YB Urban?

Life on a Wisconsin farm inspires products city folk love.

YB Urban
Photo by Eliesa Johnson

They were tired of city life. Of traffic. Tight quarters. And neighbors who didn’t care to know each other. Tired of constantly feeling rushed and never getting ahead—daycare, work, dinner, bedtime routine, more work, repeat.

“Why be urban?” Chris Whelan asked his wife, Angie Esler-Whelan. Out of answers, they packed a U-Haul in Las Vegas and headed for a simpler life with their two young children on a Wisconsin hobby farm about 45 minutes east of St. Paul.

Neither had ever farmed. Whelan is a psychology professor, currently teaching courses at Chippewa Valley Technical College. Esler-Whelan, a Duluth native and University of Wisconsin-Stout graduate, went to Vegas for the hospitality industry and transitioned into nonprofit work for people with disabilities. Both were attracted to the idea of homesteading. He planted a vegetable garden. She sewed baby clothes, which they sold at festivals.

“After doing a couple of festivals with just my clothing, we realized we needed to add something less niche that would appeal to a great population of visitors,” Esler-Whelan says. So the couple began experimenting in their kitchen, and they came up with soap.

Whelan liked the idea of calling it YB Stinky? and then added lotion called YB Dry? and lip balm called YB Chapped? They’re producing all of these products, and others, under the label YB Urban?

Their natural glycerin soaps include essential oils and additives like oatmeal and honey. “We love to get creative—embedding luffa into our soaps in the molding process or wrapping them with colorful sheep’s wool,” Esler-Whelan says.

But the product that really got YB Urban? noticed is a LEGO brick–shaped soap (they call it a building block, for obvious legal reasons) for kids in bright colors and sweet scents like grape and cotton candy. La Rue Marché in Hudson was first to pick up the line. Mara-Mi in Stillwater put in a holiday order and sold out in three days. It has reordered three times since.

You can take the couple out of the city, but the Whelans still understand what appeals to urban buyers. A locally made product with natural ingredients is nice, but modern packaging makes it stand out. Esler-Whelan created the YB Urban? contemporary, minimalist logo.

“We’re living a simple lifestyle,” Whelan says. “We want our products to represent that.”

YB Urban? is sold in five boutiques around the Twin Cities and suburban Chicago, with requests coming in from more retailers. The Whelans are still making soap in their kitchen, usually after the kids go to bed, but they are quickly reaching the point of needing help and more space.

Learning to farm just might have to wait.