There’s the outside world, and then there’s Milk + Honey. The Texas-based chain of six spas curates an atmosphere so unique and relaxing that it allows their clients to leave worries at the door.
“We are not in the business of providing massages and facials,” owner Alissa Bayer said. “We are in the business of making people feel good and giving them even just a two-hour respite from their life and reality. All of the little details of that experience are so important because they’re not coming in for a massage—it really is that whole decompression process.”
Milk + Honey offers massages, med spa treatments, hair cuts, and products they’ve created from the ground up. But their main mission is making people feel good. For many busy clients, that means creating an experience that’s clearly differentiated from their daily lives.
Yelp reviewer Melissa M. noticed many of these details on her first visit, after a long quest to find the best spa experience in the Houston area. “When we found Milk + Honey, there was no need to go anywhere else,” she wrote. “I love everything about this place. Free parking in a convenient location is great. The staff is professional yet friendly. The interior is clean and well kept. The locker room is just big enough, and I’ve never had to wait for a shower. They have all the amenities you’d want—from a hairdryer, showers, little items you might’ve forgotten, etc.”
From the lighting to the robes, Milk + Honey has predicted its clients’ every need. “As soon as you walk through the doors, we place a lot of attention on architecture and utilizing architecture to enhance that experience,” Alissa said. “As you continue to go further and deeper into the spa, it’s darker, quieter, just more relaxed.”
A crucial aspect of this experience is the team that helps curate it every day. Alissa knew her employees couldn’t care for customers if they’re not able to care for themselves—and she vowed early on to support her staff, which has since grown to 500 people across seven locations. Every employee receives paid vacation, health care, 401k matching, and other benefits that help foster a supportive environment.
“People are everything in our business,” Alissa said. “When you focus on employees and make sure that they’re really happy, instead of focusing on the bottom line, your employees will make sure that your customers are happy and your customers will ensure your bottom line is healthy.”
As a mother of three, Alissa also learned to prioritize her own work-life balance by delegating tasks and focusing on other aspects of the business. After expanding the first salon into six locations in Texas and one in Los Angeles, she is now focusing on creating a product line, sold online, direct to consumers, and through wholesale partners like Ulta and Anthropology.
“I’d been wanting to create products for a long time,” she said. “Creating them allowed me to flex some different muscles and do something new without having to leave Milk + Honey, which I love—it’s my first baby in all of the ways.”
Another addition that simplified salon operations? Milk + Honey’s model—which serves as a consistent source of revenue and rewards regulars with discounts on services. “It’s not something that’s a heavy sell,” Alissa said. “It’s something that we talk about when we see people coming in every month. They can just kind of breeze in and out without having to stop and pay.”
After one visit, Melissa counted herself amongst that prized group: “Once we found Milk + Honey, I really was like, this is the place I’m going to come consistently. And when they mentioned to me that they have this subscription model where you get a discount if you sign up for a monthly subscription, I was like, this is great because I want to come here anyway. I want to come to Nia anyway, and getting a discount is kind of like icing on the cake.”
Alissa used these tips to help her business flourish:
- Use your physical space to create an atmosphere. That brick and mortar can start your customer’s journey on the right foot with the right look and feel.
- Make your employees feel as valuable as the customers. A team that feels valued and respected will pass that on to your customers, and play an active part in growing your business.
- Test out passive revenue streams. They can help increase revenue and keep businesses afloat during downturns.
- When things go wrong, what matters most is your reaction. That’s what separates truly exceptional customer service from the average.
Listen to the episode below to hear from Alissa and Melissa, and subscribe to Behind the Review for more from new business owners and reviewers every Thursday.
Photos from Milk + Honey on Yelp
Behind the Review, episode 41 transcript
Putting people first in your business
EMILY: I’m Emily Washcovick, Yelp’s Small Business Expert. Every episode I pick one review on Yelp and talk to the entrepreneur and the reviewer about the story and business lessons behind it.
Lets see what’s behind this week’s review.
