
Where did your love of herbs come from?
When I was little, we’d visit my grandma almost every Sunday, and my brother and I would also stay with her all summer. She had the most beautiful flower and herb garden and for as far back as I can remember she had me help her take care of it. Around this time I also had very bad eczema on my hands and even doctor-prescribed treatments weren’t helping. I was uncomfortable and felt embarrassed about it, and feared being teased by the other children. A few years later, my grandmother’s neighbor noticed it on my hands and gave us recipes to make a calendula cream and a sage bath. I applied the cream daily and soaked my hands in the bath 3 times a day, and by summer’s end, my eczema was gone. To this very day, it hasn’t returned. For me, this was like a light bulb going off—I experienced the healing power of herbs first-hand and knew they worked and could be used to help people. Shortly after this, I started devoting my free time to collecting herbs around the village. I’d sell them to a local business that paid by weight for specific herbs they used in their skincare products.
Was opening a spa always your plan?
It was always in the back of my mind, but I had some growing up to do first. I loved to travel and spent some time living and working in England. I also worked for a music company in Prague. When I came to America, I started to figure out what I wanted to do as a career. I studied and worked in occupational therapy where I learned that I love working with people. During this time, a blind patient commented how I had the “best hands she’s ever experienced” and I began to seriously think about doing something with my recipes and skincare. After a few years, I decided to leave and went to cosmetology school and worked in spas and salons. I continued to study and learn as much as I could about herbs and beauty and organic products. Every step I took brought me closer to opening my own spa, but the timing never seemed right because something always came up to make me put it off. I was ready to take the leap but when my daughter was born with hearing loss I needed to make sure she was on the right path. When she was a little over a year old, I realized there will always be obstacles in the way—that’s life. I know I had to just deal with them and keep moving forward. It was in that moment I knew it was now or never, and I haven’t looked back since.
What made you decide to open Flora’s Cottage in Ridgewood?
I always thought when I eventually opened my business, it would be in NYC, but when it came down to making that choice, it made more sense to launch it in Ridgewood, where we live. I realized I needed to find something local so I could be as present as possible for my children while still doing my own thing. I’m lucky Ridgewood is the perfect blend of city and suburb, with a quaint, busy, family-friendly downtown area and an engaged and supportive community. Looking back, had I opened it in the city, I’m not sure Flora’s Cottage would have been able to survive COVID-19.
With little to no experience of running a business, how did you make it happen?
I created a very loose business plan, but I remain flexible. Before opening, I did tons of research on my own by reading books, researching online, and finding mentors through my local library. I also knew I needed to start small and do as much as I could myself. This way, I keep my budget as low as possible and can grow the business at a slow and steady pace.
Your business was still quite new when the pandemic hit. What did you do to weather the storm?
Just a few months after I opened the doors to Flora’s Cottage, regulations made me close them. I realized I needed to come up with something to keep Covid from taking my business, which is how natural and organic-based DIY Kits came to be. Since people were looking for fun and interesting things to do at home, I created a Face Mask Kit and a Lip Balm Kit so my business could survive. People were purchasing it to stay creative at home and have projects to do alone, with their families, or via Zoom with friends. Even though we’re now open, people are still purchasing the kits, and I’m more than happy to keep them as part of my business.
Anything interesting in the works?
Yes—I’m happy to share that I’ve been working with a lab in the US and the Czech Republic to bring organic skincare and sun protection to market here. It’s moving forward and you can expect Flora’s Cottage products soon.
Mattias and Flora. enjoying Alstede Farms in Chester, NJ.
What are some of your favorite local NJ businesses?
I’m a big fan of small businesses and Pierre & Michel Authentic French Bakery is my go-to for croissants. One bite and you’ll think you’re in France. Rey Sol is another favorite and the best coffee shop. The service is excellent, and you can’t beat the atmosphere. Karma Organic is a local business I love and have been fortunate to get to know the owner. He’s been so generous with his time and has helped me navigate some of the finer points of running my own business in this town.
What are your favorite things to do in NJ with your family?
As often as possible, we explore local sights, hike, and take in the fresh air. We’re regulars at Alstede Farms. We take the tractor ride to pick apples and pumpkins, and we have fun climbing the stacked hay bales. And whenever we have a special celebration that calls for a great meal, we head to Savini in Allendale. The delicious food, excellent service, and same smiling faces make it that much more special.
What advice can you share with another NJMOMpreneur getting ready to take the leap into owning her own business?
Be flexible and have a good backup plan for your children. With so many children working remotely from home, my client’s schedules are all over the place, so I need to be available for my clients when it works for them. If they need a facial first thing in the morning or later at night, I do my best to make it happen. When the pandemic is entirely behind us, I’ll probably reevaluate, but right now this flexibility helps keep my business running.