EUREKA – After years of great financial uncertainty, when there was often no money to pay the bills and the power kept getting shut off, Keli Capell began selling buckets of soap.
Capell, 37, had been making her own laundry detergent since 2006, when she discovered that her baby was having uncomfortable reactions to the soaps used on his cloth diapers. The natural, non-toxic detergents found at the supermarket were out of her price range, so she developed her own formula at home.
But Capell, who lives in Eureka, didn’t know what to expect when she started bringing her homemade liquid detergent to local stores. Then a local market in Whitefish said yes, followed by a couple of other stores.
Motivated by the positive feedback, Capell wrapped up her job as a sawyer for the U.S. Forest Service and dedicated herself to her soap late last year. She named her organic, biodegradable laundry detergent “keligreen.”
“I just went for it in the winter,” she said. “Nobody told me no. I couldn’t believe it.”
Capell’s initial success prompted her to head to larger retailers, who have been similarly receptive. As of last week, Capell was in 46 stores in three states, with the list growing seemingly by the day. She said she received a congratulatory postcard from Gov. Brian Schweitzer.
Spokane-based Rosauers Supermarkets sells keligreen at its stores that have Huckleberry’s Natural Markets. Capell met with corporate officials of Super 1 Foods in Coeur d’Alene and said last week she expected to be in some of those stores any day now. Many local health food stores carry the product.
Keligreen laundry detergent uses tea tree and castille soap along with various plant-based materials. Other ingredients include aluminum-free baking soda, citric acid and sea salt. It also comes in baby formula that uses less soap and is milder. The regular detergent comes in gallons and the baby product comes in half-gallons.
Capell has a master’s degree in education and has proven capable on Forest Service crews, but she’s the first to admit she’s not a chemist. As a result, she’s had her share of mishaps and batches that didn’t come out with the proper consistency. “Ask-a-chemist” websites have helped her through the trial-and-error process. Today she’s happy with her formula, which she says is highly effective in washing clothes.
Capell does everything in her kitchen with a little stove and basic household pots and pans. She begins working at 3 a.m. so she can ensure hours of productivity before her children, ages 2 and 5, awake. She’s worked to build up an inventory and stay ahead of orders, which allows for a slightly less chaotic schedule than before.
“Up until two months ago, it was nuts,” she said. “I’d be up all night.”
It could get crazy again soon. She’s preparing to launch a website this month along with her business partner in Spokane.
“At that point, we’ll go a lot bigger,” she said.
Capell has been in discussions with Whole Foods Market, the world’s biggest retailer of natural and organic foods. She has also talked with a large cooperative in Seattle.
“If we hit those markets, we’ll be well on our way to where we want to be,” she said.
Perhaps the greatest difficulty in being a one-person production and distribution enterprise is the travel. There are no freight trucks or delivery services at keligreen. There is only Capell and her Subaru. Because of gas expenses, she will likely have to minimally increase her price, which she said is much lower than most of her competitors.
“Everyone’s told me my price is good – they say the problem is that when it starts selling, I’m going to have a hard time keeping up (with demand)” she said.
Her job allows her to spend time at home with her kids, but the flipside is that her husband has a job that takes him away from home for long periods of time. His wages help her pursue the detergent business.
The time away from her husband is tough, but Capell has grown accustomed to working through difficult situations.
“I can’t tell you how many times our power has been shut off the past three years,” she said. “When you’ve lived on nothing for so long, anything’s good.”
Considering it all, Capell knows she’s come a long way in a short time.
“If this is as far as I get, I’m still pretty proud of myself,” she said. “I had no capital when I started. I was literally leaving the house with soap I had to sell just to get back home.”
For more information, contact Capell at [email protected]
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