MELISSA: My youngest sister got married about five years ago and six of us went to Scottsdale for her bachelorette weekend. And one of the things that we did as a group was we went to a spa and had massages and really enjoyed it. And I hadn’t done that a lot in the past. So when we came back to Houston, we decided to continue this new friendship I had made with these other ladies by trying to regularly go to spas and experience everything that spas had and kind of have a girls’ day. And what we did was we started looking at different spas and we would go to, you know, big spas and hotels or small, independently owned spas.
And we had some great experiences and had some great times. And what we were finding was some spas were too expensive. Some felt too much like a giant factory where they were just too big. We went to one where it was so tiny that they only had two massage therapy rooms total and there were five of us. So we kind of felt a little bit like Goldilocks and the three bears of like, too big, too small and nothing was quite right. And then my middle sister Jennifer said, well, we could go to Milk + Honey, and I was like, oh, I’ve never been there! And so the six of us went to Milk + Honey and absolutely loved everything about it.
EMILY: That’s Melissa, telling me about Milk + Honey—a spa experience that started in downtown Austin and now has six locations all over Texas, as well as a seventh location in Los Angeles. Melissa was visiting for a massage, but the business also offers med spa treatments, a full service salon, and products they’ve created from the ground up.
Let’s hear Melissa’s review.
MELISSA: I love, love, love Milk + Honey. My friend and I were doing a monthly spa afternoon, and had been hopping around town, trying out different places. When we found Milk + Honey there was no need to go anywhere else. I love everything about this place. Free parking in a convenient location is great. The staff is professional yet friendly. The interior is clean and well kept. The locker room is just big enough, and I’ve never had to wait for a shower.
They have all the amenities you’d want from a hairdryer, showers, little items you might’ve forgotten, et cetera. Someone is always tidying and cleaning the locker rooms. I wish the waiting area or relaxation space was a little more spacious and secluded and a little less waiting room. The massages I’ve had, especially by Nia have been amazing. I’m absolutely in love with Nia and her ability to know how to do a massage. She’s a master. I wish that COVID would go away so I could go back to my monthly subscription. I had a monthly membership, which gave me a discount for my massages. COVID has messed that up, but I’ll be back there soon. Milk + Honey is truly a gem in the city of Houston.
EMILY: For Melissa and her friends, playing Goldylocks with local Houston spas had its hits and misses, but they finally found one that was juuuust right. When Melissa found Milk + Honey, so much of what she loved most about the business became the amenities and experience that added to the massage. She also has a connection to Nia, her massage therapist.
Let’s hear from owner Alissa on how Milk + Honey came to be.
ALISSA: We started in 2006 after I went to grad school at University of Texas at Austin. And decided instead of having a traditional post MBA job, I wanted to do something on my own—do something that made people feel good and also, you know, really create a business that can prove and show you can take really great care of your employees, and still be a profitable, successful business.
EMILY: Alissa opened her first location in downtown Austin, and like many entrepreneurs, she was burning the candle at both ends and wearing many hats. But the core of who her business was, was rooted in the experience. And much of that was strategically planned by Alissa herself.
ALISSA: Our main goal and mission at Milk + Honey is to make people feel good.
The vibe of Milk + Honey, the mood there, as soon as you walk through the doors, we do place a lot of attention on architecture and really utilizing architecture to enhance that experience. So as you continue to go further and deeper into the spa, it’s darker, quieter, just more relaxed.
So the focus was always on “spa.” You know, robe and slippers experience, and you don’t change in the treatment room. We have a lounge and just all the amenities so you can sit and relax both before and after your treatment. Cause we are not in the business of providing massages and facials. We are in the business of making people feel good and giving them, even just like a two hour respite from their life and reality and all of those little details of that experience are just so important because they’re not coming in for a massage: It really is that whole decompression process.
