The Restore Products story
WHAT’S THE NEXT step after you decide to use natural, plant-based cleaning products to protect your health and the environment? It could be to find a manufacturer of effective natural products who will also refill your bottles! Laurie Brown, president of Twin Cities-based Restore Products, looked at the costs of those bottles—her own purchasing and shipping costs, and the cost to the consumer, and asked, “Why pay for all that plastic and then put it in the landfill, or even in the recycling container, when those bottles last forever, and could be reused by the consumer? And how can it be really easy, and fun to do that?” So she invented the Restore Refill Station, a colorful dispenser now merrily refilling 64-oz. bottles and dispensing $1.00 off coupons at Lakewinds in Minnetonka, the Wedge and Linden Hills Co-ops in Minneapolis, Whole Foods Market in St. Paul, River Market in Stillwater, and Valley Natural Foods in Burnsville.
The Refill Station is, shall we say, a natural development for Brown. Born in southern Minnesota to three generations of entrepreneurs, she started her first business in 1988.
In 1991 she opened the second environmental store in the U.S.: Restore the Earth at 22nd and Hennepin in Minneapolis. In the store, Brown says, “We had our own line of cleaning products which were all plant-based and had no hazardous ingredients. And I believed strongly in refilling. So we had big drums of the products in the store, and people would bring back their bottles and we would refill them and give them a dollar off. And I found that doing that brought my prices down to a Proctor & Gamble level! One of the biggest costs of my product was actually the bottle, and if you eliminated the packaging you could offer the product at a more consumer-friendly price.”
Finding that her proprietary cleaning products were the strongest sellers throughout the seven years she operated the store, she eventually decided to focus her energies on them, and Restore Products was born. There are now 13 Restore cleaning products, ranging from a glass cleaner to an oven cleaner, sold both to consumers and to commercial users. The most popular products are offered in the Refill Station: the laundry and dish detergents, a gentle hand and body cleanser, EnzAway (a spot remover), a toilet bowl cleaner, and a lime and scale remover. These and the other products are also available in dispenser bottles.
In 1998, the State of Minnesota tested Restore products, as well as those of 23 different manufacturers. Brown says, “These were commercial-strength products, and they were big companies, like 3M and EcoLab. First the State looked at all the ingredients and the specifications for the product, and they rated it on environmental integrity, safety for the user (the janitorial staff in this particular case). Then they sent out bottles of product to various state agencies, and they said, ‘Use this product like you’re using the products you have now, and rate it on performance.’ And you could get 0 to 90 points on each scale. And six out of our seven products that were tested got 90 points on performance, perfect scores, and the other got an 85. And on safety and environmental integrity we got usually between 85 and 90 points. And when we met with the committee, they told us we rated higher than any other company!
“That was right at the time that I had closed the store. So I thought, ‘Well, Laurie, you’ve really got something here—you need to go further with this.’ And that led to my decision to put it into some local area co-ops. But they had the old-fashioned refill system, and we couldn’t do the refilling ourselves, so there were some problems. So I thought, well, if you could develop a machine that would do what we used to do in the store, that would fill the product with no mess, and it was easy to do and gave them a dollar off when they refill, and they could really quantify the savings because they knew exactly what the refill price was, then it would make my business exciting for me! So I contacted an engineer for a feasibility study, and then I asked the Minnesota Office of Environmental Assistance for a grant to finance the development of the machine. We wrote the grant application in 1998, we applied for a patent, we received the grant in June of 1999, and we’ve been at it ever since.
“We put the prototype at Lakewinds, learned a lot from that experience, and made major changes. We put the next one at Whole Foods in St. Paul, and found out a few more little things. Then we built eight new machines, and placed six in stores in March and April of this year, replacing the ones at Lakewinds and Whole Foods, so now everybody’s got state-of-the-art, second generation machines. And they’re running like clockwork.”
And this machine dispenses six different products? And it knows which one to dispense?
Yes, it reads the label, and it automatically dispenses that product into the bottle, so it’s filled to the right level and ready for the user to just take it out and put on the cap. So my dream came true, from 1991 when I was standing in front of all those barrels in my store: A dollar off when you refill!
So it sounds like your focus is twofold: the products and the delivery system.
Yes, exactly, and the delivery system can be used for other products. But, you know, the products are great, they really work. And it’s great to have a total closed-loop system: When we fill the machine, we take the used containers back to the plant, and we refill them. There’s no waste created, and I just love that! We don’t have toxic materials going into the sewers, we don’t have toxic materials exposed to children, customers are reusing their bottles, we’re reusing our containers, and we’re able to do all of that and lower our retail price! To me, that’s the way the world should work. So it’s showing the possibilities of environmental marketing and environmental products.
