Success starts to bubble up

  • Article by: DICK YOUNGBLOOD , Star Tribune
  • Updated: December 22, 2009 - 9:18 PM

After a childhood of selling handicrafts at church bazaars, a nurse anesthetist grows a business in Woodbury that specializes in scented luxury goodies for your bath. Most come with names as imaginative as the products.

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Danielle Radke is not above throwing a few bombs into your bathtub – bombs with names such as Boo Bomb and Merry Citrus. They go along with her “Soaktini” collection and other things she sells out of her Woodbury manufacturing/retail/wholesale operation.

Photo: Dick Youngblood, Star Tribune

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Blissful Bath LLC is a Woodbury company that manufactures what founder Danielle Radke calls "delicious concoctions for the bath." We're talking a growing variety of bath treatments that bubble, fizz, moisturize and cleanse.

Radke, 38, uses the adjective "delicious" advisedly to describe her products.

The company, which operates both a wholesale business and a retail outlet in the Woodbury Lakes Center, offers bubble bath products shaped like cupcakes and solid bath oils that look like truffles. Not to mention the "Soaktini" line of cocktail-inspired bath salts with a variety of scents identified as "Black Raspberry Martini," "Mango Margarita" and "Pink Champagne," among others.

Throw in scores of fragrance combinations, all of them with droll monikers, and you've got a business that grew from $100,000 in sales in 2005, the first full year in retailing, to a peak of $384,000 in 2008. But the recession knocked revenue down an estimated 11.5 percent in 2009.

The thing is, Radke is not alone in the battle to thrive in the worst recession in decades. If it takes a village to raise a child, it apparently takes a family to hoist a business.

There's her father, DuWayne Radke, a retired 3M mechanical engineer, who volunteers three or more days a week to handle financial and operational matters. And her mother, Sharon, who often helps out at the store. Their remuneration: "Lots of hugs," DuWayne said.

Then there's her husband, Jeff Kepus, a Delta Air Lines pilot, who doubles as bookkeeper. He's reportedly compensated in similar fashion.

And her sister, LeAnn Biegler, a full-time paid employee, supervises production and shipping out of the cramped manufacturing facility in the store's back room.

Not only that, but when the home equity loan that Danielle took out to start the retail business was not quite enough, her dad and sister jumped in as investors.

Danielle splits her time between the business and a part-time job three days a week as a nurse anesthetist at the Centennial Lakes Surgery Center. Why the double duty?

"I have two interests," she said. "There's medicine, but being a nurse anesthetist isn't all that creative." The business, for which she designed the entire product line, apparently fulfills her creative impulses.

When Radke jumped into retailing late in 2004 she had maybe 100 stock-keeping units (SKUs), mainly soaps and "bath bombs," fizzy moisturizers shaped like tennis balls. Since then, she has built the lineup to hundreds of SKUs involving more than 20 categories and a seemingly endless variety of fragrance mixtures -- all of which Radke develops herself.

There are moisturizers and bubble baths, bath oils and exfoliants, body lotions and shower butters, massage oils and bath soaks, all of them with a variety of fragrances to which Radke has attached amusing names that reveal a shameless affection for puns.

Consider, for example, the bath bomb with a tropical bent. It's laced with coconut and mango fragrances and dubbed -- I'm not making this up -- "Jamaican Me Crazy."

Or the fizzy bath cupcake with a lavender-vanilla-sandalwood aroma combination designed to relax you. It's name: "I Dream of Sleeping."

Then there are the seasonal entries: For Easter, the egg-shaped "Eggstatic" bath bomb; for Halloween, a ghost-shaped "Boo Bomb," and for Christmas, a star-shaped bath bomb with an aroma mix of berries, lime, orange and tangerine and named, of course, "Merry Citrus."

The woman can't help herself: "These things just pop into my head," and she's apparently helpless to resist.

The whole thing's her mother's fault. When Danielle was a youngster, she and her mom kept busy with a dizzying array of handicrafts ranging from candles to sewing to woodworking. They peddled their wares at church bazaars and craft shows.

Danielle was 10 when she made her first sale, a pencil with a pompom tip, and she was hooked.

Over the years she was intrigued by the tubs full of bath products she saw at the shows, which inspired her 10 years ago to set to work in her kitchen, blending and molding the first of her product line.

For the next five years, it was mainly a hobby, although she made a few sales online. Then she decided to go into retailing, opening a store first in Woodbury's Valley Crossing center before moving a year later to Woodbury Lakes.

While the store has thrived, Blissful Bath's wholesale business is just getting a brisk start. Early in 2008, she and her dad redesigned the company's website, creating an extensive electronic catalog aimed at the wholesale market. Online she began searching for prospective clients and cold-calling them with her pitch.

The result: 75 clients, including a dozen overseas, have signed up so far. And wholesale revenue, which accounted for just 11 percent of the total in 2007, climbed to 30 percent in 2008 and '09.

That made for a much softer landing as the economy crashed.

Dick Youngblood • 612-673-4439 • yblood@startribune.com

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