EMILY: Alissa started Milk + Honey to make people feel good, initially through the spa experience. But she also opened with the intention of growing. A year after opening the original Milk + Honey, Alissa was looking for their second location. As the business continued to grow, so did Alissa’s life and family outside of the business. She wanted to be a mom, and that process took her time and energy away from the business. She was still determined to service clients and continue to grow though. So a non-negotiable was having a good team.
ALISSA: In the early days, I was working the front desk until my sister-in-law would come and relieve me so I could go home and eat dinner and be a human for a few hours before getting there at 7:00 AM to open a spa, do all the laundry, I mean, all of those things, right? Now, we have a really great team.
Once I was pregnant with twins, that was really like the non-negotiable. I have to get people in place and I really have a great team. I think it was just very lucky that I had people who worked as hard and loved it like they owned it and just as much as I do. And people are everything in our business. Like our cost of goods are human beings and their wages, you know. It’s a literal, hands on human, touch business. So yeah, our people are everything. And the way that we’re structured now is we have a pretty nicely built out management team. They consist of HR and marketing and operations, procurement, accounting, you know, all of these departments that support our locations. Because our job is like all the people that we have is just really to support the people working at the location.
So at the locations, they can just really focus on the employees there and the customers. Which just allows what we call the virtuous cycle. When you focus on employees and make sure that they’re really happy, instead of focusing on the bottom line, your employees will make sure that your customers are happy and your customers will ensure your bottom line is healthy.
EMILY: Alissa mentioned being fortunate to have employees who loved and treated the business like their own. That truly is a level of culture and team morale that’s focused on employee’s investment in the business. And it doesn’t just come from liking the place they work. Everyone that works at Milk + Honey is a valued team member — and that translates to the consumer experience.
ALISSA: Everyone that works at Milk + Honey is an employee. We don’t have any independent contractors. And yes, there are licensed massage therapists, the estheticians, and nail techs, the hair stylists. And of course our medical aesthetics providers are registered nurses or physician assistants, but they all work at Milk + Honey and they receive paid vacation and healthcare benefits and 401k and lots of training.
MELISSA: So Milk + Honey has dedicated attendants that are in the locker room, who are constantly picking up towels or moving any items people have just left behind like shoes or spa robes or anything like that. And I really appreciated that because it’s a relatively small space that they are constantly making this space as clean and as tidy, and this is all pre COVID, as clean and as tidy as possible. With just your overall experience in mind. Even when the reception people would walk you into the locker room and show you all the different amenities, they made an effort to tidy things. They didn’t just stay in their lane. They were like picking up items or making sure that the interior of the locker room was as clean and as tidy as possible, which I really appreciated because when I go to a spa, I’m not just paying for the massage. I’m also paying for the full experience.
EMILY: Alissa says one of the threads that you’ll see across all of Milk + Honey’s locations is that all of their employees are just genuinely kind, good people. It’s really important to Milk + Honey that when a client enters their space, it just feels calming and welcoming.
EMILY: Alissa has been driven by growth, but not only growth by way of new locations. She’s expanded from spas to include hair salons at each of her Texas locations, and also created her own line of products which has served as a great, additional revenue stream.
ALISSA: The products came along not until like 2013. So, from opening the spa to today, I also had three kids, which took a lot of my energy and time and focus away from the business.
And I think a lot of women in business don’t always talk about it, but it definitely impacted the speed at which we were growing and, with how much I was involved in the business as well. But after my youngest was born—I have two ten-year-olds and an eight year old—I’ve been wanting to create products for a long time and then just really took that as an opportunity to just do something else. Because also as an entrepreneur, everyone thinks it’s like the most flexible job in the world, right? But you know, the 500 plus people who work at Milk + Honey, any one of them can give notice and leave in two weeks. And there’s no way for me to untangle myself, you know, with all of the leases and the responsibility. So creating the products allowed me to flex some different muscles and do something new without having to leave Milk + Honey, which I love like it’s my first baby in all of the ways. And I love this business.