Some people say, “Oh, my word, we can’t do anything for the environment, it’s too hard, it costs too much, earth-friendly products don’t work.” I say the Earth needs a PR manager, because when you think about it, nature works perfectly, it’s beautiful, and it costs nothing. Whenever we all start using plant-based surfactants for all cleaning products, guess what? The price will be as cheap as using toxic products, which are poisonous. Poison’s cheap because it’s used a lot, not because it’s inherently less expensive. In fact, over the long run, a lot of these toxic chemicals will be more expensive, because the price of petroleum is going up. And a lot of the raw materials for conventional cleaning products are petroleum based, and plastics are petroleum derived.
What about the people who aren’t yet committed to environmentalism, but might be willing to try something?
I think, if you can make it easy enough for the mainstream customer, all of a sudden… What we really need is for people to have an experience of empowerment, a sense that there is something they can do. So if, through the years, people don’t throw away their cleaning product bottles, it gives them a sense of ‘can do’ when they look at a proposition like not using pesticides. You take a little something, and you do it differently, and then you can grow that. And that’s the way you live a healthy lifestyle—it grows over time. And to me, there’s another component, fun! It can’t be a drag. And the machine’s fun! People kind of light up, ‘Wow, it read the bottle!” “Gee, look at the coupon!” We designed it for a four-year-old. You just open door, insert bottle, close door. Then open door, replace cap, take coupon to register. And we have all kinds of features that we want to come out with in the future, that will make it even more fun.
And you know, projecting from the first six weeks, even if sales weren’t growing at all—and they are—we would be keeping 6000 pounds of plastic out of the landfill in the first year, just from those six stores. And think of how light a plastic bottle is, now think 6000 pounds, 3 tons. You know, that’s a real difference.
In the past, you were also involved in many volunteer activities as well as your business. Are you still doing that?
When I had the store, the store blossomed, people loved it, but I wasn’t getting my own needs met. I had all this stress, and financial concerns, and it really wore me down. And my accountant said to me, “Laurie, you’re an environmentalist, you know a healthy ecosystem is one that supports its host. Do you think your ecosystem is healthy?” And I said, “No.”And I decided then that whatever I did in the future had to be supportive of me.
Sometimes we get involved in causes, like mental health, or environmental health, and we tend to be the kind of people who put other people first, or put a cause first. And that’s what will do the cause in, if the players don’t stay healthy and aren’t able to take care of themselves. So now, when I start to feel stressed out, I ask myself, Where aren’t you relying on others? Where aren’t you letting people help you? Where are you trying to do it alone? Where are you taking too big a risk? You know, I’m in this for the long run, and I really want to see this go. And the key is for me to be healthy, and take good care of myself.
Eventually I hope to do public speaking, and I want to talk to people about following your dream. Because I think, this refill machine is just an idea that came from the store, and people have these ideas, really good ideas, and it’s tough to bring them into the world. I’d love to share what I did to make this possible, because I used some really specific tools. And now the machine’s out there, and I’m saying to myself, Wow, those little things that you did when you were down on Monday morning, or didn’t have enough money, those little things that you did to bring your mind back in place, or to stay focused, really worked! So I’d really love to share those things with people, and I’d like the machine to be an inspiration.
The machine really came from a place [in me] where my goal was to have fun, to have pure bliss. My engineer took me seriously, and he wrote right on the machine, “Blissfill.” When it went to the State, that was the code name, “Blissfill.” And I thought, if it’s fun for me, it will be fun for others. And if it’s fun for others to save resources, how can you go wrong? I’ve always thought the soldier image for the environmental movement is too hard. There’s got to be a way that environmental work really matches what we want, a beautiful, fun place to live, which is Earth!
I always thought, well, if it really is fun, somebody, not even knowing I was trying to make it fun, would notice, and would say something to me, totally out of the clear blue—and that’s how I would know if I had hit my mark. Well, I ran into this woman, and she said, “Oh, you own Restore Products? I go to your machine at Lakewinds Natural Foods, and I just can’t believe how much fun that is, I just love it, I can hardly wait to go back to the machine!” She went on and on. And I had never met her before. So I thought to myself, “Guess what, you did it!”
For more information on Restore Products, see www.restoreproducts.com or call 651-765-0141.
(This article was published in Twin Cities Wellness, August 2002.)