Vinay and Donna Desai may be the most unlikely purveyors of all-natural Ayurvedic personal care products around.
Vinay holds a Ph.D. in pharmaceutical science and most recently spent 10 years at Schering-Plough. Donna relied heavily on chemical-laden products to give her hair the kind of voluminous style common around her Brooklyn address.
“When I was young, I was a hair monster, like everyone else in Brooklyn,” Donna recalled with a laugh.
Then she turned to her husband.
“He was developing drugs to cure disease,” she added. “But here he is.”
Here is a solar-powered farm in Lebanon where the couple moved in 2006. They live and work there full-time with their two daughters, as well as a handful of alpacas, guinea hens, horses and a herd of Norwegian dwarf goats.
That's right, Norwegian dwarf goats. But don't laugh, they are the most valuable animals of the bunch.
Those goats have become a key component of the couple's growing personal care business, Dr. Desai Soaps. The goats produce thousands of gallons of milk, which Donna and Vinay then turn into soap, lotion and other products.
Everything they make is all natural — the Dr. Desai logo proclaims the brand to be “beyond organic” — and free of genetically modified organisms, chemicals and BPAs.
“I'm trying to give people natural alternatives,” Vinay said.
Many are interested. The Desais would not release revenue figures but they already are planning expansion.
Currently, the company manufactures its line of soaps out of the farm on Califon/Cokesbury Road, and its liquid products are made in Indiana. There is a small shop on the farm, where the Desais sell items from their line, as well as essential oils and handmade apparel made from alpaca wool.
They are looking to purchase a new facility in the coming months, which would allow them to move the manufacturing operations out of their home.
That move could also help them grow their business from where it is now — selling thousands of bars of soap each year — to selling tens of thousands of products annually.
It is a business they stumbled upon.
When the couple moved to the farm in 2006, Donna, an animal lover, desperately wanted goats. The alpacas and horses and guinea hens followed soon thereafter, but the dairy goats presented an unforeseen problem: What could the couple do with all that milk?
Vinay had no interest in becoming a dairy farmer.
“It was too much headache,” he said.
So they started playing around with using that goats' milk to make soap — a tricky process if your goal is to keep things all natural since a milk-based product can become a breeding ground for bacteria. The Desais spent 15 months developing a natural preservation system to extend the life of its products to two-plus years, Donna said.
Now, that manufacturing process is something the Desais keep under lock and key, in a part of their home where even casual observers are not allowed. That process became particularly valuable as soon as the Desais realized their products could perform minor miracles.
For Shu Mei Yin, the company's sales and operations manager, the miracle was keeping her daughter's eczema at bay for two years, with no need for prescription medications.
“She's really so happy with the result,” Yin said. “A lot of her friends go, 'How come your skin's so clear?'”
Yin's experience is one of dozens of success stories the Desais have heard in the past three years. Even their daughter, who is allergic to virtually everything, has been able to use the products with no adverse effects.
Those stories helped push the Desais into their soap business full force. They added bug repellants to their line of products, as well as soaps and creams infused with a range of essential oils, from vetiver, the oil of tranquility, to ylang ylang oil, a key component of Chanel No. 5.
Prices are relatively steep, as far as soap goes. While a bar of classic Dove generally sells for less than $2 a bar, a bar of Dr. Desai's soap costs between $10 and $12. The company's hair and body wash goes for around $25, and its face and body lotion costs about $28.
But for the Desais, the product is about more than just the profit.
That's why Vinay has taken to lecturing around the country about the chemicals lurking in everyday beauty and personal care products — a public service he provides almost always for free.
“If you can't eat it, you shouldn't put it on your body,” Donna said. “Vinay wants to teach people how to read labels. He wants them to know what 'natural' means because there's no regulation.
“It's not for him to say, 'Don't use anything,'” she added. “It's about telling them that this is in the product. It's up to them to decide whether they're going to use it or not.”
And the couple hopes those educated consumers then decide to take Dr. Desai's specially formulated soaps for a test drive. Currently, its products are sold online through the Dr. Desai website and Amazon. But they are working with Whole Foods to get on the shelf there. A spot in CVS would be another dream come true, Donna said.
In addition to the exposure and revenue, a big deal with a power player like that could fund a clinical trial, Donna said. And that would lend credibility to their anecdotal claims of astonishing results.
“If we got into Whole Foods, it would definitely put us at another level,” Donna said. “It is a serious goal that definitely needs to be reached.”
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