EMILY: I think a lot of entrepreneurs can relate to running up against hours in the day or dollars in the bank account when it comes to maximizing their revenue or even just breaking even. There is only so much you can do and hire others to help with. By pivoting into developing a product line, Alissa leveraged the expertise of her aestheticians and her team to create something that can passively generate revenue while they continue to serve customers and clients in person. They sell their products online – direct to consumers, as well as through wholesale partners like Neiman Marcus, Ulta, Free People, and Anthropology.
Another revenue stream Milk + Honey has is their membership program.
MELISSA: Once we found Milk + Honey I really was like, this is the place I’m going to come consistently. And when they mentioned to me that they have this subscription model where you get a discount if you sign up for a monthly subscription, you get a discount on that monthly spa service. I was like, this is great because I want to come here anyway. I want to come to Nia anyway and therefore, getting a discount, which is kind of like icing on the cake.
They also have a point system where you get so many points and you can redeem those for money off of a spa or salon service. So all of those different incentives made me go ahead and sign up for the subscription. I also really appreciated that you could cancel the subscription if you needed to. It wasn’t one of those things like where you go to a gym and they lock you in and then they make it incredibly difficult. Milk + Honey was extremely helpful, like when COVID hit to suspend my subscription and then to just kind of cancel it until I was ready to come back on a regular basis.
EMILY: And Alissa admits the goal of the subscription membership isn’t to get rich. They’re not trying to lock people in and charge them for services they won’t use. The membership program is really to simplify the booking and payment process for regulars and reward them for scheduling appointments on a recurring basis.
ALISSA: The membership is really in the background of our business. It’s not something where if you come in, like there are other spas and business models where if you’re not a member, you really feel it. And you’re paying 50% more than the members. So our membership is just 15% off of the regular price and you commit to getting a service monthly, you can pause it, you can do other things. Like we have our VIP program, which is very important partisan.
It’s part of our kind of just vernacular in the business. And it’s just a way of rewarding people who, like Melissa, want to come in and enjoy it. And we both can benefit. They can save some money and we know that we can count on her to come in and support our great talented team of massage therapists.
So it’s not something that’s a heavy sell. It’s really something that we talk about when we see people coming in every month. Like, why didn’t you do this? And, we just kind of set it up and it makes it easy. They can just kind of breeze in and out without having to stop and pay. And they don’t have to even stop and sign, they can prepaid gratuity and it’s all set up. So it’s just a way so they can glide to make the whole service and experience a little easier for our regulars.
EMILY: Milk + Honey is an experience. Whether you’re coming in for a massage, facial, or haircut you’ll be greeted by a friendly face and brought into the business for relaxation and pampering. Melissa shared her experience because she loved it so much. After searching for the perfect spa and loads of trial and error, her and her friends had finally found it. And Melissa wanted to share that with the world. And not just with stars or words.
MELISSA: I think adding photos is just absolutely critical for someone like me, who’s incredibly visual. I’ve been on Yelp all week looking at photos of local restaurants and coffee houses, looking for a private room or party space for my volunteer organization that I work with. And so I think that a review really needs photos. If they don’t include photos, I feel like it’s half a review and that’s because so many of us are incredibly visual and I want to see not just pictures of the food, but I think it’s really important to see the location. What does it look like on the outside? So when I’m driving by, I don’t miss it. Or what does the parking look like or, what does the interior look like? And I think that when I take photos and I add those things it reminds me of the important aspects of what I want to see in a review. So when I go and I actually write a review, I’m reminded by the things that were important to me.
So I look at my photos and I’m like, oh yeah, they have free parking. Oh yes, they don’t have like, oh, my friend broke her leg, she’s in a wheelchair. There aren’t a bunch of steps to get into the restaurant or it’s ADA friendly or whatever those things are. So to me, a tip for writing reviews is make sure you include photos.
Make sure that they’re high quality photos not taken from your car through your windshield wipers, you know, while it’s raining and at an angle. But also to include those specifics in a review, even if you write your whole like warm and fuzzy experience or your negative experience also include all the logistics for people like me, who want to see the details.
EMILY: So much of what Melissa shares is to help set expectations for future customers. She anticipates what they’ll be interested in knowing or what might help them have a better time, and gives them the information they need.
For Alissa, reviews can be helpful and insightful, but they’re also a challenge. Especially when you’re dealing with multiple locations and hundreds of employees. Here she is sharing a bit of advice on how you can better leverage online reviews to your advantage.
ALISSA: In the early days when we were one location and I was doing all of the marketing and the HR and everything else on a daily basis, you know, I had all the reviews forwarded to me. And I would kind of like, hold my breath as I opened the page to read the review. And to be honest, I no longer read the reviews, like there’s occasion, it’s not like I’m actively avoiding them, but the reviews have so much weight and there’s so much anonymity in leaving a review and we always want to reach out. Like we do our own, if you come in for any treatments at Milk + Honey, you’re going to get an email that says ‘based on your experience, how likely on a scale of one to 10’, essentially like the net promoter score, right?
How likely are you to recommend Milk + Honey to a friend or colleague and that allows us to keep our finger on the pulse and reach out, like if we see people who are, say like a seven. Ten, most likely, zero not recommending it at all. And we reach out to everyone because there’s always something to learn and something to do.
But otherwise, our managers are really well-trained to follow up, but genuinely, you know, just less publicly so we can resolve it and then if they’re happy with how we handled it and we don’t ask them, but you know, you’ll see that they’ll re-review. And hopefully people just learn like Yelp is a great tool to learn about nuances and detail and other people’s experience. But it’s also really important that people follow up. And, you know, just allow those businesses an opportunity to do right.
And I think it is a given in our business that things are going to go wrong. Right? A massage therapist is going to be late to work or call in sick. And there’s just some times where there’s not enough opportunity to do appropriate client recovery. And I think that’s what separates, like what really matters with businesses is how they respond. Things are going to go wrong. That’s a given. What really matters is how the business responds when things go wrong. And that’s what I think separates truly exceptional customer service from the average.
I think you’ll find too, and I’ve experienced this with my previous life before Milk + Honey is that, the customers who’ve had the biggest customer service breakdown, like a really horrific experience. When you have the opportunity to fix that and exceed their expectations, those customers are the ones that become the most loyal and fanatical. And I think that’s just a given, it’s just like people expect things to go correctly. And then people, just like really surprising and delighting people when things don’t go as they’re planned.
EMILY: I’ve heard this sentiment shared by many business owners. Sometimes the customers with the worst experiences can turn into your most dedicated clients when you take the opportunity to fix and exceed their expectations. It sucks to get a critical review, but as Alissa said, what’s important is how you choose to respond.
To close us out, I wanted to give Alissa an opportunity to share advice as a female and mom-trepreneur. I think this advice is great for all my moms out there starting, building and growing businesses—but also for any parents trying to juggle it all and find work-life balance.
ALISSA: One of the hardest things is being a mother but also having a business that I’m really passionate about growing. And I think more than anything I have just forgiven myself for not having balance. Like there are days where I don’t feel I’m as present as I should be for my kids. But when I’m home with my kids, I don’t feel like I’m being present for my business. So I have realized I’m never going to win. Cause I’m always going to be critical because there’s always more I could be doing, like either one or the other. And I think by creating a business, I am like most days home by 4:30, I’m with my kids, I try to be present and put my phone away.
And my business is open, like you’re only closed Thanksgiving and Christmas day, and we’re open from 8:00 AM to 10:00 PM. So there’s really not a lot of time where I can just unplug and feel like there’s nothing there for me. But having a team in place and I started delegating everything that I possibly could. And recognizing that, with my business, I should only be utilizing my resources on the things where I’m adding them highest value and really contributing.
And I trust my managers to respond to things appropriately. Like they’re really well-trained, they don’t do it correctly all the time, cause they’re also human. But just, giving everyone benefit of the doubt, but really delegating everything that you can. And I do that at home as well. You know, we all have very limited time in the day and making sure that you’re spending your time on the most high value things.
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